The Price of a Broken Leg

Medical suppliers to the Old Poor Law are one of the few groups of parish contractors who have been surveyed in any detail.  Historians like Steve King, Sam Williams and others have scrutinised the records of relief, particularly overseers’ accounts and pauper letters, for their insight into the development of the medical profession and the experiences of the sick poor.  Parishes across the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth brokered contracts with local surgeons to treat the poor, typically specifying an annual sum for which all medicines and services would be covered.  Even so, there were some treatments which were notoriously expensive or time-consuming, and contracts allowed these to be billed separately.  Setting broken bones was one of these ‘extras’ and the process proved just as costly in Uttoxeter as elsewhere.

Alsop & Chapman bill

The surgical partnership of Alsop & Chapman, based in the town, billed the overseers for setting and tending Thomas Shaw’s leg between 24 March and 17 August 1831.  The initial ‘reduction’ of the fracture was followed by medicines in the form of mixtures, pills, powders, and boluses. Redressing the leg also required lotions, lint, and ointments which were detailed over the page of the bill illustrated above.  Most grisly of all, when abscesses formed on the leg, they required ‘opening’ and presumably draining.  The whole process cost the parish £14 8s 6d.

Historians have tended to regard parish contracts as ‘bread and butter’ income for medical practitioners, that supplied a steady and reasonably reliable addition to fees from private practice.  In this instance, however, parish work could not prop up the partners in the firm (or not both of them at any rate).  George Alsop was declared bankrupt on 11 November 1831.