All Things Local August 2016 : Dr Fletcher

Most of us complain nowadays about how difficult it is to get a doctor’s appointment, but we take for granted that our health care is free, a very different situation to that which existed when Ripley’s earliest doctors were in practice.

One of the first was William Henry Fletcher, who probably started work in Ripley in the 1820s. He was a remarkable man, meriting many testimonials, an elaborate gravestone erected by subscription, and two streets (Fletcher Street and Fletcher Row) named after him. In a speech in 1856, he said that he was “a mere boy” when he started, and he probably did so by being apprenticed to a surgeon or apothecary in Derby or Belper, rather than going to university,  the other, higher status, route to becoming a doctor.

Fletcher’s monument in Ripley cemetery

He made his living by treating people, mainly the more well off, in their homes. He did fairly well too, since by 1861 he had six servants in his household. There is a lot of evidence, though, that he also cared for the poor, many of whom probably couldn’t pay him. Medecine, for example, cost around 1 shilling a bottle in the 1820s, roughly the weekly wage of a labourer. Fletcher, it was said, “has often lain upon wooden couches for hours in the cottages of the poor, his whole beverage consisting of a cup of tea, and…the thanks of the poor cluster as blessings round his head.”

In his speech, he said “I am sorry to say that the bulk of persons who employ (medical men) view their services as a commercial affair of “so much physic, so much pay””. He disagreed with this approach and said that he “would not care if I had never to dispense a single grain of medicine from this moment to the end of my life.” To him, a doctor had to do much more than sell pills and potions.

As well as seeing patients and dispensing medicines, he was also the doctor for the Butterley Club, and attended to the many ironworkers and colliers who were injured, like the 11 miners who were burnt in a gas explosion at the new Ripley pit in October 1857. He also conducted post-mortems, as on the body of William Taylor, a nailmaker murdered by Tomkinson Grainger in August 1849. He subscribed to charitable causes, giving 5 shillings, for example for those suffering in the Irish potato famine in 1847. He was also a keen supporter of improvements to the town : in 1856, that meant waterworks and a sewage system.

Fletcher’s house in Greenwich

He was, for his time, an enlightened man. In his evidence to the 1842 Commission on the Employment of Children in Mines, he said he was “ satisfied children ought not to work in a pit..before they are 10 at least, and then not more than six hours a day.”

I think he would have approved of the NHS, whatever its problems.