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Extract from Autobiography written in 1938 by Agnes Hunt - “This is my life” re-published by Derwen College, 2000.
"Fighting Typhoid" in Rushden in 1892

Dorothy Roberts, nee Franklin, left Rushden in 1961 to train at the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital, and kindly sent us a copy of Agnes’ autobiography, in which she described “Fighting Typhoid” in Rushden in 1892.

Agnes Hunt was born in 1867 in Shropshire, daughter of wealthy Victorian parents. In 1873 the family moved into Boreatton Park, where they brought up their eleven children. In 1879 her father died suddenly, and in 1882 her mother took the family to live at Kibworth, Leicestershire, where she attended a lecture about Australia. In 1884 she embarked on an adventure, taking her younger children across the world to Australia. Agnes’ mother returned in 1886, and Agnes and her brother Tom, came home in 1887, to London where their mother was now settled and filling her time with being a Poor Law Guardian, and other charitable work.

On her return to England, Agnes, although crippled by her hip, began training as a “lady pupil” nurse. She paid a pound a week for her training at the Royal Alexandra Hospital, Rhyl, a hospital for cripples that advocated fresh air treatment, and the happiness of their patients. Agnes then moved back to London to her mother’s and continued her training at Hammersmith Hospital. Then she went again across the world to Australia and New Zealand with her mother, returning again in 1889 determined to finish her training, which she did at Salop Infirmary, gaining her certificate in 1891.

In 1892 Agnes was asked to apply for a post at Rushden where typhoid was raging.

At her interview she was given a solemn warning “not to become too friendly with Mrs and Miss Sartoris, who were the big landowners in the district, and naturally much above the position of a district nurse.” Agnes’ sister Lila was worried for her and bought her a dog to accompany her, a bull terrier.

This extract is taken from Agnes Hunt’s autobiography:-

We were attached to the animal by a chain, and our course was erratic, as it included rushing up and down area steps in pursuit of cats. Once the chain caught an unfortunate old gentleman just beneath the knees, and he sat down in the gutter. We never knew if he was hurt or not, as before we could apologise we were half-way down a mews in hot pursuit of a cat. The climax reached when we got back to Lila's home, and found Mother had just arrived to pay a visit with her Irish terrier. The drawing-room was the battle-field.

My first three weeks in Rushden were mostly devoted to paying large sums in compensation for favourite dogs, cats, and goats slain by my white elephant, "Mike" by name. Eventually I broke him, and obtained peace and absolute obedience.

Rushden was a place that had grown in thirty years from a small country village into a boot manufacturing town of some 10,000 inhabitants. The sanitation had not developed accordingly, there was no water supply except from surface wells, and no drainage system. To add to the joys of the town a very benevolent and most saintly clergyman had purchased a field at the top of the town and made thereon a very nice cemetery. Unfortunately, it was a very damp spot. Add to this the fact that the whole of the supply to the town was drawn from surface wells, and it will not be difficult to realize that the place, which a few years ago had been a healthy village, was now with its 10,000 inhabitants in grave danger of an epidemic.

In August that year, typhoid fever made its first appearance. Nurses were difficult to get, as the Maidstone epidemic of typhoid was raging at the same time. It was hard to make my Committee understand I could not tackle the problem single-handed, in spite of the fact that I had at my own expense bought a pony and cart.

One member of the Committee stated that he had grave doubts as to whether I was really paying the visits entered in the daily visiting book. I said that was quite easily proved. Would they kindly appoint someone to go round with me? I told them I started at 6 a.m. and worked until 8.30 a.m., when I had my breakfast, then went out again at 9 a.m. until 3 p.m., which was my dinner hour. At 4 p.m. I began the evening round, and usually got in by 11 p.m.

I said my landlady would bear witness, and I added that I hoped the deputation of inquiry would have fairly strong nerves, as my own pony was knocked up and Mr. Smith (the farmer and horse-dealer from whom I had originally bought him) had most kindly lent me some half-broken ponies to do his work. Then I asked for leave to withdraw, as I had several visits to pay.

Next morning at 9 o'clock the deputation arrived. It consisted of one very scared-looking Nonconformist parson, who bore a striking resemblance to "Bill the Lizard". I looked round for "The White Rabbit", but he was not there.

Just then my stable-boy and one of Mr. Smith's grooms brought round the pony, so I took the reins and sat down. "Bill's" arrival was greatly expedited by the pony, who stood on its hind legs and proceeded by a series of bounds. The stable-boy climbed into the back and helped "Bill" on to the seat, which, in his agitation, he had missed. All then proceeded well, and "Bill" and I got along famously. He was an extremely nice man, and very helpful. It was, however, not my lucky day for, drawing toward Higham Ferrers, what should appear from under the railway bridge but Lord George Sanger's circus, headed by a large elephant!

Agnes and Mike

This photograph was given to Dorothy Franklin’s father (born 1907) by Sam Robinson, whose family had taken Agnes as a boarder whilst she was in Rushden.
It was taken at the Robinson’s in 1892, as Agnes rested with Mike on her lap.

The pony stood not on the order of its going, but went! Right through the centre of the town we tore, scattering everything in our mad career. My deputation behaved perfectly, he never clutched at the reins or tried to jump out, but when at last we pulled up some few miles along the Bedford road he stepped out and firmly refused all offers of another drive. Neither was the number of my visits again questioned!

Shortly after this, Goody joined me, and for the next year we fought the epidemic. The trouble was the water supply. The local authorities would come round and condemn the pump and carefully tie it up complete with label to say that the water was unfit for human consumption, but, as no other water was forthcoming, the pump was quickly untied. The authorities also supplied us with liquid carbolic but, as so many of the closets were earth in which practically no earth was used, I persuaded them to give us quick-lime instead. Most of these dreadful places were situated quite near the wells.

