The photograph is plainly of a mid Victorian gentleman: dark suit and waistcoat, high turnover collar, dark circle of cravat, and yet not over-tidy, rustic almost; a shortish man with a short neck, chunky rather than burly; leaning forward as if in conversation, fair hair flying as if he drags his fingers through it when he is concentrating; a man I imagine with an Oxfordshire accent, more at ease with being called ‘John’ than ‘Doctor’.
John Hitchman was born in Chipping Norton and trained as a surgeon’s assistant in Banbury. He arrived in Leamington in 1827 or 1828, eventually setting up practice in Clemens Street before moving to High Street and finally The Parade, between Regent Street and Warwick Street. At the Warneford Hospital, where he was on the staff for the rest of his life, he would almost certainly have known the hospital’s chief benefactor, the Reverend Samuel Warneford. One of his colleagues was Dr Jephson. For 20 years he lived at 35 Lansdowne Place, now Upper Parade.
By 1840 Dr Hitchman was well enough established to help with The Relief Fund to provide work for the poor, and again three years later with the Labourers’ Relief Fund, responsible for the first major improvements to the Jephson Gardens laying out paths, digging the lake and raising the riverbank. In 1848 he promoted what became the Leamington College for Boys. From 1852 until his death he served on the Local Board of Health, – in effect the Town Council, before the town became a Borough. For many years, unsuccessfully, he pressed for an improved improved water supply and sewage system.
Perhaps his most significant achievement began in 1851 when he bought eleven acres on the edge of the town between Tachbrook Road and Saint Helen’s Road and laid out The Arboretum, enriching it with thousands of flowers, shrubs and exotic trees and opening it free to the public and with plants for sale. Before long he had extended it to 40 acres and then perhaps in emulation of Reverend Warneford, he decided to build that what may reasonably be described as a hospital in a park.
The Arboretum Hydropathic Hospital opened in 1862, but sadly, only five years later John Hitchman died suddenly at the age of 62. On the day of his funeral procession from the Arboretum to the Cemetery, blinds were drawn over front windows and the pavements were lined with people. All the good and the great of the district attended. The eminent solicitor and JP Algernon Sidney Field was a pallbearer. His wife later moved back to to her Staffordshire birthplace and lived on until 1890. She is commemorated at St John’s Church, for which she gave the land and a large sum of money.
Under Trustees, the hospital survived until 1883 when hydropathy had fallen out of fashion. It was first bought by the Midland Counties Home for Incurables, (the nineteenth century equivalent of a hospice), taken over by the National Health Service in 1948, closing finally in 1995 when most of the land was sold for housing.
However, on Saint Helens Road not far from Tachbrook Road, upwards of an acre of woodland remains, including half a dozen cedars and half a dozen redwoods. As a boy I used to wonder how ‘all those big trees got there’, and now every day hundreds of people pass them by without knowing or caring who planted them. When I see the wasteland round Warwick Hospital and University Hospital, I remember the poor souls whose wretched lives were made more bearable by Dr Hitchman’s green thought. It seems to me that his example might have been worth following.
In the words of his obituaries the in the Leamington Courier, Dr Hitchman ” erred sometimes as we all do in matters of judgement …….. but whenever any good, private or public, could be forwarded, he was there to forward it.” As a result, soon after his death a committee chaired by Dr Jephson was formed to create a public memorial. Two years later John Cundall’s fountain at the front of Jephson Gardens was unveiled in commemoration of a man whose Christian faith expressed itself in useful work, who devoted untold hours of service to the town and responded generously to poverty; a man whose anxiety about the water supply in the sewage system was widely believed to have ‘hastened his end’, and whose reputation for plain speaking never interfered with friendship.