Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Shapters

One of my several defences of going to the pub is the conversation; and on Tuesday I had a very interesting one about Thomas Shapter, a doctor who features prominently in Exeter history, and whether a couple of Topsham streets are named after him.

Wellcome Library, London
Portrait of Thomas Shapter in the Royal
Devon and Exeter Hospital. Collection:
Wellcome Images. Slide number 2226
Copyrighted work available under Creative
Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
I won't reinvent the wheel in describing his life in detail - there are excellent websites I'll cite in a moment - but in brief, Thomas Shapter (1809-1902) was a Gibraltar-born doctor who graduated from Edinburgh University, and came to Exeter in 1832. This was the year of a cholera epidemic, and Shapter was involved in the public management of this and subsequent outbreaks (one of his colleagues during the 1832 outbreak was another well-known Exeter figure, Peter Hennis, the last known victim of duelling in Devon). Shapter, who was twice Mayor of Exeter, wrote an account, The History of the Cholera in Exeter in 1832, whose detailed statistics and mapping have been taken as a model for John Snow's classic and better-known investigation of the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak in London.

Check out Exeter Memories for a brief account - Dr Thomas Shapter - doctor and writer on cholera - and Graeme Barber's Thomas Shapter : The History of the Cholera in Exeter 1832 for more detail. The book itself is unfortunately not online, but some of Shapter's other works are:
  • Medica sacra; or, Short expositions of the more important diseases mentioned in the sacred writings (1834, Internet Archive medicasacraorsh00shapgoog).
  • The Climate of the South of Devon, and Its Influence Upon Health: With Short Accounts of Exeter, Torquay, Babbicombe, Teignmouth, Dawlish, etc. (1842, Internet Archive climatesouthdev00shapgoog).
  • Sanitary measures and their results; being a sequel to The history of cholera in Exeter in 1832 (1853, Google Books FxdcAAAAQAAJ).
(The 1834 Medical Quarterly Review's commentary on Medica Sacra is fairly scathing, more or less accusing Shapter of ripping off Richard Mead's 1748 work - 1755 in translation - of the same name, and considering it a pointlessly geeky exercise: "the medical press groans under books which have little more tendency to improve the diagnosis or the treatment of disease, than the novels of Smollett, or the poetry of Akenside" - see cited review).

These works apart, Shapter was quietly prolific, the remainder of his bibliography including:
  • A few observations on the Leprosy of the Middle Ages (1835) 
  • On Agricultural Chemistry, The Farmer's Magazine, August 1836
  • Sketch of the Geology of Exeter and its neighbourhood (1838) 
  • Remarks upon the Mortality of Exeter; together with suggestions for improving the public health. Being a letter addressed to H. Hooper, Esq. ... Mayor of Exeter (1844) 
  • Report on the State of Exeter (1845) 
  • Medicine an art, and its truths to be attained. An address (1848) 
  • Notes and observations on diseases of the heart and of the lungs in connexion therewith (1874)
A number of accounts mention the suggestion that Shapter left Exeter "under a cloud" regarding alleged irregularities in receiving a bequest from a mental patient under his care. The full details are in The Lancet (Medical Trials - Commission of Lunacy - Legacy to a Physician, Aug 27, 1859). It doesn't look good: the 80-year-old Miss Phoebe Ewings had been declared insane; Shapter became her sole guardian and representative, declaring her recovered, then presided over her writing a will that made him (or his children, if he died) the major beneficiaries. Nevertheless, it does seem that he had given advance notice to Miss Ewings' solicitor that he would repudiate any will made in his favour, which he ultimately did. Whatever his intentions, it does seem an ethical error to have involved himself so personally in the situation. But the situation was immensely complicated; the full transcript of the Commission of Lunacy hearing is reprinted here: Appendix, The Journal of Mental Science, Volume 6, 1859.

In fact he didn't leave Exeter following this episode; the 1881 census finds him still living in Mary Bow Lane, St Sidwell. However, he did leave in the next decade, and he appears to have ended his life in reduced circumstances. The 1891 census finds him as a "lodger" in East Grinstead, and the 1901 as a "boarder" in Kensington, aged 92. He died there a year later.

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The thrust of Tuesday's conversation moved on to Topsham, whose Strand has a Higher Shapter Street and a Lower Shapter Street. It's often the case that credit attaches to the famous and infamous, and local folklore is that these streets are named after Dr Thomas Shapter. However, this is partially debunked by this advert referring to Lower Shapter Street, in Trewman's Exeter Flying Post in 1803 - six years before he was born.

Advertisements & Notices, Trewman's Exeter Flying Post,
 (Exeter, England), Thursday, January 13, 1803; Issue 2047.
A paper by LE Braddick in Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association shows that Shapters in Topsham go back at least to 1702 ("the first year of the reign of Queen Anne"). The relevant passage is rather salutory for anyone doing historical research who hopes for continuity of names down the centuries:
At the end of the Strand is the Quay, with the warehouses referred to earlier in the Address of Nicholas Bland. Monmouth Hill runs behind them, but this was originally Quay Hill. The changing of names can be quite confusing when examining old records of the town. Higher Passage Lane is now Follett Road, Lower Passage Lane is now Exe Street. Taylor's Lane is Station Road, Pound Lane is Denver Road while Truckle Bed Alley is North Street. Lower Shapter Street was Lime Street and among the papers of Capt. Bagwell there is a letter dated for the first year of the reign of Queen Anne which mentions a garden and house adjoining the land of John Shapter in the higher lime-kiln field. The Rope Walk was changed to Victoria Road, the Underway became Ferry Road whilst over the river, Topsham Lock was known as Trenchard’s.
- The Port of Topsham – its ships and ship-builders, LE Braddick, Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature and Art, Volumes 84-86, 1952
Other Shapters are mentioned in the Devon & Cornwall Record Society's 1923 Parish of Topsham, co. Devon: Marriages, baptisms & burials, A.D. 1600 to 1837.

One of specific interest is "Thomas Shapter, Esq, Paymaster and Capt. of H.M. 57th Regiment of Foot". Correlating with details from the Royal College of Physicians record - William unk's Lives of the Fellows of the Royal College of Physicians of London - it turns out that this Thomas Shapter, who served in Gibraltar, was the doctor Thomas Shapter's father. That local connection explains why Shapter came to Exeter after qualifying as a doctor.

Addendum: it's a very small world! I find that Dr Shapter's daughter Elizabeth married a William Livesey (or Livesay?), the younger son of Augustus Frederick Livesay - the previously mentioned owner of the Sandrock Chalybeate Spring in the Isle of Wight (source: Births, Deaths, Marriages and Obituaries, Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle etc (Portsmouth, England), Saturday, September 7, 1872; Issue 4180).

- Ray

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