Review Number 80 – October 2017

Dr. Walton Kent – A 19th Century Doctor

The parish records of the Church of All Saints, Stanton record the baptism of Walton Kent on 18th November 1802. He had been born three days earlier. His parents were John Kent (the local Stanton apothecary) and Ann, née Walton – hence his unusual Christian name. Walton Kent subsequently had three siblings, his sisters Sarah born in 1807, and Amelia in 1808 and their brother James Henry born in 1810. Their father John apparently enjoyed a high reputation throughout East Anglia as an apothecary and was well known for his success in the treatment of scrofula.

Walton Kent and his younger brother both trained as doctors. Walton took the examinations of the London Society of Apothecaries in 1827 to be licensed to practise medicine[1], a right of qualification granted to that Livery Company in 1815. His brother qualified similarly in 1838 when he too was licensed by the Society of Apothecaries, and he also simultaneously became a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons[2].

Following his training, in May 1828 Walton Kent published a paper, advertised in the local press and reviewed in The Lancet journal, on the problems of protracted labour in childbirth[3]. It was dedicated to an eminent London specialist although some might think it could better have been dedicated to the mothers of Stanton. He was subsequently appointed a Fellow of the Obstetrics Society of London.

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Bury and Norwich Post Wednesday 14th May 1828

In 1830 Walton married Frances Plummer[4]. She was the widow or ‘relict’, in the documentation and terminology of the time, of Robert Plummer, a grocer. He came from a local family of tenant farmers. Walton was 28 and his wife was 41. The couple established themselves in Walsham in Frances’ rented house, now called The Beeches[5] where he started a private medical practice “with few introductions, save those awarded to his own skill and perseverance”[6]. By the time of the 1841 census their three children had arrived: John born in 1832, aged 9, Frances Ann born in 1833 aged 8, and Charlotte Amelia born in 1835, aged 5. The household included a son of Frances by her earlier marriage, Robert Plummer, draper (20), and also George Woods, male servant (15), and Susan Blomfield, female servant (35). (Census ages correct to within five years).

As the work-load grew an advertisement appeared locally[7] in 1833 under the heading “Medical Profession” and advising that “Mr Walton Kent, Surgeon, Walsham le Willows is desirous of receiving a well-educated Youth as a Pupil”. Medical training at the time involved such apprenticeships, which had to be paid for by the pupil.

Beyond medicine, in 1833 he joined as a Subscriber/Member the ‘Badwell Ash Association for Prosecuting Felons and Other Offenders’[8]. Established in 1783 this venerable body met annually at The White Horse Inn and comprised representatives of a dozen local villages who took seriously their civic leadership and also their mutual security. This was an early form of ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ with “rewards paid for apprehending persons guilty of committing any felonies, burglaries, robberies, larcenies  or thefts, upon or against any of the persons or properties of the under mentioned subscribers”. Other Walsham members included from time to time his neighbour John King of The Priory (Solicitor), Samuel Golding of The Grove (Solicitor), John Miller (Brewer) and his son John jnr.. Hooper Wilkinson (“Independent means”) was also a member with John Elliott (Farmer), and John Fisher of Walsham Hall (Farmer).

Bury and Norwich Post Wednesday 12th June 1833. The Association subsequently extended their criminal targets to include ‘Incendiaries’

The 1830’s were a period of political debate. Against the threat of potential revolution, and with Tory opposition, major changes to the electoral system were implemented by a Whig government to transform the political processes by extending the voting franchise. When the Reform Bill was passed into law Messrs Kent and Miller hosted a celebration in Walsham, duly recorded in colourful fashion.

BURY AND NORWICH POST Wednesday 4th July 1832  

“WALSHAM LE WILLOWS: On Thursday last the inhabitants of this village celebrated the passing of the Reform Bill by a public dinner at the Boar Inn. At half-past two o’clock, about 35 of the principal inhabitants, farmers, and others, sat down to an excellent dinner provided in a room tastefully decorated , Mr. Walton Kent being president, and Mr. J. Miller, sen. vice-president. The toasts were introduced by suitable observations, which would have been continued longer, had not the hour of five arrived, when a great number of the company were obliged to leave to superintend a frolic for the poor of the village. Great preparations had been made during the day, for the purpose of enlivening the scene; the bells rung merrily at intervals; a good band paraded the streets, flags and banners of all descriptions were waving from almost every house. The whole street was adorned with boughs, trees, and flowers and triumphant arches were thrown across. At one o’clock, the beer which was to regale the poor was brought from Mr. Miller’s brewery in a van decorated with boughs, flowers, and banners. At five o’clock about 700 poor persons were assembled, and arranged themselves on the benches, &c. prepared for them. Bread, cheese, and strong beer were then plentifully distributed, and afterwards snuff and tobacco to all those who choose to indulge in them. Next came a variety of field sports, which afforded a rich fund of amusement to the assembled multitude. “God save the King” was also sung by the whole company; a flag with an inscription of “Reform” waving over their heads the whole time. The company assembled to witness these proceedings was highly respectable ; all the ladies and gentlemen of the village being present, aiding, encouraging, and countenancing everything which was likely to promote the harmony, comfort, and peaceable conduct of the poor. They were highly pleased with the treat; the spectators were equally gratified at the harmony and regularity of the proceedings, and the 28th of June, 1832, will long be remembered by the inhabitants of Walsham”.

