Dr Charles Trotter (1803 – 1877)

Dr Charles Trotter (1803 – 1877)

Dr. Trotter was a doctor in Stockton who was instrumental in improving the living conditions of people in the town during the latter half of the 19th century.

He stands out as one of three medical men who at different periods in the 19th and early 20th centuries achieved great strides in improving the health and living conditions of the people of Stockton.  They are Watson Alcock 1770-1855, Charles Trotter 1803-1877, and George M’Gonigle 1889-1939.

Charles Trotter was born at Haughton Hall, Haughton-le-Skerne, Darlington in 1803, the fifth son of John Trotter, a barrister and influential man in County Durham.  He followed two of his brothers into the medical profession.  After an apprenticeship to a surgeon in Durham City he qualified as a doctor and surgeon in London and became a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1827.  Shortly after qualifying he came to Stockton and joined the practice of Dr. Watson Alcock, an eminent surgeon in the town with a large practice.  Dr. Alcock lived in the High Street on the corner of Ramsgate.  His surgery was in part of the house that extended into Ramsgate.  Soon after his marriage in 1830 Dr. Trotter moved to Ramsgate, adjacent to Dr. Alcock.  He married Lucy Hutchinson, from a prominent Stockton family but the marriage was short as Lucy died aged just 20 in 1831.  Some years later he married Mary Hutchinson, a relative of Lucy’s and daughter of a prominent local iron merchant.  They had a large family.  In 1834 Charles Trotter moved to a house on the east side of the High Street, before moving in 1847 to 93 High Street.

Trotter's house93 High Street was on the west side, on the corner of Little Brown Street (an alley running between the High Street and West Row.  It still exists but is now blocked off from West Row by a more recent building).  It was a large three-storey house with imposing steps leading up to the front door.  It was built in 1793.  The surgery was held at the back of the house and entered from Little Brown Street.  Here Charles Trotter established a busy practice as well as being involved in civic affairs, following Dr. Alcock who was very prominent in local affairs.  In addition to his practice work, Dr. Alcock worked tirelessly at the local dispensary which was situated in the almshouses on the High Street.  The dispensary had opened in 1790 to provide treatment for the poor of Stockton, who could not afford doctors’ fees.  This was long before the National Health Service provided free care.  Local doctors and apothecaries gave their services free, on a rota basis.  It was an important civic amenity, supported by wealthy Stocktonians.  It treated patients with a variety of ailments and diseases, including cholera, smallpox, syphilis and whooping cough.  Doctors not only treated patients in the dispensary but they also visited patients at home and would see for themselves the living conditions of the poor.  Dr. Alcock offered free inoculations for smallpox.  He was Mayor in 1807 and became a magistrate.  Dr Trotter followed in his colleague’s footsteps, appearing on the dispensary rota until almost to the end of his life.  He was also very active in public affairs.  He was Mayor several times, and crucially was Mayor at a time when the sanitary conditions of the town were so deficient that urgent action was required.

When Dr. Trotter came to Stockton shortly after qualifying in 1827 Stockton was still a market town of about 4,000 – 5,000 people; 30 years later it was nearly 14,000, and when he died in 1877 it had reached almost 30,000.  The industrial revolution changed Stockton into a growing centre of heavy industry, due to the proximity of coal and iron ore, the advent of the railways and its position as a port.  Men and their families flocked to Stockton for work.  Stockton had degenerated into an overcrowded industrial centre.  People were living in dirty conditions and sickness was rife.  The infrastructure of the town – housing, sanitation, sewerage, drains and clean water had not kept up with the necessary provision for healthy living.  Men and their families were living in the cramped alleys and yards that filled both sides of the High Street, in squalid overcrowded accommodation, with minimal sanitation, and no water.  Water was obtained from three pumps in the High Street, or if one lived close to the river, from the polluted waters of the Tees.  Drains were inadequate.  Sickness was rife.  Charles Trotter observed this deterioration in the health of the population from seeing patients in the dispensary and had direct knowledge of their living conditions when he paid home visits.

During his time as a practising medic and member of the local council there were three cholera epidemics in Stockton, in 1832, 1849, and 1853.  The first, in 1832 was part of a national outbreak.  Richmond, in “Local Records of Stockton and Neighbourhood” reports that on 17 August 1832 “The Cholera Morbus broke out with great violence at Stockton.  There were, during the months of August and September, 126 deaths from cholera” [from a total of 604 cases].  At that time the population was about 7,800.  We know it is caused by infected water and spread through touching contaminated bedding or clothing, but at the time its cause was not known, and attributed to ‘miasma’.  It was only in 1855 that its cause was found to be infected water when John Snow realised that only users of a particular pump in Broad Street, London were getting the disease.  Here in Stockton the Parish Churchyard could not cope with the number of cholera deaths and a new burial ground was opened on ground in an area later occupied by Holy Trinity Church (built 1835).

