The Untold Story of ‘Doctor Dick’ — The Quack who Scandalised Cornwall (Part 1)

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In February 1889 a man named Richard Pascoe, known locally as ‘Doctor Dick’, was put on trial in Truro, accused of undertaking abortions for two young women. The ‘respectable’ classes keenly wanted to see him convicted, but the working classes felt very differently. Indeed, the common people of the city were so committed to ‘Doctor Dick’ that vast crowds turned out to cheer him, death threats were sent to a key witness, and a violent mob attacked his enemies in the street. The Establishment was horrified — one concerned citizen proclaimed, ‘Few among us had any idea, until these disgraceful scenes, how perverted popular sentiment had become!’

It is a fascinating story, full of drama, passion and human folly, but these events in 1889 are only the tip of the iceberg. Richard Pascoe scandalised Cornish society repeatedly through his long life and faced the wrath of the law many times without ever really changing his behaviour. Was he a brave hero or a stubborn villain? Were the common people of Truro right to champion him? Or had they been tricked by a rogue and a quack who did harm to desperate women in the interests of making money? Despite a great deal of research, I still haven’t made up my mind. So please, have a read, and then let me know your thoughts — was ‘Doctor Dick’ a goodie, a baddie, or something in between?  

Naturally, the best place for us to start is at the beginning. Richard Pascoe was born in Chacewater in 1829, son of William Hamlyn Pascoe, the local ‘surgeon-apothecary’, and his wife Emma (née Yeoman). William’s profession would have ensured the family lived in strange circumstances; such rural medical men occupied an almost unique place in the Victorian social structure, for although they had an education that suggested respectability, they still spent most of their time assisting poor working people, and usually bordered on poverty themselves. The Victorian novelist, Ellen Wallace, described the position of such a man in one of her stories: 

‘In a country where wealth is the sole standard of social position, and where talent is comparatively disregarded, the condition of the medical practitioner, and still more, the condition of his family, is far from enviable. He may enjoy the confidence of his patients; he may possibly be admitted to the tables of the higher classes in the neighbourhood; but his family holds an uncertain and slippery position, the most trying to the manner and teasing to the temper that can be conceived.’

Doctor Enys in Poldark is an uncommonly sexy example of a rural physician

This strange combination of semi-respectability and relative poverty must have encouraged a more flexible approach to life than was the case with most educated Victorians. Indeed, William certainly seems to have lived a colourful existence — although noted for his integrity and cleverness he is recorded as having an illegitimate child in addition to his legitimate offspring, and for a serious dependency on alcohol. 

Although we have limited insights into Richard’s childhood, I think we can make some educated assumptions about the influences that formed him. He grew up with feet in two worlds: he had an educated father who held some local authority, but he still would have spent most of his time amidst hard-drinking working folk, learning the art of getting by in a harsh, ungenerous era. And, of course, he would have seen his father engaging in some loose living. 

It is clear that Richard did not aim for local social advancement, for he trained initially as a carpenter, before leaving Cornwall to make a life in London. This led to some interesting life experiences; it was reported that he worked on the construction of the Crystal Palace in London in 1851, and that whilst he was there he actually met Prince Albert, who asked him several questions about Cornwall. 

Yet whilst young Richard was off having chinwags with royalty, things were not faring well at home. In 1851 his father was formally accused of manslaughter after he gave a patient a large dose of opium that may have resulted in his death. In court, several witnesses claimed that William Hamlyn Pascoe was drunk at the time, but the Defence argued that he was just a man of naturally lively spirits. The judge was sympathetic to the surgeon before him and the jury quickly ruled NOT GUILTY. This reprieve was not to last long, however — a year later he was on trial again, this time facing charges of deliberately instigating a miscarriage

We should take a moment to clarify how serious an accusation this was. The subject of abortions is still a contentious one today, but in Victorian England there was little room for debate, since ‘respectable’ society considered it to be a truly evil crime. Yet it’s also worth pointing out that the moral standpoint of the wealthy middle classes was not shared by much of the country; for many working-class women, married as well as unmarried, abortions were a necessary (and dangerous) evil. As historian Patricia Knight writes:

‘For many working-class women, abortion was the easiest, cheapest, and in many cases, the only available method of birth control, and as such was accepted as part of everyday life. Then, as now, there was a considerable difference between the views of ordinary women and the views of the (largely male) Establishment. Public disapproval of abortion had little effect, and where the views of women are recorded they show considerable independence of the official opinions.’

As with many Victorian social issues, there were two parallel realities — the layer of ‘moral’ society on the surface, and the far more complex reality of how most people actually lived. Normally these worlds barely acknowledged each other, yet occasionally a confrontation was forced and sparks would fly. William Hamlyn Pascoe had the misfortune to be at one of these collision points, and it would not do him any favours. 

