Dr Charles Edward Prior 1820 – 1907
by Linda Ayres
Dr. Charles Edward Prior was the Coroner of the Borough of Bedford. He was a Public Analyst and the Medical Officer of Health for the Borough and of several Sanitary Authorities, including Bedford, Ampthill, Biggleswade and Woburn. He worked during the hard times when many people had to cook, eat and sleep in often squalid and unsanitary conditions. Frequent outbreaks of typhus and typhoid were the major problem and killed many people in a short space of time.
Dr. Prior was born on the 24th May 1820 at Puckrup, in the parish of Twyning, Gloucestershire. He was the son of a tenant farmer, Charles Prior and his wife Mary, nee Phelps. He studied medicine at Birmingham, London, Scotland and Paris. He qualified as a doctor in 1849 at the University and King’s College of Aberdeen. He subsequently became a Fellow of the Medical Society of London, also a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, and the President of the South Midland Branch of the British Medical Association.
On the 10th May 1849 Dr. Prior married Amelia Hullah at St. Pancras Old Church, Euston Road, Saint Pancras, London. Amelia was born on the 23rd November 1824. Her Christening took place on the 5th January 1825, at St. Botolph’s without Aldersgate, London. She was the eldest of the three children of Ann and Charles Morrice Hullah. Her father was a biscuit manufacturer and a provision merchant. The family lived at 5 Doughty Street, St. Pancras in London. When Charles retired, he and Ann moved to Clifton Gardens, Melville Street Montpellier, Ryde on the Isle of Wight. They subsequently moved to 6 Tavistock Street, Bedford. Ann died on the 12th December 1880, aged 83 years.
Charles died on the 28th December 1880, aged 85 years. Their burials took place in the family vault at Foster Hill Road Cemetery. Section E2 – 94.
After their marriage Dr. Prior and Amelia moved to 10 St. Peter’s Green, Bedford. They had seven children, Charles Edward (1850-1923), Annie Isabella (1856-1947), Richard Delston (1858-1928), William (1860-1945), Mary Henrietta (1863-1945), Frederick Thomas (1867-1942) and Julia Fanny (1864-1951).
Medical officer of the Bedford Workhouse
In 1855 the Bedford Board of Guardians appointed Dr Prior Medical Officer to the Bedford Union Workhouse. The workhouse was formerly the House of Industry in Kimbolton Road. It was a large brick building, erected in 1796 with a chapel and schoolrooms. It would hold 400 inmates. There were two men’s sick wards with 12 beds in one and 6 beds in the other. There were 2 women’s sick rooms with 14 beds and 15 beds. The rooms were without proper ventilation. As soon as the master of the workhouse opened the windows the inmates would shut them to keep warm. To stop the inmates shutting the windows the master kept the keys. The nursery was dull and cheerless; old women looked after the babies during the day and, at night they slept with their mothers. The standards for nursing under the Poor Law were grim. Once Dr. Prior became the medical officer two nurses were employed one for the male side and one for the female side.
On the 6th November 1897 the Bedford Board of Guardians held a meeting at the Town Hall. At the meeting Dr. Prior told the Board that 10 days before there had been an outbreak of diphtheria in the workhouse. Martha Whiteman, aged 3 years, and another child, were taken to the Isolation Hospital suffering from diphtheria. Dr. Prior had suspected that Martha had diphtheria when she came into the workhouse with her mother 12 days before. Sadly, Martha died on the 29th October the day after she went into the Isolation Hospital. The workhouse was closed to all visitors and the children were kept away from school. Each day Dr. Prior examined the other children in the workhouse to make sure they had not caught diphtheria.
Martha was the only child of Harry and Mary Whiteman. The family had lived at College Road, Bedford. Mary was pregnant with her second child when she went into the workhouse.
Harry stayed at home and he was very ill with tuberculosis. Dr. Prior said that when Mary and Martha came into the workhouse they were in a most deplorable condition. On the 31st October Mary gave birth to a daughter who she called Amy. Sadly, Amy only lived for 9 hours. On the 2nd of November Harry died, aged 33 years, at his home in College Road. Mary survived Harry by 7 days, and died in the workhouse on the 9th November, aged 24 years.
