HISTORY: The days when Burnley was a spa town

Roger Frost Peek into the Past (s)
Roger Frost Peek into the Past (s)
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I AM often told Burnley is a town that does not lack news. Some of might not be to our liking but, for a town of its size, Burnley gets more than its fair share.

In recent years the town has been the scene of the riot that turned out not to be a riot, though we all took it very seriously (perhaps too seriously?) at the time. Its legacy is that Burnley is still remembered as “the riot town”. At the time I was even contacted by friends from London worried about my safety, something which surprised me when unruly behaviour appears to be much more common (and more serious) in the capital.

Then we have had the battle over a key service at the hospital – the withdrawal of A&E from Burnley and its relocation to Blackburn. It could be that some of us might be more concerned about having to go to Blackburn, of all places, than the quality of care we might get when we get there. Other continuing, but improving stories, include those about the general health of the Burnley community and housing conditions in town.

More positively, we read of the Prince of Wales and his affection not only for our town but for our famous football team. I am sure we are all pleased by the first but should we warn him about the endless frustrations suffered by supporters of the latter?

The coming to Burnley of the University of Central Lancashire, among other educational changes, has been welcomed and I am excited by the potential offered for employment and the local economy by the development of the Burnley Bridge project at Hapton.

In the last few days were have read that James Anderson, the “Burnley Express”, has become England’s leading wicket taker. At another level, my faith in the good work undertaken by Burnley people has been reaffirmed by visits I have made, with the Mayor and fellow trustees, to projects helped by the Acorn Fund.

All this said, I was astounded (and I really mean astounded) to read, in a local paper, that Burnley might be about to get a medical school. Before you get too excited, it ought to be said no decisions have been made yet, but there is the possibility it might come to pass and in a relatively short space of time.

As a local historian, I am familiar with Burnley’s health history. It is a sad tale and can be best put in context by something said of Burnley and its lack of a hospital in the 1880s. “In making our inquiries we find Burnley is one of (if not absolutely) the largest towns and districts in the kingdom not possessed of a charitable institution of this nature.”

Those of us who know Burnley are aware this is no longer the case, that we have our own general hospital, which serves an area wider than our town, and have had other hospitals – the Victoria, Bank Hall, Marsden, Crown Point etc – but there was a time when Burnley was “the back of beyond” where medicine was concerned. A medical school would really bring us into the 20th Century.

Before the 17th Century there is no mention of a medical practitioner based in Burnley. In those days, and for some time after, many of the people of our town had no medical attention at all or relied on charms, herbal remedies and ointments made by quacks.

Mr Bennett, Burnley’s historian, briefly describes the medicine of that time but makes a telling point when he mentions the experience of “Mistress Shuttleworth”, the “lady of the house” at Gawthorpe Hall, and a member of one of the wealthiest families in the district. Even she employed the services of a quack doctor to whom she paid 5/- (.25p) a week for treating some sore or ailment on her leg. She also bought a yard of cloth with which to “rubb (sic) her teeth”.

Richard Shuttleworth, according to the Shuttleworth Account Book, paid £5 to a Dr Jenion, for staying for 10 days at Smithills near Bolton, and 20s/4d (£1.02p) for his physic (i.e. medicine). We do not know the nature of his illness but it is evident Richard felt there was a better chance of recovery by going out of town than submitting to those who might claim to have medical knowledge in Burnley.

He even sent to York for medicine, which cost him 16/- (80p) and to Wigan for the services of a midwife who was paid 1/- (.05p).

We know very little about the medical treatment of the poor of Burnley at any time before the 19th Century but, as indicated, we do know Burnley came to hospitals much later than other Lancashire towns.

There were hospitals in Lancashire in the Middle Ages but, generally, they were not hospitals as we would understand them. The nearest to our understanding of the term may have been the leper hospitals at Edisford, near Clitheroe, and the hospital of St Mary Magdelene, near Preston. There were, however, other hospitals in the county, St Leonard’s at Lancaster and St Saviour’s at Stydd, near Ribchester, but we know little about what they did. Similarly, a number of the few monastic institutions in Lancashire had hospitals but they, for the most part, it seems, were dedicated to the care of elderly monks.

