The Leamington Priors mineral springs had been exploited by local physicians from the early eighteenth century but it wasn’t until the start of the nineteenth century that they were promoted on a commercial basis. Drinking health-giving mineral waters and regular bathing in them was a well established custom widely practised and known as ‘taking the waters’. Some of the most active promoters of the newer English Spas were medical men, and that was certainly the case in Leamington.
Henry Jephson was born in Sutton-in-Ashfield in Nottinghamshire on 4 October 1798. His father Richard was a framesmith, a skilled artisan who made and repaired stocking frames. The young Henry served a five-year apprenticeship with a local apothecary and left Sutton in 1818 at the age of twenty to come to Leamington Priors. He secured a position as an assistant to Mr Charles Chambers of Gloucester Street, the town’s first resident surgeon. Chambers was well-connected, with many influential people on his books and held the title of Surgeon Extraordinary to the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV. Jephson was with the practice at Gloucester Street when it moved to more fashionable premises at 11 Union Parade. He was obviously very committed to pursuing a career in medicine and following a year’s study at St George’s Hospital in London, was admitted as a Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries. Having also attended the requisite training course, he was entitled to call himself a surgeon-apothecary and he rejoined Chambers as a partner in the practice in 1824. In the same year he and his future wife Ann Eliza Geldart, the daughter of a Yorkshire Clergyman, were married in All Saints church. He again took some time out at Glasgow University where he qualified as a Doctor of Medicine, before returning to Leamington to take up the reins as a fully qualified local physician.
Henry Jephson settled in one of the large terraced houses in York Terrace (now Upper Parade), and within a short time had a list of patients that represented a cross section of the military, naval and governing classes of the time. He established himself as a national, even international figure and it is said that at any given time there would be twenty of his patients staying at the Regent Hotel.
He regularly entertained a hundred or more people to dances and supper at 7 York Terrace but in 1832 he decided to have a mansion built in Warwick Street. Beech Lawn was a substantial twenty-room house standing in three acres of garden with half-a-dozen resident staff. He lived there for the rest of his life.
His practice at Beech Lawn flourished and was recognised by a presentation from local tradesmen in appreciation of his ability to attract to the town ‘the sick and opulent from all parts of the Kingdom’. His well-heeled patients ensured that the good doctor was amply remunerated and his annual income was described as ‘almost fabulous’. For several years his income exceeded £20,000 and in one year reached £24,000 (between £1.25m and £1.75m in today’s currency.) That said, two hours of each morning were set aside for treating the poor and any fee which he earned on a Sunday was distributed among his poor patients.
During the 1830’s and 40’s Henry Jephson’s rise to professional fame continued unabated and apart from being acknowledged as the doctor par excellence, he devoted much time and energy to philanthropic causes and bodies. He gave donations towards a number of schemes to improve the town’s facilities and did much to support individuals in need. In 1846 he was present at the dinner marking the opening of the Jephson Gardens, named after him, and for which occasion a special medal was struck showing a portrait bust of Jephson on one side and a view of Beech Lawn on the reverse. Speaking at the dinner his brother-in-law Charles Geldart expressed a view that Jephson’s health was being impaired by the relentless demands of his large and busy practice. Neither he nor Henry Jephson could have known that within a few months the doctor would begin to lose his sight and be completely blind within two years. The Leamington Courier newspaper in 1848 carried the news that Henry Jephson had retired from professional duties. He was fifty years of age.
Henry and his wife stayed on at Beech Lawn and were able to live quite comfortably on their invested income and to maintain their household staff. He kept up his philanthropic interests and made contributions to local and national appeals of every sort. He was instrumental in ensuring the future of the Royal Pump Rooms when the habit of taking the waters declined in the 1860’s.
Henry’s wife Eliza died at Beech Lawn on 18 February 1874. The couple had no family: their only son had died in infancy. Henry saw out his remaining years at Warwick Street being cared for by his nieces, daughters of his brother William. He died at the age of 79 on 14 May 1878 and was buried in the churchyard at St James, Old Milverton in the same vault as his wife and her sister Sarah. At his wish the funeral was conducted ‘without any show or useless expense’. Writing his obituary in The Courier, his lifelong friend and fellow physician Dr Thomas Thursfield had this to say about Henry Jephson : ‘In twenty years he had what was probably, and possibly still is, the most extraordinary success ever achieved by any physician’. Henry Jephson was a man ahead of his time: his treatment of many of his patients included drinking [Leamington Spa] water, eating fresh vegetables, and lots of walking.
A blue plaque in memory of Jephson is attached to 118 Parade.
Alan Griffin June 2013