The facts were these: William prescribed some heavy doses of savin oil (known to be an abortifacient) to a pregnant woman named Catherine Nicholls, and then, soon afterwards, he asked the sexton of St Cubert Church to bury a small package in the churchyard, which was later found to contain a premature foetus. The jury at Bodmin declared him GUILTY, and the judge voiced the opinion that he had likely committed the crime many times before. He consequently sentenced William to be ‘transported beyond the seas for the term of ten years’, which was a brutal sentence, even at the time. A newspaper reported that ‘The verdict and sentence came upon the prisoner like a thunderbolt.’ 

As was usual for transported convicts, William was sent to Pentonville Prison in London (after a few months in Millbank Prison) to serve the first part of his sentence. It was truly a grim place to be. The authorities believed that prisoners should be forced to reflect on their misdeeds in silence, so every effort was made to isolate them and prevent conversation. Visitors were only allowed by express permission of the Home Secretary, and although William’s daughter wrote to the Home Office to try and make this happen soon after his arrival, it doesn’t look like she was successful. 

The prison took its ‘no chatting’ policy seriously

Despite the sheer awfulness of this situation, William was also rather lucky. In December 1852 Viscount Palmerston, one of the great Victorian statesmen, became Home Secretary. His first priority was penal reform, and he quickly oversaw the ending of transportation, the shortening of ridiculous prison sentences, and the introduction of a parole system. In the end, William only served four years — two in London prisons and two in a prison hulk moored in Portsmouth Harbour — before he was paroled in 1856 and allowed to come home. Still a terrible experience, but surely preferable to being sent to Tasmania. 

How did this affect young Richard? It’s impossible to say, though it seems that father and son remained close and on good terms. After William’s release he went to live with Richard, who had now moved back to Chacewater in Cornwall with his wife Susan and their young children. Indeed, the 1861 census lists William as a ‘surgeon’, and Richard as an ‘assistant surgeon’. Despite his traumatic experience, perhaps William was still carrying out abortions, now with his son’s help? 

Whatever the truth may be, our story now leaves William behind as Richard steps into the limelight. It’s in the 1860s that we first start hearing references to his alter-ego, ‘Doctor Dick’ — an informal, all-purpose medical man. It’s important for us to consider what that really meant, since newspapers at the time described him as a ‘quack’, which carries many connotations. ‘Quack doctors’ were a common feature of Victorian life, and were usually little more than con artists — their focus being primarily on selling dubious substances with outrageous promises at even more outrageous prices. It is reported that ‘Doctor Dick’ attended market days across Cornwall, which certainly fits with that type — quack doctors were often in attendance wherever there were large groups of people, selling their wares alongside other tradesmen. It’s also reported that Richard was a likeable, charismatic chap who spent a great deal time of the pub — useful traits for a cynical conman.

A Victorian ‘Quack’ doing his best to look dodgy (IMAGE CREDIT: THE WELLCOME LIBRARY)

Yet I’m not convinced that Richard Pascoe was a full-blown swindler. We know that he assisted his father’s medical work, and that after William’s death Richard inherited his medical books and instruments. We also have plenty of evidence that indicates that he was a popular and trusted figure amongst poor working people, which is unlikely to have been the case if he was just a trickster. He later claimed that he was sometimes asked to send prescriptions to Cornish miners working in America and Africa from time to time, which, if he was telling the truth, is quite some achievement. 

It is worth pointing out that not every working Cornishman was a fan of his! In 1873 he was hired to be an in-house doctor at Perran Iron Mines (between Newquay and Perranporth), which ruffled a fair few feathers. One of the miners wrote to a local newspaper to complain: ‘Is it right that we should have so much per month deducted from our honest wages for a carpenter to attend us in sickness and accidents when we could have a doctor? We must send for a real doctor!’ Hard to argue with that.

When all is said and done, the biggest distinction between ‘Doctor Dick’ and the usual run-of-the-mill quack must surely be his willingness to carry out the riskier side of his father’s work — providing abortions. Given that most such patients had a lot invested in the procedure remaining secret, the vast majority of these cases went undetected by the law, so there’s no way of knowing how frequently he was called upon. Yet, eventually, like with his father before him, the bright light of public and legal attention shone down upon Richard Pascoe, revealing his hidden activities to the world and to history. 