The Whitman family funerals took place at Foster Hill Road Cemetery. Martha was buried on the 1st November and 2 days later her sister Amy was buried in the same grave. Section B. 234. Harry was buried on the 5th November. Section B 237. On the 12th November Mary was buried next to Harry and the children. Section B. 257.
In 1900 Dr. Prior retired as Medical Officer of the Workhouse. The Guardians presented him with a massive silver bowl and an album, bound in Russian leather.
In 1949 the workhouse closed down and became Bedford Hospital North Wing under the NHS. The grade 2 listed building, which had been unused for many years, was damaged by fire in January 2019
Coroner of the Borough
In July 1862 the Bedford Town Council elected Dr. Prior to the office of Coroner for the Borough of Bedfordshire. He was the first medical doctor to hold the office as Coroner for the Borough. Until then coroners came from the legal profession. Dr. Prior held inquests within 12 to 48 hours after death to decrease the decomposition rates and the odour caused by putrefaction. As soon as Dr. Prior had notice of a sudden unexplained death, he would make a warrant to the constable of the town to summon 24 local men to act as jurors. From these, 12 men would be chosen to form the jury. The inquests often took place at pubs because they were readily-available and there was plenty of room for the jury and the witnesses. There was also enough room with a large table to lay the body on. Legal mandate required Dr. Prior and the jury to view the body before they began to hear the evidence.
Dr. Prior presided over the inquest into the death of Leonora Mitchell, (LINK) who shot herself whilst travelling on the Midland Railway from Leeds to St. Pancras on the 7th August 1891. She died at Bedford Infirmary. The event was widely known as the Bedford Railway Mystery. Her burial took place at Foster Hill Road Cemetery Section A. 487.
Senior Surgeon to the Bedford General Dispensary and Lying in Institution.
On the 10th October 1863 Dr. Prior was appointed senior surgeon for the newly established Bedford General Dispensary and the Lying in Institution.
Married women, having been “free members” for at least 3 months, may be attended during their confinement by depositing five shillings with the Honorary Secretary, from who they will receive a “mid-wifery-ticket,” entitling them to be attended by the surgeon of their choice.
The Dispensary was set up for people who were too poor to pay for medical treatment. Until then they had to make use of the medical treatment afforded by the Guardians of the Poor or go to the Infirmary. The Infirmary opened at Ampthill Road in 1803 and began as a charitable institution initially developed to serve the poor without charge. It was funded by donations and subscriptions from wealthy benefactors, who subscribed £2 and 2 shillings annually. In 2017 this was worth approximately £124.17. The Infirmary was governed by a committee of benefactors who appointed the staff. Admission was not determined by the doctor, but upon the receipt of a letter of recommendation by the committee of benefactors.
In spite of much fundraising by the committee of benefactors the Infirmary was financially stretched. Those patients who were terminally ill were turned away as the Infirmary did not have the sufficient funds to treat them. Their only choice was for them to enter the workhouse. Those with infectious diseases were treated at the Fever Hospital next to the Infirmary. The Infirmary continued to treat out-patients, but often the patient was too ill to go to the Infirmary. Doctors working at the Infirmary were not paid. They made their living from private practice. The poor could not afford the cost of a home visit from the doctor. However, the doctors at the Dispensary could visit the patients who were too ill to go to the Dispensary.
Those wanting to enrol as members of the Bedford General Dispensary went to the Working Men’s Institute in Harpur Street, on Monday mornings, where they received their ticket of admission. However, this applied only to those whose average earnings did not exceed 15 shillings (75p) a week. Every free member above 14 years paid one penny and under that age one halfpenny per week. A man and his wife and all his children under 14 years paid two pennies. Servants paid five shillings a year (25p), in two half-yearly or four quarterly payments. No one was entitled to the benefits of the Institution if they had not paid their subscriptions.
The National Archives Currency Converter calculates in 2017, 15 shillings is worth £44.35; 5 shillings = £14.78; 2 pennies = 49p and 1 penny = 25p. 15 shillings was 10 days wages earned by a skilled tradesman.
On the 1st of January 1873 the Dispensary moved to St. Peter’s Street. The building it occupied was pulled down in 1887 to make way for a new building. The new building was designed by the architects, John Usher (LINK) and his nephew, Alfred Ernest Anthony. It became known as the Provident Dispensary. On the 13th December 1887 the Provident Dispensary was opened by the Marquess of Tavistock. The Provident Dispensary closed in 1948 when it was superseded by the National Health Service. The building then became the office of the Probation Service. In December 2019 the building opened as a private members club.
