Blaker Family of Sussex - Reminiscences


I Commence Practice.

IN about a month I received a note from the Hospital, telling me that the newly-appointed House Surgeon had scarlet-fever, and asking me to take the duties till other arrangements could be made. This I did and remained there about three months. I then spent several months at Guy's chiefly in the wards, and in the autumn of that year, 1859, I was appointed Assistant Surgeon in the Convict Hospital, then temporarily located in the Old Jail, now the Naval Prison, at Lewes. There were about 300 invalid convicts, of whom about 20 or 30 were mental cases, some bordering on insanity; a considerable number were convalescents after accidents or acute disease, sent from able-bodied prisons, and some were chronic invalids. We remained at Lewes four or five months, when we were trans-ferred to a newly-built model prison at Knapp Hill, close to Woking. I look back upon the time spent at Lewes as, perhaps, the happiest of my life.

For the first time for two years I was able to enjoy social amusements and the society of friends, of whom I had many in Lewes, and moreover, I was earning my own living and free from the fear of being dependent on my friends, a feeling more intolerable, perhaps than the pain of pleurisy or the dreadful weakness of septic fever. The prison at Knapp Hill was built on the most approved plan, both as regards ventilation and sanitation, and also its general arrangements, but it was difficult to imagine that it was within thirty-six miles of London, for it was situated on a large moor covered with heath and a few stunted pines, about a mile and a half from Woking Cemetery, in an unused part of which I used to exercise a young setter. Snakes abounded, and frogs kept us awake at night by their croaking. A few blackcock still remained, and numbers of shaggy forest ponies were to be seen roaming about. I think this appointment was the most useful I ever held, for I learned how to manage a large public institution and saw a number of chronic cases not usually to be found in a Hospital, and, as there were about fifty autopsies a year, a good deal of pathological knowledge could be picked up.

Specimens of calcareous degeneration were very common, such as large bony plates in an adherent pleura or pericardium. Above all there was an excellent opportunity of studying human nature. The convicts came from all grades of society. There were clerks, merchants, lawyers, medical men (one of whom had once held a very prominent position in a large town) and clergymen, amongst whom was a once eminent preacher. A certain number of the prisoners were habitual criminals, and, if discharged, were soon in prison again. But while the educated were generally in for forgery or swindling and the uneducated for more violent crimes, there were some who were much to be pitied, men who had lead blameless lives up to one point, and then, when, perhaps, their minds were enfeebled by anxiety and worry, caused by misfortune, losses or sickness, had yielded to temptation and come within the meshes of the law. I learned also that men, even convicted felons, are not all bad, that some traces of good feeling are always to be found, and I must say I received as much gratitude, or even more from convicts than from many others. There was one other circumstance which particularly struck me, and that was that men collected together from all parts of the country, and from all grades of society, should so perfectly assimilate themselves to one standard, as if men, when placed under precisely similar conditions, have a tendency to assume one particular type in appearance, manner and, I think, habit of thought, quite irrespective of their previous manner of life, associations and education. Malingering was very common and required all, and sometimes more than all one's acumen to detect.

Although it occurred some months after I had left the service, and while I was on a visit to my cousin, Mr. E. S. Blaker, who succeeded me in the office of Assistant Surgeon, the following incident may be worth recording. By the kind permission of the Governor I was allowed to accompany my cousin round the wards, and was asked to see a man who was said to have paralysis of both legs. I thought with the others he was malingering, and the usual remedies having failed, it was decided to use galvanism. The batteries were out of order, but by uniting two, we got a fairly good current. While arranging the batteries, it was mentioned audibly that a mild current would be used at first and the strength increased daily. The batteries were places on a table on one side of the bed and Mr. E. S. Blaker, standing on the other, applied one pole to the hip, and asked me to apply the other to the foot. Never was a more miraculous cure. The man jumped up, said : "I'm damned if I can stand this," and rushed across the ward, dragging the batteries off the table, upsetting the sulphuric acid, and destroying two sets of bedding and the floor for several feet.

<< Previous - Guy's Hospital Contents


Brighton Dispensary - Next >>