JOHN FERRIAR (1761-1815)


Whereas the name of John Dalton is known throughout the world, wherever science is studied, John Ferriar is relatively unknown, even in Manchester. However, he deserves to be better known as I hope to show. At the end of the article I give a brief account of the chaotic state of Manchester's local government in the late 18th and early 19th century to show the environment in which John Ferriar and his colleagues lived.

John Ferriar

John Ferriar was born near Jedburgh, Roxburghshire in 1761, the son of the Rev. Alexander Ferriar, a Presbyterian minister. John Ferriar's grandfather and one of his uncles were also ministers. Alexander died when John was only three and as a result he was brought up by his mother and stepfather, Thomas Ilderton. Thomas studied medicine at Edinburgh University, then the premier university in the British Isles at the forefront of the enlightenment in science, medicine and the humanities. Ferriar obtained his MD in 1781, when only 20, writing a thesis on smallpox. The following year, he married Barbara Gair of Stockton in County Durham and three years later the couple moved to Manchester.

The Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society was formed in 1784. It was founded and supported in particular by the Dissenting Whigs of the town, and in particular the Unitarians of Cross Street Chapel. By the time the third volume of the Memoirs was published in 1790, Ferriar was one of the secretaries of the Society. Some of his early papers and publications in the Memoirs are mentioned briefly on the pages about the Society. By 1793 he was one of five Vice Presidents, along with fellow medical man Charles White but thereafter had no further papers published. Ferriar was interested in literature, writing poems and a play as well as literary criticism but it his medical and public health contributions that are of interest here.

Ferriar became one of the physicians at the Manchester Infirmary in 1789. It had been founded in 1752 and by the 1789 was dominated by two medical families - the Whites and the Halls, who were Anglican Tories. This group, while influential in the town, was in competition with the Dissenting Whig group that included a lot of the new manufacturers, who were becoming wealthy and eager for political influence. Within a few months of joining the infirmary, Ferriar became involved in a dispute. In 1788 some of the more reform minded physicians pressed for expansion of the infirmary but the Halls and Whites were opposed to expansion and tried to exclude reformist medical staff. The expansion was blocked but the reformers succeeded in appointing three new assistant physicians for home visits and two of these had reformist sympathies. The reformers then used a committee that had been set up to examine the finances of the baths to examine additional issues such as the number of medical staff and the care of fever patients. The honorary surgeons and physicians resigned in an attempt to block reform but in a public meeting in September 1790, the reformers won by 217 votes to 142. The support came from a mixture of evangelical Anglicans and Methodists and the backers of the new candidates for the medical positions.

There were outbreaks of typhus fever in Manchester and South Lancashire in 1784 and 1788. The fever was variously known as low fever, ship fever and jail fever. It is now known to be an infectious disease caused by the parasite Rickettsia prowazekii, transmitted by lice and fleas and therefore prone to attack people in poor, insanitary and overcrowded conditions. It is marked by high fever, stupor alternating with delirium, intense headache and dark red rash. In 1788 and 1789 Ferriar made a study of typhus. He associated the spread of the disease with cellar dwellings and cheap lodging houses. In the densely populated areas, infectious diseases spread rapidly, causing consternation to the leading citizens not only because of fear that their families would fall victim but also because of the economic damage inflicted by outbreaks among the workers in some of the spinning mills of south Lancashire. John Ferriar and Thomas Percival conducted the first study on the living conditions of the working classes in the town leading them to make calls for reform. They stated in connection with lodging houses:

...the horror of these houses cannot easily be described; a lodger fresh from the country often lies down in a bed filled with the infection by its last tenant, or from which the corpse from a victim to fever has only been removed a few hours before.

A further epidemic of typhus occurred in 1795 and it raged in the Manchester Poor House. Ferriar pressed his recommendations for public health improvements on the Police Commission. He established the concept of the isolation ward for serious infectious diseases (the "fever ward"), both in the Infirmary and at the Stockport hospitals. He advocated shorter working hours, restrictions on child labour, and the introduction of public baths to improve hygiene. Ferriar and Percival were the leading campaigners for a new Fever Hospital or House of Recovery and at a meeting chaired by a magistrate, Thomas B. Bayley, in December 1795, it was agreed to set up a Board of Health. This was one of the earliest of its type in the country. It was not an official body but was run by the clergy, JPs, medical men, leading manufacturers and gentlemen. In addition to investigating health matters it founded the House of Recovery for 25 patients in four houses in Portland Street. The main approach to treatment was hygiene and ventilation. The Board of Health made recommendations such as lime washing walls, opening windows and avoiding living in cellars. Ferriar produced a list of recommendations on cleanliness to help combat the fever and also a proposal for putting guards on the moving parts of machines because of the increase in injuries seen. Ferriar's advice on this latter point was not put into law for 100 years. A purpose-built 100-bed House of Recovery was built on the infirmary site in 1803.