It was not until the 18th Century the first “modern” hospitals were established in Lancashire. Among the first were Liverpool Infirmary (1748), Manchester Infirmary (1752) and, a little later, Bolton Dispensary of 1814.

By this time we have the first references to doctors in Burnley. The very first appear in the 17th Century but we have little more than their names; Thomas Jackson, a “practitioner of physic”; John Hargreaves, “surgeon of Burnley” and Robert Whittaker MD.

We know a little about Dr Whittaker as he was a leading dissenter giving refuge, at Healey Hall, to the Rev. Thomas Jolly who was ejected from his living at Altham in 1662. The hall was searched in 1665 as the authorities suspected Dr Whittaker was involved in something more than mere religious dissent. In 1672, in the time of a Robert Whittaker, Healey Hall was licensed as a “Congregation Place”, a meeting place for dissenters.

I am sure readers are aware that, in these early days, medicine was not free at the point of use, as, to some extent, it is today. This did not come until the middle of the 20th Century when the National Health Service was created. Up to this time people had to pay the medical men whenever they were consulted. Similarly, midwives had to be paid for and if a nurse was required she required remuneration.

There was a cost to be considered when the medicine prescribed was purchased. This was often made up by the doctors themselves but, for those who could not afford to consult a doctor, there were other options. The sick would go to others who had a knowledge of the power of herbs and, as you will know, this is where the Lancashire Witches, and their successors, enter the story of local medicine.

Another thing to consider is the effectiveness of much of the treatment available at this time. It can be said some of the medicines and treatments were relatively effective but, on the other hand, there was still much to learn even by the most enlightened of medical men.

The search for effective medical treatment can be illustrated, even in Burnley, by the belief in the curative powers of water. There was a general understanding that, as water had been created by God for the benefit of mankind, it could supply the answers to the medical problems of the day.

This explains the 18th Century popularity of spa towns – Buxton, Harrogate, Bath etc. It might surprise some of you to learn mineral waters were discovered in Burnley, that bath houses were built here and our town might well have joined these more famous spa resorts.

However, Lancashire is more well-known for its seaside resorts than its spas. Blackpool, famous the world over for its “kiss-me-quick” approach to the seaside holiday, was founded as a health resort. Its progress can be traced in the pages of our first local newspaper, the Blackburn Mail, founded in 1792. There you will see frequent references to the families that had taken up residence in Blackpool “for the season”.

The season to which reference was being made had little to do with the entertainment provided at the inns and dining rooms of the resort though this was the direct ancestor of the music hall entertainment for which Blackpool became famous. People, mostly from the wealthier classes, went to Blackpool for its fresh air and, not surprisingly, its bathing.

It does not take much to realise the limitations of medicine if people placed so much store in spa water, fresh air and sea-bathing. Some time was to pass before substantial improvements in medicine were to take place and, in that time, events conspired to make things much worse, in health terms, in Burnley.

The problem was that the Industrial Revolution intervened. In its way this was something like the American Gold Rush of a later period when single-mindedly men pursued profit rather than the wellbeing of their fellows. Burnley quickly acquired all of the worst vices that can follow unregulated capitalism – mean houses, insanitary living conditions, smoke-filled atmosphere, long working hours, low wages, drunkenness and illiteracy. The result of this was that when disease hit the town, as it did with diseases like cholera, which was transmitted in water polluted with human waste, Burnley was not prepared.

It is not we did not have doctors. In 1872 there were 15 “surgeons” listed as operating in Burnley and some have names still known to us. One of them was William Miller Coultate, born in Clitheroe in 1813, and educated at the Grammar School there and in Burnley. He received his medical training at Dublin coming back to Burnley and opening a medical practice at 1 to 3 Yorke Street in town.

Dr Coultate is a name we should not forget in the medical history of our town and I will explain why when I return to the subject in a future article. I wonder what he would have thought about a medical school in Burnley?

Roger Frost