My Committee now became very helpful, and voted money for extra milk, brandy, and convalescent dinners; they collected a band of women to do night duty, and they also stirred up the sanitary authorities about the water question. About a mile out of Rushden was a row of six cottages with ten people down with typhoid. It so happened that we had nobody for night duty, so we arranged to do it between us. I took duty from ten to two, and Goody until six. Mike came with me, and, as he had been trained, waited outside whichever cottage I was in.

One night I was making Benger's food in a kitchen when the door opened and a tall and most unpleasant-looking tramp entered. He was a big powerful man of between fifty and sixty years, with a most horrible face. He advanced with a disgusting leer, and grabbed my arm. I threw the Benger's food at him, but, unfortunately, it was not really hot, and then as I struggled I remembered Mike and called him frantically. The door, which, mercifully, had not been latched, was burst open, and fifty pounds of wiry canine muscle hurled itself at the tramp. He was taken by surprise, fell, and hit his head against the fender. Mike went for his throat, but I managed to catch him by the collar and cried "Stop it, Mike!" I just could not bear to have a corpse. The man lay very still. He looked ghastly, partly because of the black off the saucepan and partly because of the contents. Still holding the dog, I sank into a chair to consider my next move, when Goody entered through the open door. Calmly, she looked at me and Mike, at the unconscious man, and the general mess in the kitchen, and inquired, "Just exactly what have you been playing at?" Then the tramp showed signs of life and sat up. Goody looked at him severely and said: “There is a pump outside where you can wash, and then you had better go away quickly, as we cannot restrain the dog much longer." We stayed together for the rest of the night, and reported the matter to the police in the morning.

Before leaving the subject of Rushden, I should like to emphasize some of the difficulties of district nursing in a place which had suddenly grown from a small village to a fair-sized town. In London or any city one could always get help from the many charitable societies, but in places like Rushden the only available help was from small parochial funds, suitable for a village, hopelessly inadequate for a town. Mrs. Sartoris did what she could, but the town had long since passed out of her possession and was owned by none too prosperous manufacturers. There remained, therefore, only the Guardians of the Poor, who might at that time be described as guardians of the rates, but very much step-guardians of the poor.

I applied to these guardians on behalf of a poor woman, Mrs. S. She and her husband had been hard-working, steady, respectable folk; the husband belonged to two clubs, and had saved quite a fair sum of money. Mr. S. contracted phthisis; they had six children, the eldest a little girl of ten years, the youngest just able to toddle. When I first visited these people I found the man had been ailing for some time, but had kept at work until a violent fit of haemorrhage laid him low and made work in a factory impossible. The cottage was beautifully clean, and the children well dressed and happy. Mrs. S. herself a fine strapping woman of some thirty-four years.

During the next eighteen months I watched a gallant struggle against the dire spectres of misery and want. Gradually the savings were used up, the clubs after the first nine months sank to five shillings a week each, then some of the furniture disappeared. Finally, when the man died, only enough money was left for his funeral. The mother's face had grown drawn and haggard. The children, however, looked well and healthy. Mrs. S. had kept them out of doors as much as possible and away from their father.

He, poor man, willingly submitted to this when I explained to him the danger of the little one catching his complaint.

After the funeral Mrs. S. applied to the Poor Law Guardians, and that evening Goody and I dropped in to see how she had fared. We found her weeping bitterly; the Guardians had offered to take five of her children away and send them to the residential Poor Law schools, leaving her to support the baby. If, however, she refused this splendid offer, they were prepared to allot her one shilling a week for each of her six children, and half a crown for herself, making a grand total of eight shillings and sixpence a week for the family to live on.

"Whatever shall I do?" she sobbed. "I have lost my dear husband, and now they want to take away five of my children. I simply can't bear it!"

I went to see the Guardians at their next meeting, but failed miserably to make any impression, because if they made an exception in their policy it would be creating a precedent, and that, apparently, would be the unforgivable sin. I told them shortly and with admirable restraint, what I thought of Guardians in general, and their interpretation of the Poor Law in particular, and then I beat a somewhat hasty retreat.

I have lived long enough, I am thankful to say, to see Boards of Guardians interpreting the Poor Law in a very different spirit, taking individual cases on their merits without fear of creating precedents.

At the end of two and a half years of Rushden, Goody and I were rather below the weather, and decided to resign and go home for a rest. Mother promptly marched me off to a heart specialist, who sent me to bed for six months, as he seemed to think my heart was very weak. However, at the end of three months of Mother and Girdlers Road, I felt better. We decided to go to Middlesbrough, where a small-pox epidemic was raging, and nurses were urgently required.

After another trip across the world with her Mother, they returned home and mother now decided she wanted to live with Agnes. To this end she rented a large property at Baschurch in 1900, and said she wanted Agnes and Goody to “start a convalescent home for Salop Infirmary”. From this, with many struggles for finance, but with much help from loyal members of staff, and with help from eminent surgeon Robert Jones, grew a specialist orthopaedic hospital. Robert Jones was Knighted and Agnes was made a Dame.

In 2000 the hospital celebrated its centenary by reprinting the autobiography written in 1938 by Agnes Hunt - “This is my life” published by Derwen College.

Dame Agnes Hunt D.B.E.
Dame Agnes Hunt D.B.E.

Dorothy Roberts (nee Franklin, of Rushden) trained at this hospital in the 1960s.

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