The founding of the Board of Health and the House of Recovery was important from a political point of view. Ferriar and Percival and like minded reforming physicians had gained wider support among the professional and business classes and they took the opportunity to press their ideas on the social causes of disease.

Ferriar's religious persuasion and his interests in the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, Portico Library and the Board of Health brought him into contact with the new class of manufacturers who saw themselves at odds on many issues with the traditional ruling class of country based gentry. Ferriar would be regarded as a reformer in his time but not a radical. He exploited the fear of the middle classes and tried to make them see that it was in their interest to remedy the social ills of the city. He argued against people spending on private luxuries while ignoring the fight against disease. For him, indulgence of the rich was a sin against the poor. He stated:

The poor are indeed the first sufferers but the mischief does not always rest with them. By secret avenues it reaches the most opulent, and severely revenges their neglect, or insensibility to the wretchedness surrounding them.

I have seen patients in agonies of despair on finding themselves overwhelmed by filth, and abandoned by everyone who could do them any service. The degree of misery, existing in the manufacturing towns, is only to be credited by those who have witnessed it.

However, he also believed that the poor suffered from a sullen indolence that required them to be cared for by the middle classes to save them from their own excesses.

Legislation at national level on public health did not come about until the 1840s. With the start of general registration in July 1837, the government soon had extensive information on births, marriages and deaths and the annual reports of the registrar general made grim reading. They showed a large excess in mortality in the towns over that in the country areas. The first public health act in England was in 1848; it was a permissive act in that it allowed local boards of health to be set up but did not make them compulsory in all cases. They could be set up if the mortality rate was in excess of 23 per 1000 of population per annum for at least 7 years or if at least one tenth of the rate payers made a petition for one. In 1850, the Manchester and Salford Sanitary Association was set up as the successor to the earlier Board of Health and produced reports on visits to domestic properties. These reports were read at public meetings and full transcripts were printed in some newspapers, bringing the conditions of the poorest inhabitants of the city to public notice.

Ferriar developed an interest in mental disorders. This was a topic of some interest at the time partly because of the condition of George III. Treatment at this period still relied on removing "morbid matter" from the body by means of bleeding, purging and blistering. Ferriar and others challenged traditional treatments as ineffective. He experimented with drugs such as opium and asafoetida for hysteria. [1]. He was not averse to the use of blistering and was a proponent of hot baths for mania and cold ones for melancholia. Ferriar's other attempts at drug treatment were not successful including bleeding, the use of camphor, emetics, antimony and digitalis. It is typical of the period that physicians tried everything in their armoury but found nothing of value in so limited a pharmacopoeia. For example, Richard Weekes, a surgeon apothecary in Sussex sent his son to be an apprentice to a surgeon at St. Thomas's hospital in London. He wrote to his son in 1802 about his treatment of hydrocephalus.

I treat these cases in the beginning by bleeding and other evacuants, together with blistering the head and back, after which perhaps the bark (quinine) and mercury is the most depended on, the Digitalis is now much looked up to, but between you and I, I have seen medicines fail so often and nature do so much, that I hold it to be a matter of great niceness to discriminate between the operation of medicine and the natural cure. [2].

Turning from drug treatment, Ferriar looked at what we would now consider a psychiatric approach of examining the workings for the mind rather than those of the body. He believed that mania and melancholia were confusions of thought and false perceptions with the melancholic refusing to accept perceptions that did not fit with preconceptions, while the maniac reasoned correctly but from false premises. Instead of bleeding or harsh restraint and discipline he aimed at instilling self-discipline and regular habits of thinking. Hard drinking was reckoned to be one of the main causes of "insanity" but no doubt there were other causes related to physical disorders including tertiary syphilis.

The Bridgewater Arms on Mosley Street became the Manchester Coffee House in 1789 and was a private society. Its members included Dr. William Henry, Dr. John Ferriar and Dr. Thomas Bardsley, who became founder members of the Portico Library in the same street. John Ferriar was the first chairman, holding the post from 1806 to 1815.

John Ferriar wrote 4 volumes of medical histories. By the time of his death in 1815 the Manchester Infirmary had developed into a modern effective hospital with an unparalleled reputation in the cure of fevers, and the control of epidemics. He is buried in St Mary's Churchyard, and the memorial plaque to his memory was removed when St Mary's was demolished, and is now located in St Ann's Church in Manchester.