In 1879 a woman living in Roche, Edna Chapman, miscarried and became very ill. The miscarriage itself was a shock to the community given that her husband had been out of the country for fifteen months, and it soon became known that the miscarriage was no accident. An anonymous tip-off was sent to the police, and Inspector Colenso visited the deeply unwell woman to see where the truth lay. She admitted what had happened and revealed the name of the individual responsible for undertaking the procedure, and so, with an arrest warrant in hand, Inspector Colenso went to find Richard Pascoe. In the end, he found him in an inn at Perranzabuloe, somewhat ‘worse for liquor’. Then, for some bizarre (read, ‘drunken’) reason ‘Doctor Dick’ took the Inspector to his carpenter’s shop/medical practice and showed him a box containing bottles of the drug (ergot) used to end pregnancies. He then, quite astonishingly, proclaimed that he had ‘cured 2,000 cases of this sort’, which, exaggeration or not, was clearly not a clever thing to say to a police officer sent to arrest you. He did deny to the Inspector that he ever used ‘instruments’ in his work, but suspicious wires were later found in his possession. 

So, in Truro that November, Richard was formally charged with ‘feloniously using a certain instrument with intent to procure a miscarriage of Edna Chapman’. He did at least have a legal defence; a newspaper reported that ‘Dr. Dick was a well-known character in Perran[zabuloe], and was generally well-liked, so his wife had very little trouble in getting £15 to procure a lawyer to defend him at trial.’ Even so, he was facing an uphill battle — despite initially trying to protect Richard by withholding important evidence, Edna Chapman now revealed everything. She said she had met Richard Pascoe at ‘Smith’s lodgings’ in Truro, where he undertook the physical procedure. He gave her a ‘bottle of medicine’ to ensure that the process was successful, and then requested £5 payment (£626 in today’s money), which was more money than she had on her, so she gave him 20 shillings (£93) instead, and 2 shillings for the bottle. She then revealed to the court that she had also seen him for the same purpose 18 months before. 

Despite everything, the case was a close-run thing. The jury found themselves at loggerheads and spent nearly an hour deliberating on their judgement. Eventually, they came to a decision — GUILTY. The judge sentenced him to five years’ penal servitude, and Richard Pascoe found himself facing virtually the same fate as his father twenty-seven years before. Indeed, he too was sent to Pentonville Prison in London. His wife and ten children were left without their breadwinner. 

But what about all the commotion and rioting and drama I mentioned at the beginning of the article? Well, while Richard Pascoe’s friends and patients would have certainly thought the conviction an outrage, there’s no evidence that they took any great action. The greatest drama of Richard Pascoe’s life still lay in the future, though he would not have known that at the time. His feelings as he was carried off into imprisonment are lost to us, but a year later we find ourselves with a window of sorts into his soul — a photograph, taken at the prison.

What do you see here? Ignore the way he is holding his hands — prisoners were required to show their hands to the camera in case they had identifying hand tattoos. Look instead at his face. Do you see sadness? Villainy? Defeat? Exhaustion? Shyness? I change my mind every time I look at it, though I do find it easy to imagine that face at a happier time, flushed with drink, gabbling nonsense with companions in a Cornish pub. 

Want to find out what happened next? Have a read of Part 2 of the Untold Story of Doctor Dick, as Richard Pascoe finds himself a hero of the Cornish mob and enemy of all ‘respectable’ society.


Will Hazell is a freelance copywriter who works primarily in the heritage and conservation sectors, though he enjoys dipping into other fields from time to time. If you’d like to hire his writing talents you can find him at Will Finds the Words.

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References

  • Cornishman, 02 October 1879
  • Cornishman, 06 November 1879
  • Cornishman, 13 November 1879
  • Cornwall Online Census Project
  • Cornwall Online Parish Clerks
  • Find My Past, England & Wales, Crime, Prisons & Punishment, 1770-1935 Record Set.
  • Knight, Patricia. Women and Abortion in Victorian and Edwardian England, History Workshop (1977 No. 4)
  • Roberts, David. Lord Palmerston at the Home Office, The Historian (1958 Vol. 21 No. 1) 
  • Royal Cornwall Gazette, 07 November 1879
  • The Cornish Telegraph, 01 October 1879
  • Wallace, Ellen. Mr Warrene. the Medical Practitioner. (1848) in Brightfield, M. The Medical Profession in Early Victorian England, Bulletin of the History of Medicine (1961 Vol. 45 No. 3) 
  • West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser, 11 December 1873
  • West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser, 28 February 1889
  • Westmorland Gazette, 10 April 1852

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Comments

  1. Hello Will

    I see intelligence and perhaps compassion in that penal photograph. Although abortion was illegal at the time, it occurs to me that Richard Pascoe was trying to do his best for his patients. Keep up with the good work, Will.

    Cheers

    Chris

    **********************
    Christopher T. George
    Editor, Writer, and Historian
    Newark, Delaware, USA
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