Public Health and Primary Care in Brixham since 1890


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This book provides a thorough examination of the personalities and practise of local GPs, who contributed extensively to their community and served Brixham beyond the call of duty. Some achieved distinction beyond medicine; however, all were witness to the darker side of human nature, attending cases that involved poisoning, suicide and child neglect. Two generations of doctors also served their country in wartime. Dramatic lives are set against a background of historic changes to healthcare provision, the inception of the NHS and challenges in treatment from Victorian days to the 21st Century.


The years before the Great War…

The somewhat rigorous responsibilities of the local GPs extended to being on call to the local Police Station at Bolton Cross, should there have been any medical need to attend either the officers employed there, or the prisoners held in the cells. On one occasion, having received information about the whereabouts of Ernest Bubeer, an Army deserter who had absconded from Tidworth Barracks near Salisbury Plain, two constables proceeded to a cottage in Overgang and apprehended the miscreant. He attempted to escape from the rear of the property, but one of the vigilant pair was waiting for him. He was taken to the Police Station and locked in a cell where, two hours later, Sgt Bolt found him lying on the floor claiming to have taken poison. A thorough search of the cell ensued, but no bottle of toxic substance was discovered. To make absolutely certain that no poisoning had occurred, Sgt Bolt sent for Dr Tivy, who found no traces. The following day the fugitive was brought before magistrates and charged with being a deserter. He was later escorted back to his regiment.

…and the progressive 1960s

Immediately he took office, the new Medical Officer of Health, Dr Wildman, expressed concerns in relation to the growth of the holiday camps. In his first Annual Report, he was highly critical of the lack of sanitary provision for the 8,000 visitors to Brixham, who stayed in such accommodation. He called for increased provision of public conveniences and was exceptionally graphic in his description of the habits of holidaymakers, who used the town’s more secluded areas as impromptu lavatories. At the start of the 1960s the highest cause of mortality in Brixham was coronary disease and angina with very low incidence of serious infectious disease. Although residents travelling abroad were routinely vaccinated against smallpox and cholera, there was cause for concern when a suspected case of smallpox was reported on board a liner entering Torbay and other visitors were placed under surveillance for the disease. Further persons were reported as typhoid fever contacts with the appropriate action taken by Brixham GPs and in January 1962, five employees of a Brixham firm were offered prophylactic treatment following the supply of meat to racoons at Paignton Zoo, which were subsequently reported to have died of anthrax. Although a notifiable illness, anthrax was treated as an industrial disease at that time and did not have the same association with chemical warfare and biological terrorism, which it acquired fifty years later. No human cases of anthrax occurred in Brixham, despite the fact that it was not the only scare.

During the Swinging Sixties, the Brixham Western Guardian recorded the dire threat to public health caused by the instigation of Beat dances, which were held in the Scala Hall; however, before the district experienced any serious degree of corruption from such entertainment, a Council official single-handedly eradicated their nuisance by ‘double- booking’ the venue. The Annual Report for 1964 recorded further concerns about the habits of ‘beatniks’. Questions were raised, in particular, about the domestic circumstances of three young people who, free from parental control, shared accommodation near the town centre. This staggeringly unusual arrangement apparently constituted a ‘commune’ in the eyes of the Public Health Department.

Dr Wildman then turned his attention to burials at sea, a procedure he considered ‘unhygienic and objectionable’. His main concern was the insufficient weighting of coffins, which made it possible for them to be disturbed by trawlers or washed ashore during inclement weather. Unfortunately, he was unable to make any progress in having the practice banned outright, due to the lack of controlling legislation.


‘Samantha Little has created a valuable volume of facts and anecdotes to entertain us.’
Foreword, 2003
‘Full of drama and discovery…a well-researched book.’
Liz Phillips,
Herald Express, September 2003
‘As a retired medical practitioner brought up in a medical household, the reviewer found this an evocative book…deserves greater prominence.’
Dr Sadru Bhanji,
The Devon Historian, April 2004