Delighted to welcome back Paul Martinovich who previously wrote the fascinating guest post ‘Who was Selina Cordelia St Charles?’ Today Paul’s back, with an equally fascinating post to share, so I’ll hand over to Paul to tell us more about Dr Richard Verity.
Richard Verity first came to my attention when I was researching my 3x great-grandfather, Robert Bellingham. In about 1815, Bellingham set up a partnership with Verity (both were surgeons and apothecaries) at 25 Bolton Street, Piccadilly. Nine years later the partnership was dissolved (by then Bellingham had moved to Bourne in Lincolnshire), though Verity kept the Piccadilly address for a number of years.
But Verity went on to greater things. He had been born at Bristol in 1788, though the family came from Cowbridge in Wales, and before that from Yorkshire. His father, Isaiah Verity, was a successful merchant who accumulated enough wealth to give Richard a medical education, including apprenticeship to a surgeon, William Salmon at Cowbridge, followed by a stint at Guys Hospital.
How the young Verity met Robert Bellingham is not clear, though the two men obviously aspired to a lucrative medical practice, based on their premises in fashionable Mayfair.
Richard Verity’s career soon became focused on attending to (and travelling with) some of the most prominent aristocratic families in Britain, particularly that of William Cavendish, the sixth Duke of Devonshire.
The Duke was the son of Georgiana, the famous Duchess, and inherited the title on the death of his father in 1811.
His sister Harriet, Lady Granville, seems to have been the first member of the family to employ the young surgeon in 1820, at a time when he already had the reputation of being a very competent but expensive physician to the aristocracy. This was to be the beginning of a thirty-year connection between the doctor and the Cavendishes and their kin.
A couple of years later, Harriet recommended Verity to her brother to act as his travelling physician. The ‘Bachelor Duke’ was a frequent traveller, and like many of his class, felt more secure voyaging with a trusted British doctor in his suite, rather than relying on the doubtful ministrations of an unknown foreign medical man.
The Duke set out quite specific duties for his private physician, which suggest he regarded the role as also including elements of personal companion, and tour manager. For £50 a month (such journeys often lasted several months), the Duke required his physician to handle the day-to-day financial aspects of the tour, as well as monitor his patron’s health and deal with any medical emergencies of members of the travelling party, which usually numbered up to a dozen. The doctor was guaranteed to have his own carriage, but could not assume that he would be introduced at the courts the Duke visited, or dine with the Duke, unless the latter was dining at home.
Verity first travelled with the Duke in July of 1822 on a relatively brief trip to Paris.
On his return, the doctor soon established himself as a close and respected member of the Cavendish inner circle, consulted not just by the Duke, but his sisters Lady Granville and Georgiana Lady Carlisle, and their respective spouses. Lord Granville was the British ambassador to France from 1824 to 1841 (with one two-year interruption), and during some of that time Verity held the very desirable post of Physician to the British Embassy in Paris. He seems to have interpreted his role quite broadly, since he often advised the Granville’s on maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle. When he was away, he even left instructions for Lady Granville to prepare doses of drugs for the embassy staff.
In fact the doctor travelled much of the time he was attached to the embassy. Often the journey was to escort the Granville children back and forth across the channel during summer holidays, or the Ambassador and his wife on restorative trips to spas and seaside resorts. He even found time in 1826 to accompany the Duke on a ceremonial trip to Russia, where the latter represented the British government at the coronation of Tsar Nicholas I. During this trip, he is said to have saved the life of the Hon. Robert Dundas, the secretary to the Duke, making a dash from Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod to retrieve the very ill young man.
In 1820 Richard Verity had married Charlotte George, daughter of Sir Rupert George, a senior naval officer. She died in 1823 just a month after giving birth to a daughter, Charlotte Margaret Anne. By 1825 Verity must have been prospering, since he purchased an estate, Dean Lodge, at Kimbolton in Bedfordshire, a fitting seat for a man who mixed comfortably with some of the highest in the land. But some aspects of his personal life may not have been known to his aristocratic employers.
Between 1823 and 1828, he had three children with a woman named Martha Binning, of whom little is known, other than she lived in London and may have been a bonnet maker. Two of the children survived infancy, and Verity may have provided some support for his illegitimate offspring.
Throughout the 1830s and 40s, Verity was a fixture in the lives of the Duke and his relatives, and remained close to the Granvilles even after they left the embassy in 1845. He also gave medical and other advice to the Duchess of Manchester, who lived at Kimbolton Castle, just a few miles from Verity’s home at Dean Lodge.
In 1854, some years after the death of the Duchess, this friendship involved him in a nasty court action. Just before her death she had changed her will to ensure that her Irish estates (which she had brought to the marriage) went to her husband rather than her children. Verity had witnessed the authorization of the new will, even steadying her hand as she signed. However, this document was contested on the grounds that the Duke (with the doctor’s assistance) had illegally pressured the failing Duchess into signing the new document, when she was not of sufficiently sound mind to do so. After a long and very public trial, in which Verity was extensively cross-examined, the jury found for the Duke, and the revised will was validated.
By this time Richard Verity had retired, having handed over the bulk of his aristocratic practice to his nephew, Robert. The latter was a strong proponent of the new medical theory of homeopathy, an approach based on administering miniscule amounts of natural substances to the patient. Richard is also said to have adopted this approach at some point in his career, but if so, none of his patients mentioned it in their published letters.
His last years were spent either in London, at his house in Hastings, or at Dean Lodge in Bedfordshire where he died in 1857.
He was survived by his legitimate daughter Charlotte; his second wife, Susannah Bayntun, the daughter of Admiral Sir Henry William Bayntun, having died nearly 15 years earlier.
What this bare recital of his life does not convey is the man’s unusual personality. He must have had a winning bedside manner, since his patients seemed to trust him unreservedly, even when his prognostications proved wrong. He could be quite severe in his directions—Lady Granville writes that
We have begun a life that even the uncompromising, inflexible Verity smiles upon,
and much later when the family was visiting a spa, he insisted on her drinking the sulphurous water, despite its vile taste.
His mere presence seems to have reassured his patients: Lady Granville said in a letter to her sister:
Granville is very well, but it will be a great comfort to me to have that valuable creature [Verity] to look at us.
After Lord Granville had a mild stroke, the doctor was even persuaded to follow the Granvilles around on their peregrinations in France, taking the same roads in his carriage and staying in the same towns, but not actually travelling with the family group.
So Richard Verity seems to have negotiated his ambiguous status with some skill—family confidant, close to its members, yet still substantially lower in the social hierarchy than his aristocratic employers. And this was despite his strange personal behaviour, as described by the Duke of Devonshire, who said he was
the queerest man I ever saw, sometimes pleasant in society, but so absent and vain in his person & dress, gazing at himself in the glass [mirror] that I sometimes think he is cracked.
Reading between the lines, Verity may not have been an easy person to work with. He was probably demanding of both his colleagues and his patients, ambitious and self-centred. Yet considering the range of his friends and acquaintances, his story is worthy of a biographer.
Many of his papers are now housed at the Glamorgan Archives, awaiting the attention of some curious historian interested in the intersection of social and medical history in 19th-century Britain.
Betty Askwith, Piety and Wit: A Biography of Harriet Countess Granville 1785-1862, Collins, London, 1982
James Lees-Milne, ‘The Bachelor Duke’ A Life of William Spencer Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire 1790-1858: John Murray, London, 1991
Hon. F. Leveson-Gower (ed): The Letters of Harriet Countess Granville 1810-1845, 2 vols, Longmans Green, London, 1894
Samuel Wale RA, 1721–1786, British, Guys Hospital, undated. Yale Center for British Art