Dig Where You Stand ‘The Threepenny Doctor’: Doctor Jelley of Hackney

by thenewenglishlandscape

In 1973 I was involved in an oral history project in Hackney organised under the title, ‘A People’s Autobiography of Hackney’. We put notices in the local newspaper and sent leaflets to tenants’ associations in the borough, asking if older residents wanted to share their memories of growing up and living in Hackney in the decades at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. There was a good response and a number of recordings were made, a lot of the material eventually finding publication in one form or another. One figure stood out in many people’s recollections, and that was Dr Jelley, otherwise known as ‘the Threepenny Doctor’, who rode the streets of Clapton and Homerton on a horse before and after the First World War, dispensing medical advice and medicine to the poorest in the district.  He was remembered with admiration and affection by most, and some scepticism by a few.

These reminiscences were in a small pamphlet under the title, The Threepenny Doctor, and it attracted a lot of local interest, as Jelley had by now gained almost mythological status. Ten years later this material was worked up into a play created by The Inner City Theatre Company, touring Senior Citizens’ Clubs in Hackney in 1983, with freshly composed music and lyrics. A touring musical was highly appropriate, given that Jelley himself was the subject of a popular music hall song, ‘Doctor Shelley’, written by Edgar Bateman and Huntley Trevor, and sung by one of the great names of music hall: Harry Champion. In recent years there has been a renewal of interest in this pioneering if controversial figure, Dr Jelley, with a learned essay by Dr Andrea Tanner in the Journal of Medical Biography, and some new material on his early life, published at the beginning of this year on the website: https://edwinbutlerdiaries.com/the-history-of-mr-jelley/

Henry Percy Jelley was born in 1866 in Totnes, Devon and was a medical student in Edinburgh during the 1880s. In 1911 he opened a surgery at 172/174 High Street, Homerton, Hackney from which he built up a large clientele of patients unable to afford the fees of other doctors. He claimed at one point to be treating 18,000 patients a year, riding from one slum street to the next, sometimes with jeers and taunts from children playing out, to which he did not take kindly, often appearing in front of the magistrates for abusive behaviour. On one occasion, fined seven shillings and sixpence for offensive behaviour, he paid the fine in farthings. A difficult man who had the best of intentions in treating the poor, his prickly behaviour often undermined his reputation outside the borough, particularly in the medical and legal professions.

In the year he arrived in Hackney he was married for the second time, to Florrie Glenham, at St Barnabas Church, which was filled with crowds of women and children cheering wildly and scattering confetti everywhere. Irascible to a fault, he nevertheless won hearts and minds by frequent acts of unexpected generosity and kindness. People recalled that on some occasions he visited homes where patients lay sick, bringing his own coal and firewood, and would get down on his hands and knees to light and tend the fire himself. On other occasions he brought food to homes where starvation threatened. Unsurprisingly, as Dr Tanner records ,‘’His behaviour attracted the attention of Parliament, where it was interpreted as the result of severe over-strain and under-payment under the new (National Insurance) Act.’ However, Dr Jelley could not be legislated out of existence. The Times came to the support of Jelley on the 8th February 1913, writing that he was a man who could not be stopped by legislation, and that ‘All the people who used to go to him in troops had gone to him again. They had faith in him.’

Having opened a surgery in Homerton High Street he then went on to take over the former Berry’s Boot Polish factory close by, turning it into a lying-in hospital for women about to give birth. He charged one shilling and sixpence for a week’s stay, a lot less than the standard two-shillings and sixpence other doctors charged for single visit. However, the authorities had suspicions that he performed abortions there. After the police had watched the comings and goings for more than a year, and following the inquest of a woman who had died there, he was charged in June 1916 with ‘wilful murder’ and retained in custody. At his trial three women, other than the deceased, gave evidence that he had performed abortions at his ‘hospital’, and he was sentenced to three years in Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight by an all-male jury.

Henry Jelley was struck off the Medical Register. On release from prison, it was clear he had been missed.  According to one interviewee, ‘When he came out of prison, his heart was still with the people of Homerton although he knew his ruin had been caused there. The people were very upset, there was a great gloom over Homerton.’ Unable to earn a living as a doctor, he opened a shop in Bridge Street, Homerton, from which he sold meat, and clothes tailored by himself (a skill he had learned at Parkhurst). In the window of the shop he posted a notice: ‘As I’ve been struck off the register I am no longer able to write death certificates – but why worry, my patients never die.’ Another interviewee recalled: ‘He had several people working for him there, doing machining, making suits and clothes, and I had a nice ‘made to measure’ by him…I also remember him looking after his Christmas puddings boiling away on a coal stove up in the corner of the surgery, watching his puddings at the same time as he was seeing his patients.’ A number of the people we interviewed related stories of miraculous recoveries resulting from Dr Jelley’s treatments to the extent that he became something of a mythological figure. ‘I wish he was alive today,’ one woman told us, ‘I’d go to him.’

He had one more notable operation up his sleeve in his later days in Hackney. He bought an old charabanc and organised trips to the seaside for the older women of Hackney. ‘Now this brake was a tragedy to look at,’ according to one resident who remembered Jelley clearly. ‘It had two sides and it was a shambles…The coach had to be weighed and this weight had to be kept strictly in line.’  This was done at the weighbridge in the ‘dust destructor’ (council rubbish depot) in Millfields. ‘The sight of the coach coming down the road at about ten miles an hour to pull into the dust destructor and go on the weighbridge with the cream of Homerton in it – it was a sight that will live with me forever.’

Without these abiding, detailed, and no doubt at times embellished memories of everyday life, social history would be much poorer – and less true to the felt experience of poverty and injustice.  The Hackney project was inspired by the early days of the ‘History Workshop’ movement based at Ruskin College in Oxford. If my memory serves me correctly, it was at roughly this time that the phrase ‘Dig where you stand’ came into parlance. I remember Anna Davin and Raphael Samuel using it frequently, alongside ‘history from below’, as the two key maxims of the new movement. It had been imported from the work of Swedish political activist Sven Lindqvist in the 1970s, and who published a book under that name in 1978, referred to in the blog preceding this.

Sven Lindqvist’s seminal work on the re-making of social history as a collective, self-conscious exercise, is the subject of a public discussion at the London Review Bookshop on 22 March, 2023. The event marks the publication – finally – of an English translation of Gräv där du står (Dig where you stand) by Repeater Books. In conversation at the event will be Vron Ware, author of Return of a Native and the book’s editors, Astrid von Rosen and Andrew Flinn, with myself in the chair. There is much to talk about!

Time: Wednesday, 22 March, 2023​​​ (7pm – 8.30pm)

Venue: London Review Bookshop, 14 Bury Place, London WC1A 2JL

Information & booking: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/sven-lindqvist-dig-where-you-stand-tickets-524722227307?_eboga=1061121380.1665336484