Asklepios or Nemesis?

Pope header picture

In the ancient churchyard of St Mary the Virgin, Cleobury Mortimer stands a single memorial: all the others were removed in 1959.  A monument to a ‘venerable man’, as he was styled in his obituary, or testament to a monstrous ego?

When Thomas Pope died in 1874, then probably the oldest surgeon in England at the age of 93, he had been in practice since 1800 until a few years before his death.  Said to be known for his simple manner of living, eminent abilities and great experience, he was apparently in great demand by celebrated colleagues.   He was claimed to be a relative of Alexander Pope, and himself was described as having the ‘most wonderful powers of versification’.  He was a regular writer to medical journals, advocating the use of mercury and ergot of rye.  He was also a frequent and determined writer of complaints about his fellow citizens, bringing about the downfall of not a few.  Newspaper articles and correspondence throw light on this ‘venerable man’ and the rural society of Cleobury Mortimer in which he lived.  But the revered Asklepios painted in his obituary may not just have been the cause of some inward groaning in the offices of the Poor Law Commission and Board, but a Nemesis to be feared by his social milieu.

Thomas Pope had practised medicine in Cleobury Mortimer for some 70+ years.  During my research into the poor of the Cleobury Mortimer Union, his name appeared over and over in the correspondence files of the Poor Law Commission and Board and those of the Guardians.  There is no doubt that he was passionate about his trade, and many have had cause to thank him.  However, there was a darker side to his character, without any obvious reasons.

He determinedly brought about the resignation or dismissal of several other surgeons practising in the town – as well as swiping at others such as the master of the workhouse, a local churchwarden, a dispenser and some unwitting locals.

The letters from both sides, inquest papers and newspaper articles paint a very detailed picture of professional life in Cleobury Mortimer and the social milieu in which Pope lived.

He was the subject of a paper given at History and Cultures workshop at the University of Birmingham in June and a forthcoming lecture hosted by the Cleobury Mortimer and District History Society.

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