Medical Officer of Heath and Analyst for the Borough of Bedford.
In July 1873 the Bedford Board of Guardians appointed Dr. Prior as the Medical Officer of Health and Public Analyst. The revised Adulteration of Food and Drugs Act 1872 made provisions for the appointment of Public Analysts. Dr. Prior’s public engagements were so demanding that he gave up much of his private practice. He made it a rule to visit every parish in his area at least once a year.
As the Public Analyst Dr Prior examined and analysed samples of bread, milk, cream and beer. It was common for bread to be adulterated with alum which was to make inferior flour look white. Alum was detrimental to health, and was often fatal for children. Milk was often adulterated with up to 40 per cent of water. Infected milk due to poor hygiene was often the source of spreading serious epidemics of typhoid, diphtheria, and scarlet fever.
In May 1874 Dr. Prior reported that one grocer had been convicted for selling cocoa, one-ninth of which was pure cocoa. The rest consisted of sugar and arrowroot, and the grocer paid a heavy fine for calling it cocoa instead of a mixture. The result of this practice was that the grocer received about 18 shillings per pound of cocoa instead of its proper worth of 3 shillings and 6 pennies.
On the 2nd September 1873 as the Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Prior made an inspection of Brown’s Court, St. Cuthbert’s and Ravensden Cottages at Chandos Street, Bedford. In his report to the Urban Sanitary Authority he stated “Brown’s Court is in a most filthy condition; slops thrown into the middle of the court, a foul ash-heap or ash pit adjoining the closets (toilets); and refuse, probably from closets, draining from underneath it into the house, which adjoins the court. The drain near to the water tap is blocked, and dirty surface water therefore drains into the street. There are two closets to ten houses, inhabited by 40 people; they are in a most filthy and horrible condition, and one is useless, the other quite unfit for use. Immediate attention is required here. Ravensden Cottages; here are six houses, four in front, two in the yard; of these latter ones consists of two rooms, the other one of one room; they are only inhabited by three persons. The four front houses are back to back, consequently they have no through ventilation. There is only one closet, and that is blocked up and without water, for six houses and sixteen persons; a second closet is required.”
In 1875, a series of new laws led to improvements in public health and hygiene. These laws included the provision of clean water, proper drainage and sewage systems, and the appointment of a Medical Health Officer of Health in every area.
Dr. Prior’s Funeral
Dr. Prior died aged 87, on the 9th October 1907, at 4 Goldington Road, Bedford. He survived his wife by five years. The funeral service took place in St. Peter’s Church, the church in which he worshipped for many years. The service was conducted by the Rev. Vitruvius Wyatt, Provincial Grand Chaplain, and Past Grand Chaplain of the United Grand Lodge of England, assisted by the Rev. J. E. Gilbert, Rector of St. Peter’s, and the Rev. Percy Langdon. The service was simple, and concluded with the singing of the hymn, “Now the Labourer’s Task is O’er.” After the service the pall bearers carried the coffin along the nave to the chancel and through the west door to the hearse, which was covered with beautiful wreaths. Nine mourning coaches followed the hearse up De Parys Avenue to the Cemetery. The coffin was of polished oak coffin, mounted with solid brass furniture, and on the lid a plain Latin cross. The burial took place in the family vault where the remains of his wife, Amelia were interred in November 1902. Section E2.76.
After the Burial the Service was read by Rev. J. E. Gilbert and the Rev. Percy Langdon. The Freemasons hymn was sung, and each member passed the grave, and threw in a sprig of acacia, the Freemasons’ emblem. His gravestone bears the traditional Masonic symbol, square and compass.
Masonic Memorial at St Peter’s Church, Bedford
For many years Dr. Prior was Deputy Provincial Grand Master of the Province of Bedfordshire. During the absence of Lord Ampthill in India for five years, Dr Prior was acting Provincial Grand Master.
