A friend of the working classes…

Something from the past…

On 30 March 1914 the Leicester Daily Post reported the unexpected death at the age of 63 of one of the Borough Councillors for the Charnwood ward, Dr Clement Frederick Bryan, who lived at ‘Montello’, 22 Victoria Park Road. Described as a man of the ‘highest character, remarkable professional skill, and many admirable personal qualities’, he was a surgeon and Medical Officer of the Leicester Workhouse for over 30 years from 1880 – a role in which he was said to be ‘nothing if not efficient and painstaking’.

Inmates of the Leicester Workhouse in Swain Street in the late 1890s (Clive Harrison)

Inmates of the Leicester Workhouse in Swain Street in the late 1890s (Clive Harrison)

As an institution, the Workhouse was so dreaded by the poor of the town in unemployment, sickness or old age that the abolition of the Poor Laws in 1929 and its later renaming as Hillcrest Hospital never quite managed to overcome the stigma of the past. Dr Bryan, however, was said to be quite capable of ‘holding his own’ with the Poor Law Guardians who controlled the Workhouse, and to be ‘a favourite with his pauper patients’, who no doubt included residents of the Charnwood Street area. This may have helped rather than hindered his political career as ‘an ardent, active and popular member of the Liberal Party’ after his election to the Council in 1898. His death, said the Leicester Daily Post:

will be generally regretted, irrespective of party and class… [he] did specially useful service in both the Council and committee-room; especially as a member of the medical profession. That he was remarkably regular in his attendance will be realised by taking the first official roll-call at hand. During the year 1898-9 he was present at as many as 159 of the 175 meetings to which he was summoned. Of these 39 were at the 42 sittings of the Sanitary Committee… His counsels, therefore, were as regular as they were thorough and valuable’.

Part of the Towers Hospital, originally opened in 1877 as the Borough Lunatic Asylum (Colin Hyde).

Part of the Towers Hospital, originally opened in 1877 as the Borough Lunatic Asylum (Colin Hyde).

He also sat on the Water Committee and Lunatic Asylum Committee, where it was said that he ‘likewise did excellent work’. He served for some time as Hon Surgeon to the Leicester Volunteers, and as ‘certifying surgeon’ and investigator of possible negligence in factory accidents in the town, in which role he was described as ‘a friend of the working classes’*. Although ‘a staunch Liberal… [he] never showed a partisan spirit, and always took a very broad-minded view of all matters that came under his consideration. His speeches in the Town Council, though not frequent, were always listened to with attention, and they always carried weight’.

Dr Bryan had no fear of ending his own days in the Workhouse. He left an estate of £20,835 2s. 6d, with his son Clement Arthur Douglas Bryan, also a surgeon, inheriting his share and interest in his practice and all the property associated with it, along with two family pictures and a silver salver. In his will, made in 1910, he also left £50 to his groom – a reminder that horse-drawn vehicles were still the rule rather than the exception in Edwardian Leicester. It’s perhaps worth mentioning as well that in 1906 the old Workhouse Infirmary in Swain Street was replaced by the New North Evington Poor Law Infirmary – the ‘Palace on the Hill’, as it was popularly known, which eventually became the Leicester General Hospital.

*Jonathan Reinarz and Leonard Schwarz, Medicine and the Workhouse (University of Rochester Press, 2013). For more information about the Leicester Workhouse, see http://www.workhouses.org.uk/Leicester/.

Many thanks to Colin Hyde for the photograph of The Towers, and to Clive Harrison for providing the Workhouse image. Clive is the author of In Sickness and in Health:  a history of Leicester’s health and ill-health, 1900-50 (Leicester City Council, 1999).


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