John Ferriar may have been largely forgotten but, together with Thomas Percival, was a pioneer of public health, more than 50 years before the first Public Health Act, and for that alone he deserves to be remembered.


[1.]  Asafoetida is an extract of gums and resins from Ferula foetida, Regel, (Umbelliferae). The gum is used as a condiment in India, is a constituent of Worcester Sauce and has been used as a carminative and expectorant. Among its odder uses is as a repellent for dogs, rabbits, cats and deer. It was also claimed to be an anti-hysteric. It contains diallyl and allylpropyl sulphides and other alkyl and alkenyl sulphides giving an odour resembling garlic - hence the name deriving from the word foetid.

[2.]  A Medical Student at St. Thomas's Hospital, 1801-1802, The Weekes Family Letters, by John M. T. Ford, published by The Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, London, 1987.


John Ferriar's The Bibliomania (1809), with an introduction by David Thame and notes by John Walker, a pamphlet produced by the Portico Library and Gallery. This deals mainly with Ferriar's long poem poking fun at rich avid book collectors and some of the underlying political tensions.. The pamphlet includes some biographical details on John Ferriar.

Boomtown Manchester, 1800-1850, The Portico Connection, A History of the Portico Library and Newsroom and the influence of the founding members on the development of Manchester, by Ann Brooks and Bryan Haworth, published by the Portico Library, 57 Mosley Street, Manchester, 1993, ISBN 0-9519168-0-7. Chapter Five looks at the medical men associated with the library.

Portico Library: A History, by Ann Brooks and Bryan Haworth, Carnegie Publishing, 2000, ISBN 1-85936-070-X.

Medicine and Industrial Society, A history of hospital development in Manchester and its Region, 1752-1946, by John V. Pickstone, Manchester University Press, 1985, ISBN 0-7190-1809-9.

Manchester & the Northwest Region of England, A Virtual Encyclopaedia of Greater Manchester in the Third Millennium, on a website now disappeared into the graveyard of the internet.



The Administration of Manchester in the Late 18th Century

Manchester grew rapidly in the second half of the 18th century. It was unusual for a town of its size in not being a corporate town. It was in effect an overgrown market town and Daniel Defoe, in 1735, described Manchester as the largest village in England.   As a result it did not have a mayor and corporation and it did not have any members of parliament. The town still had the administrative systems appropriate to a village. The Lords of the Manor came from the Mosley family of Hulme Hall, and they controlled the market rights. The Lord of the Manor also ran the court leet, which went back to 1301. The court met at Michaelmass and Easter at the court house in the market place. One of its main tasks had been to record changes of leasing through copyhold but by the end of the 18th century the Mosleys were no longer the sole landowners in the manor. By this stage the main functions were regulation of markets, tolls, food, weights and measures and public nuisances. All the officers appointed by the court were unpaid. There was a borough reeve, tax assessors and gatherers, and a constable, all appointed from among the leading citizens to serve as unpaid officials.  The officers of the court had to be burgage plot holders not tenants. There were a few paid employees, whose job was to assist the mise gatherers.

The court usually met under the chairmanship of the Mosley's steward. Mise layers and gatherers assessed and collected rates. There were market lookers, corn weights and measures officials, constables for enforcing bye-laws and for tasting beer. Each street had two scavengers for ensuring that householders cleared their rubbish or for clearing it themselves and reporting the householder to the court, where they may be fined. Other officers were responsible for impounding stray animals and muzzling of mastiffs. The court tried to ensure that farm produce was sold at the market and not bought by intermediaries who could hold onto the stock until the price rose. The records show fines for blocking roads with carts, goods for sale, and refuse; for dangerous buildings, blocking of drains, preparing hides in the street, slaughtering animals in public, keeping bawdy houses, fierce dogs, midden heaps, dangerous cellar entrances, dangerous railings, smoking furnaces, and the inadequate fencing of canals.

In 1788, the Steward of the Leet issued a statement about the increasing difficulty of operating with the growth of population and the reluctance of people to act as voluntary officers. The Court Leet was thought to be a sluggish and inactive body devoted to the useless veneration of ancient customs. It lacked the power to deal with Manchester's administration.

There had been an attempt as early as 1763 to obtain municipal status with a mayor and a 24 member corporation for Manchester. The proposal was to have equal representation for Anglicans, Presbyterians and Low Church. The High Church Anglicans tended to favour the Stewarts while the other two supported the Hanoverians. The former party were able to persuade the Mosleys to use their influence with the House of Lords to block the bill. This situation benefited Manchester in some ways as there were fewer regulations to hinder trade than in corporate towns.