In April 1910 a memorial to Dr. Charles Edward Prior, was given by the Freemasons of the Province of Bedfordshire was placed in St. Peter’s Church Bedford. It is in the form of a brass screen across the tower arch at the entrance of the chancel. It stands 4ft. 6ins. in height, and was designed by the ironmonger, Mr. Samuel Leach Kilpin of 17 High Street, Bedford. Masonic emblems decorate the screen, together with this inscription.
“To the Glory of God and in memory of
Charles Edward Prior, M.D.
Deputy Provincial Grand Master for Bedfordshire
Who died October ix, 1907
Erected by the Brethren of the Seven Lodges
In the Province.”
Within the south entrance of St. Peter’s Church, there is a brass plate bearing the inscription, “To the glory of God and in affectionate remembrance of Amelia, wife of C.E. Prior, M.D. the statue over this porch was given by her many friends and fellow workers in the parish of St. Peter’s, as a memorial of her manifold deeds of love and charity. ‘ Be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another.”
Dr. Prior and Amelia’s Children
Their eldest child, Rev. Charles Edward Prior attended the Bedford School and went on to study at Queens College, Oxford, where he earned his B.A. From 1875 to 1895 he was Assistant Master of Merchant Taylors’ School, London. In 1895 he was appointed Rector of St. Mary the Virgin Church, Charlton-on-Otmoor, Oxfordshire. He subsequently became Rector of Charleton-on-Beckley, Blechingdon. He died in 1923 aged 73 at Bletchingdon, Oxfordshire.
Richard Delston went to the Bedford School and in 1877 he gained a scholarship at Queens College, Cambridge. He was an Inspector of Schools in India. On the 10th November 1890 he married Lilian, nee Rogers Long, at Poona, Bombay, India. Their four children were born in India. By 1901 he and the family had returned to England. They lived at 31 Goldington Road, Bedford. The family returned to India in 1909. He died at Woodstock, Oxfordshire.
William was a Colonel in the 13th Rajput’s, Indian Army. He died aged 85 years on the 18th September 1945 at his home, 16 Mount Ephraim Road, Tunbridge Wells, Kent.
Frederick Thomas, the youngest son, he was at the Bedford School from 1875 to 1885. He died at Ivy House, Kennedy Road, Kingsland, Shrewsbury on 1st April 1942. He was an assistant master at Shrewsbury School His funeral took place in Shrewsbury School Chapel
Annie Isabelle died aged 92, on the 15th October 1947, at 9 Pemberley Avenue, Bedford. She was involved in the parish of St. Peter’s and in church work. The funeral service at St. Peter’s Church preceded her burial in the family vault at Foster Hill Road Cemetery. Section E2. 75.
Mary Henrietta was in charge of the senior class for girls in St. Peter’s Sunday School. In 1907 Mary trained with the Anglican order of Sisters of the Epiphany, at Truro, Cornwall. On the 22nd April 1908, Mary sailed on board the “Prinzessin,” from Dover, via Zanzibar. She then on to Mashonaland, S. Rhodesia (now northern Zimbabwe), for mission work. Her first appointment was at St. Monica’s, Girls’ and Women’s Industrial College, to educate local girls and some older women. Some of the local women went on to become teachers.
Mary returned to Bedford 20 years later, and became Deacon of the Church of England. For some year’s she was the Secretary of the Bedford branch of England Waifs and Strays Society. Mary died on 24th May 1945, aged 82, at 9 Pemberley Avenue.
Julia Fanny died on 31st March 1951, aged 87, at 9 Pemberley Avenue. Mary and Julia’s burials took place in the family vault Section E2 Graves 84 and 85.
The Bedfordshire Mercury, Saturday 5 July 1862
The Bedfordshire Times and Independent, Tuesday 29 December 1863
The Bedfordshire Journal Tuesday 20th October 1863
The Ecclesiastical gazette 1867
The Ecclesiastical Gazette 1873
Bedfordshire Times and Independent, Saturday 18 January 1873
Bedfordshire Mercury, Saturday 16 May 1874
Bedfordshire Mercury, Saturday 10 April 1875
Bedfordshire Times and Independent, Friday 12 November 1897
The Bedfordshire Mercury, 10 April 1908
Bedfordshire Times and Bedford Standard, 10 April 1942
Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 1 June 1945
Bedfordshire Times and Standard, 24 October 1947
Bedfordshire Times and Standard, 6 July 1951
Photography Linda S. Ayres.
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