In 1848 there was a second national epidemic which claimed 52,000 lives.  The Government was increasingly concerned about conditions in the cities and towns resulting in disease which affected the rich as well as the poor and passed the Public Health Act 1848 which empowered Local Authorities to establish their own Boards of Health “to manage sewers, drains, wells, and water supplies, gas works, sewerage systems, regulate offensive trades, remove nuisances, control cellar dwellings and houses unfit for human habitation, and to provide burial grounds, recreational areas, parks and public baths”.  Local Authorities only had to adopt it if their annual death rate exceeded 23 per 1,000 population.  Stockton’s was 22.54, so it didn’t, no doubt being aware of the increase in rates that would inevitably ensue.  Stockton had a voluntary Sanitary Committee on which several local doctors sat, including Charles Trotter.  These men had local knowledge of the town and the dire effects of living conditions on the health of its inhabitants through their work with the Dispensary.  The Sanitary Committee pushed for a clean-up of the town.  This resulted in a report by Mr. Reed, a local engineer, on the inadequate drainage and sewerage in the town.

When the Town Council rejected adoption of the Public Health Act, two petitions were sent to the Government, one from the Town and one from the Borough (Stockton at the time was divided into two local authorities).  This resulted in a government inspector, William Ranger, being sent in November 1859 to investigate conditions in Stockton.  It was also in November 1859 that Charles Trotter became Mayor for the third time.  He aided Ranger in his investigations.  Ranger also had access to the Dispensary records and statistics which showed not only what illnesses were treated but also in what streets the sufferers lived.

Ranger’s report was published in 1850.  His report was damning, giving examples of the filthy conditions in which the working class had to live.  Overcrowding was rife, houses were without drainage, effluent emptied into the street.  He described conditions in Black Bull Yard as “The general drainage of this yard is in very bad order, there is a pig-sty behind a lodging-house which is very offensive, and must be highly injurious to the people in the house, the back door and window being close to it; the neighbours also complain much of it.  There are also some slaughter-houses which are very offensive.” He described Housewife Lane as “Lane itself clean; houses very crowded, dirty and ill-ventilated; in one lodging-house there were about fourteen, (men, women and children) and no bed; most of the houses very offensive, especially back yards.  No diarrhoea.”  He drew attention to the necessity for better drainage, an adequate supply of pure water and improved ventilation of streets and dwellings.  He recommended that the Public Health Act was rejected by 36 votes to 24, although other measures were accepted.  Dr. Trotter must have been very disappointed.

It wasn’t until 1852, when the Town and Borough administrations were amalgamated, and Charles Trotter was Mayor, and he was in a position to achieve what he had long worked for, that the Borough Council got control over matters relating to public health and steps were taken to implement Ranger’s recommendations.  The Public Health Committee met to approve building plans and deal with all matters relating to drainage and sewerage.  Pressure was put on owners to provide privies and proper drains.  The Council undertook a programme of improving street drainage.  This was not without hazard, Richmond records that on 17 July 1855 “An explosion of Gas took place in Finkle Street, Stockton, owing to the damage done to the pipes by the drainage works.”  Eventually Stockton obtained a clean water supply.

Charles Trotter died in 1877, after a fine record of public service dedicated to the people of Stockton, he died at Bishopsgarth, the house which he designed himself and which still stands on the outskirts of Stockton.  His funeral procession was a quarter of a mile in length, shops closed for the day, and the town flags flew at half-mast.

Stockton has been fortunate in that three medical men of the town were instrumental in improving health and living conditions of the poor of Stockton: Watson Alcock 1770-1855 for his work with the Dispensary; Charles Trotter 1803-1877 in ensuring a cleaner and healthier Stockton by implementing the Ranger recommendations; and George M’Gonigle 1889-1939 Stockton’s Medical Officer of Health for being the first doctor to make the connection between poor health, poverty and nutrition.


Rowlands, J. Annals of a Teesside Practice, 1793-1969, 1972.
Radcliffe, E. Dr. Charles Trotter. Stockton History Journal. No. 3 Autumn 2002
Radcliffe, E Dr. Trotter and the struggle for Public Health in Stockton.  Stockton History Journal No. 3, Autumn 2002.
Marlow, J. L. Housing of the working class in Stockton-on-Tees 1820-1850.  1986.
Richmond, T.  The local records of Stockton and neighbourhood.  1868.
Ranger, W.  Report to the General Board of Health on a preliminary enquiry into the sewerage, drainage and supply of water, and the sanitary condition of the inhabitants of the town and borough of Stockton-on-Tees in the County of Durham.  1850.

Image Source: Picture Stockton Archive


Stories from the High Street participant: Jean Machell.

The ‘Stories…’ project is part of the Council’s wider “Grants for Heritage Buildings’ programme, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Council, to help promote awareness and understanding of the town’s heritage.

Visit www.stockton.gov.uk/grantsforheritagebuildings for further information on the project.