IT IS 200 years this year since a dispensary was launched in Hexham to provide free treatment for the poorest people of the district.

But while that service was light years ahead of its time, it wasn’t the only beacon of medical achievement to put the town on the map.

In 1816, George III was on the throne, the poets Coleridge, Keats and Byron were at their peak, unlike the new-born Charlotte Bronte, and trend-setting dandy Beau Brummell was fleeing England ahead of his gambling debts.

Meanwhile, in the far north, a group of doctors and civic worthies, becoming increasingly worried about the growing threat of an epidemic – whether of smallpox, cholera or typhus – decided to act.

Local historian Judy Lloyd Duncan said: “The census of 1821 shows that it is likely the population of Hexham had doubled between the 1730s and the 1820s, from about 2,000 to 4,100.

“That was true of many towns across the country and with that expansion came poor sanitation and living conditions – and Hexham was particularly bad.

“People who were anybody in society were expected to support their local community and do good works, but disease was becoming a real issue, so I’m sure some of this was to get people treated as best they could to stop epidemics in their tracks.”

The Hexham Dispensary was duly launched, as the renowned contemporary chronicler A.B. Wright recorded, in a rented house on Hallbank Head, in the vicinity of what is now the Old Gaol.

It was open for two hours each morning and manned by local doctors on a rota.

Hexham was notable for the number of doctors living within its bounds.

“The Jeffersons and Stokoes were two examples,” said Judy. “They were families of doctors running down the generations who were big players in the dispensary and the town in general.”

The dispensary was funded by well-heeled patrons who, in return for a minimum donation of 10s 6d a year, were anointed governors with a say in how it was managed.

An ailing person would first have to approach a governor to request help and then take a letter of referral from him along to the dispensary.

Each ‘ten and six’ would pay for the treatment of one person, so the seriously wealthy usually put in a lot more than that.

It is thought the Hexham Dispensary ran throughout the 19th century and possibly into the early 20th century, and that from its earliest days, the effort paid dividends.

Three years after it opened, A.B. Wright noted how much healthier Hexham’s townsfolk seemed in contrast to Newcastle, where typhus raged.