There was an Improvement Act in 1765 with very specific and limited provisions for cleaning and lighting. The commissioners were elected by those with a property worth £30 a year and over. In 1776 a further improvement act was introduced to build Exchange Street. Anyone donating £20 to the fund could become a commissioner. The project involved the purchase and demolition of some property so as to give access to St. Ann's Square. There was also an act for widening Market Street.

In 1790 general apathy towards the court leet changed to open hostility. This was occasioned by attempts of the court to introduce tolls for goods passing through the town. "The committee of 15" was set up to oppose what were known as "through tolls". The French revolution took place in 1789 and for a time there was great antipathy towards change in England. There were disturbances in Manchester in 1792 when a mob attacked a newspaper office of the Manchester Herald in St. Ann's Square for proposing reforms. There was a Constitution Club and a King and Church Club to uphold the status quo. More than 100 Manchester innkeepers signed an agreement to keep "Jacobins" out of their premises. There was a very strong Nonconformist strand to Manchester life at this time. The Literary and Philosophical Society met for its first few years at the Cross Street Chapel and another leading place for Dissenters was the Mosley Street Unitarian Chapel.

In the 1790s there was unrest caused by both food shortages and politics. There were two main parties. The Church and King Club were keen to keep Nonconformists out of local government. Their newspaper was the Mercury.  The Manchester Constitution Club was Whig and Nonconformist and its newspaper was the Manchester Herald. The Church and King Club worked up a riot against the radicals in St. Anne's Square and attacked the Cross Street Chapel and Unitarian Chapel in June 1792. There was an attack against the Manchester Herald Offices in December of the same year at which the constables stood aside.

In 1792 the Manchester and Salford Police Act was passed. At that time the word police had a different meaning and was related to administration. The Police Act gave a framework for administration and a property qualification was set for the election of police commissioners who were equivalent in some ways to the later town councillors. There were 14 wards, each with three commissioners. To be elected a commissioners you had to have property with a rateable value of £30.

The police commissioners established a night watch mainly to guard against fire. The commissioners personally inspected the watch before it set out for its nightly duty.  Improvements were made in 1801 when there was less suspicion of change and the police commissioners were given responsibility for a day watch too. In 1817 a gas works was set up in Manchester to light the town and police office and subsequently it was allowed to sell gas to the public. In 1828 a new Police Act split the authority into two elements and gave the right to levy rates.

The commission also had powers over cleaning, lighting, and street improvements including paving, naming streets and numbering houses. They were able to regulate drainage for storm water and the removal of "night soil". The commission had wider powers than those for specific improvements commissions and included the ability to make bye-laws, and impose fines. The Act had 96 clauses and required the treasurer to publish the accounts.

The growth of Manchester at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries led to very dense population. There were no planning or building regulations and houses frequently had inadequate foundations, were too close together and suffered from dampness. In the early 19th century elementary building regulations were introduced by the watch committee or Police Commissioners.

In addition to the manor courts and the Police Commission there was a further arm of local administration provided by the church. The parish had been responsible for highways and for the poor since 1601. As Manchester was a large parish the work had to be devolved to the townships. The parish set rates as did the police commission and sometimes too the court leet. At one time properties had two rateable values, one from the Poor Law and one from the Police Commission. The parish appointed the various parish officers such as the parish constable, the overseer of the poor and the surveyor of the highways.

Criminal justice was administered by the magistrates who were originally drawn largely from the country landowners and churchmen rather than from the new class of businessmen in the town. They found it difficult to cope as they knew little of town life and industry. In 1810 the Police Act allowed for the appointment of a stipendary magistrate paid seven eighths by Manchester and one eighth by Salford. Thus, in the early 19th century there were five authorities in the town, the Court Leet, Overseers of the Poor, Surveyors of the Highways, the Police Commission and associated improvement committees, and the magistrates or Justices of the Peace. This system was totally inadequate to deal with the urgent needs of the world's first industrial city.

In 1835 the Municipal Corporation Act gave Manchester corporate status but the situation was still a little confused because of varied interpretations of the Act. In 1836/7 there was a campaign for a Borough Charter. Many of the bye-laws in operation dated back to the Court Leet. In 1841 an act clarified the situation in Manchester. The Police Commissioners then gave up their role. The Council obtained further powers by an act of 1844 and in 1845 bought out the rights of the manorial court for £250,000 giving it the right to control the markets. The new body took over many of the roles of the various improvement commissions. Eventually, in 1853, Manchester received city status.


Drawn largely from notes taken at a course of lectures on The History of Manchester, by Chris Makepeace, given at the Wilmslow Guild, Cheshire, in the winter of 1998/99.


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