As his private practice grew, Kent extended his sphere of social responsibility. In May 1837 he was elected “Surgeon for the Walsham-le-Willows District of the Stow Union”… “by a large majority of the Governors”[9]. He carried out these duties “to the great satisfaction and approval of parish authorities and patients, and with the respect of his professional brethren, to whom he always showed the greatest courtesy and deference.” Not only did such work create a reputation for social responsibility, and provide a useful additional income stream in a small rural practice, but it offered the opportunity to establish wider professional experience and credibility.

Life in Walsham in the 1840’s was hard for many who sometimes took risks to feed themselves. By the middle of the century there would be 52 designated paupers’ families in the village out of a total population of 1,297. In March 1840 as reported in the account of the local press[10] (which for some reason felt the need to use dialect) the jury at the Bury Sessions were required to consider the following case before a full bench of magistrates,

“William Pleasance (21), and Mary Woods (26), were charged with stealing two bushels of Swede turnips, the property of Mr. Walton Kent, surgeon, of Walsham-le-Willows. It appeared that at about half-past eight on the evening of Monday, the 9th of March, the prisoners were observed crossing the churchyard adjoining Mr. Kent’s premises, with a sack, with which they proceeded towards the house of Woods, the female prisoner. A boy named Germany, in the service of Mr. Kent, who had been watching them, accosted them on their way, saying, ‘You seem to be loaden hard to-night’.  Pleasance said, ‘Yes, I shall be glad when I get home with these taters’. Upon this Germany observed: ‘They are rum taters; they are Mr. Kent’s turnips, for I saw you get them’ . They instantly quickened their pace and on the house of Woods being searched, the sack was found in the pantry. On being questioned by the constable, she admitted that the turnips were brought there by Pleasance to boil for him. Both the prisoners were found guilty, and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment and hard labour.”

In addition to his medical career Kent was also a farmer, possibly courtesy of his wife’s family in her earlier marriage. The 1842 Tithe Map of the village shows him as a tenant of John Hector Munro who had extensive holdings locally. Kent was renting over 140 acres of land in the parish of which approximately one third were arable, the rest pasture, and consisting of 21 adjoining fields between Lamas Meadow in the west and Church Way (now The Causeway) in the east, including the Church Farmhouse and adjoining buildings. In the 1851 census the ‘Farming Bailiff’ living in the farmhouse was Henry Nunn (47) with his wife Mary (40) and their five children: Robert (18), William (16), George (14), Eliza (9) and Harriet (7).

The names of the fields form an evocative litany: Lamas Meadow, Six Acre Meadow, First Stubbings and Second Stubbings, First Stoney Lands, Second Stoney Lands, and Third Stoney Lands, Bradwell Hill Field, Bradwell Hill Meadow, Checquer Meadow, First Breeches and Second Breeches, Gowns Entry, Hoxne Meadow, First Upper Gallants and Second Upper Gallants, Brook Meadow, First and Second Pale Fields and Gallants Meadow.

In 1851 the total cultivated farmland in the parish of Walsham le Willows was 2,939 acres. There were 28 men and one woman registered as Farmers in the local census, with their holdings averaging 101 acres and ranging from 26 to 250 acres. The farmers had to record in the census how many men they employed and these totalled 102 labourers and boys, or an average of one for every 30 acres.  Kent declared a total holding of 155 acres. With an independent and political turn of mind he also (and most unusually) added a plaintive addendum to his census entry: “Employing 4 labourers and 4 boys – and losing £100 per annum by Free Trade”.

In his medical responsibilities there will have been few families in the village whose lives and health he did not touch, hopefully for the better and whether as private patients or paupers. Indeed the columns in the Parish records of St Mary’s Church in effect provide a listing of many of these patients, both births and burials. In the 1840s there was an average of 33 baptisms per annum in Walsham and 18 burials including new-born infants.

Kent travelled to see his patients in a horse-drawn gig. An inventory of the contents of the stables and outhouses at his home included “5 Chestnut Cart Mares and Geldings, 2 Two-year-old Chestnut Cart Colts, a Bay Suckling Cart Colt, and a Bay Hackney”. They also housed “Two neat Dennett gigs and a one-horse cab”. His live-in groom to take care of all of these was initially Arthur Frost of Drinkstone who was succeeded by Samuel Burrows of Bacton.

Description: Dennett gig, c 1903.
A Dennett Gig

Walton Kent took on the duties of Charity Trustee, Church Warden, Road Surveyor responsible for road repairs, and Vice-Chairman of the Walsham le Willows Literary Institute – in the foundation of which he was apparently instrumental. On 27th November 1857 he gave an illustrated lecture there, which he offered to repeat, on ‘The Natural Properties of the Eye’ but of the numbers attending there is no record. His evidence was frequently sought by Coroners in matters of sudden death, often described in the newspapers in rather more graphic detail than we are accustomed to today. He acted as Executor for many Wills and was called upon from time to time for more pleasant duties in making speeches and presentations locally[11]. He played a full role in a small community in which he was widely respected.

In 1859 Mrs Walton Kent was noted in the local paper[12] among the long list of those attending to take the waters at the fashionable Spa in Buxton, Derbyshire. She stayed at The Cheshire Cheese Inn where she enjoyed the hospitality of a Mrs Sutton. Sadly, and despite their emphasis on caring for others, the Kents were not a long-lived or healthy family. Their youngest daughter Charlotte Amelia died in 1847 at the age of 12. The other daughter Frances Ann died at the age of 20 in 1854. Kent’s brother James Henry died in October 1855 at the age of 45. Neither he nor their sister Sarah had married but the two lived together, in a house adjoining their father’s apothecary shop in Stanton, where she acted as her brother’s housekeeper. Their sister Amelia also lived locally. She married (‘Baker’) but was widowed young without children and lived on in modest comfort (one servant) on an annuity.

The local press[13] went to some lengths to eulogize James Henry who died in Stanton “where he practiced as a surgeon and which place he made famous by his superior manipulation of pharmaceutical preparations.  He produced and exhibited in competition with the whole world vegetable extracts and essences unsurpassed by the best productions of metropolitan laboratories, gaining medals for the same at the Great Exhibition of 1851, and also at the Exhibitions of Paris and New York”. Following his brother’s death Walton “followed this pursuit, more for pleasure than profit, with much success. In both it was a science congenial to their early taste for Medical Botany”.

But 1862 was also a significant year for the Kent family. The death took place on 30th January[14] of John Walton Kent, aged 30, “the only child of Mr. Walton Kent, surgeon, of Walsham- le- Willows. He had a long affliction, and was very highly respected”. Only three months later the death was also announced of “Frances (71), the much respected wife of Mr. Walton Kent, surgeon, Walsham-le-Willows, after a long affliction”[15]. But more was to come. Two months after that the obituaries column of The Bury and Norwich Post, and many other newspapers, announced the death “On the 12th inst., much esteemed and lamented, in the 60th year of his age, Walton Kent, Esq., surgeon, of Walsham-le-Willows” after “a few months’ severe suffering[16]”. The cause of death was recorded on the Death Certificate as “Diseases of Heart and Lungs”. According to the newspapers a few months earlier ill health had obliged him to give up work and he had handed his practice over to Dr Hugh Spencer Hughes who for five years had been ‘visiting assistant’ to Dr Smith, in Bury St Edmunds[17].

His Will was proved at Bury St Edmunds, and Probate granted on 10th August 1862 to his executors John Francis and John Miller. His effects were valued as “Under £3,000” (possibly £300,000 today).  The following month these were sold by auction[18]. The proceeds together with 6 shares in The Walsham Village Hall Company were left to his sisters. The lease of the farm, by now owned by the Martineau family,  passed to William Hutton.

Although he did not live to see his 60th birthday his younger brother, wife and all three of his children died before him. His sisters died shortly afterwards – Sarah in 1864 and Amelia in 1868. As the memories of his friends and patients faded[19] his grave behind St Mary’s Church became overgrown and a figure of some local significance was quietly forgotten.

Grave of Walton Kent (1802-1862), St Mary’s Churchyard, Walsham le Willows
Joseph McCann
September 2017


[1] London and Provincial Medical Directory 1860
[2] idem
[3] Bury and Norwich Post Wednesday 14th May 1828
[4] Born 1794 in the local village of Mellis; née Collins.
[5] In addition to the gardens still surrounding The Beeches, the property also included what is now the village bowling green and a plot further down Grove Road (then called Wortouts Lane) at the junction with Townhouse Road (then called Carters Lane).
[6] Bury and Norwich Post 17th June 1862
[7] Bury and Norwich Post, 13th December 1833
[8] Bury and Norwich Post Wednesday 12th June 1833. The Association subsequently extended their criminal targets to include ‘Incendiaries’
[9] Suffolk Chronicle or Weekly General Advertiser and County Express 3rd June 1837
[10] Suffolk Chronicle or Weekly General Advertiser and County Express 21st Mar 1840
[11] Following the opening lecture at the new Institute building in 1859 the vote of thanks to the Chairman, Mr Martineau, was proposed by Dr Kent: Bury Free Press – Saturday 16 April 1859
[12] The Buxton Advertiser Saturday 6th August 1869
[13] Bury and Norwich Post Tuesday 17th June 1862
[14] Idem 4th February 1862
[15] Suffolk Chronicle or Weekly General Advertiser and County Express Saturday 12th April 1862
[16] Bury Free Press Saturday 14th June 1862
[17]The Medical Register: Registered 5th April 1862
[18] S.W. Hunt, auctioneer, 12th September 1862
[19] Bury Free Press Saturday 30th March 1872 “DEATH. 22nd inst. at Hepworth, aged 72, Susan Bloomfield, for many years servant to the late Mr. Walton Kent, of Walsham-le-Willows”.

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