A Belfast Memorial to the Forgotten Dr Thomas Thompson
The Thompson Monument
I am sure many of us have passed the red granite monument in Belfast, at the junction of Ormeau Avenue and Bedford Street, without giving it a second thought. Yet this memorial is in honour of a very worthy doctor who dedicated himself to helping the sick and ailing of the city under very dangerous circumstances – Dr Thomas Thompson.
Dr Thompson began his career in the navy. He served during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), which would have been a harsh introduction to medicine and surgery on a crowded ship in wartime.
His voyages took him around the world, visiting the Mediterranean, South America and the West Indies.
Through his travels he became interested in the causes and effects of tropical illnesses. In particular the methods of preventing and containing the spread of diseases.
His Return to Belfast & the Workman Family
Home in Belfast, Thompson set up general practice in Donegall Street.
He was the family doctor of the Workman family. The Workman’s were wealthy business men who hailed from Ayrshire in Scotland. Robert Workman settled at 32 York Street and later at Queen’s Elms. One of the family’s sons, young Robert had a ‘delicate chest’. Dr Thompson prescribed a ‘warm plaster’ which covered the chest but also itched terribly. Another treatment was a Spanish Blister
“I have attended school, with a Spanish Blister on my chest and when it had come to a height, a blister, as big as a bap, appeared, which was cut with scissors, and then dressed with linen dipped in butter-milk to soothe the inflammation”Margaret A K Garner, Robert Workman of Newtownbreda, 1944
The boys, Robert and William Workman, also recalled being vastly entertained by the doctor’s stories of his naval career and the many adventures he had had both at sea and on the foreign shores of Brazil, Buenos Aires and Mexico.
The residents of Belfast, like other industrial cities of the time, were often affected by widespread epidemics. While this impacted on all classes, the poor especially suffered terribly.
In 1831 Belfast’s population had increased to 53,000 with many of these folk living in damp, cramped conditions with little or no sanitary provision. In such situations disease was rampant. In 1850 the average age of death in Belfast was 9 years.
“Adjoining many of its (Belfast’s) main thoroughfares was a network of confined backstreets, entries, courtyards and alleyways, where scenes of deprivation, overcrowding, and poor sanitation could readily be found. Such conditions saw illnesses like fever, dysentery, tuberculosis and many others regularly break out in epidemic proportions”Nigel Farrell (University of Ulster), Cholera in Nineteenth-Century Belfast
Cholera In Belfast
In February 1832 Asiatic Cholera (cholera morbus), having crossed Europe first appeared in Belfast. Three further waves of the illness hit Ireland in 1848-49, 1854 and 1866.
This was at a time when the country had already suffered the devastating effects of the Great Famine. Once contracted cholera can kill within hours. At the time there was no cure or proven effective treatment.
The first reported case of cholera was that of Bernard Murtagh, a cooper. His symptoms were diagnosed on 28th February 1832. He had been staying in a lodging house in Quay Lane, along with others who had recently arrived from Scotland, where cholera was widespread. Mr Murtagh died 19 hours later.
Within days several more cases appeared in the narrow lanes and alleyways near the River Lagan. At least 4 deaths occurred shortly after in Johnny’s Entry, off Talbot Street near St Anne’s Church. These included a Mr George McKeown and his son who was only in his 20’s.
“His (George McKeown) wife and son, living in the same room as him… were seized on Sunday morning and were sent to the new Cholera Hospital, at 10 o’clock. The son, a stout young man of 27 years of age, however, sunk rapidly, and died about 3 o’clock, pm. Before his death, he assumed the blue colour, which marks the most exquisite form of the disease”Belfast Newsletter 20th March 1832
Like others in the medical profession, Dr Thompson sought the means to both cure and control the infection. In 1832 he wrote a booklet entitled ‘Practical Remarks on the Epidemic Cholera which at present prevails in Belfast and its vicinity’. In this he details his own ideas and methods and his success rate.
“The most hopeless of all my cases, was that of Maria O’Neill, of Shankill Road, whose recovery is to the present hour considered almost a miracle by her friends, and all those who witnessed it”Thomas Thompson, Cholera 1832
However, treatment for this highly infectious disease varied. Theories included bloodletting, the ingestion of mercury, laudanum, arrowroot, dilute sulphuric acid and whiskey enemas. Indeed, quite a vitriolic series of letters appeared in the Northern Whig newspaper between Thomas Thompson and Henry McCormac, head of the Fever Hospital, regarding proposed ‘cures’ and their effectiveness.
£700 was raised to construct extra accommodation for the sick to the rear of the Frederick Street Fever Hospital.
The importance of isolating those showing early symptoms or who had been in direct contact with cholera sufferers, was beginning to gain credence. Potentially infectious people were housed in a ‘lazaretto’ in Lancaster Street. (A lazaretto is a building/ institution dedicated to housing contagious patients).
The Belfast Health Board acted quickly, working with hospital staff and the sanitary authorities. From February to November 1832, there were 2,831 cholera cases but only 418 deaths, a mortality rate of 15%. In the whole island there were 20,000 deaths from cholera in 1832.
However, the outbreak in 1848 was much more virulent. Belfast cases reached 3,538 resulting in 1,163 deaths (mortality rate of 33%).
Again, the poorer districts of Smithfield, College and Cromac were the most affected. The areas around the Blackstaff River and the Pound Burn were particularly vulnerable to disease, especially water-borne viruses such as cholera. These rivers were basically open sewers, filled with rubbish, animal carcasses, human excrement and the toxic waste from the mills. The cholera epidemic in 1854 saw the mortality rate rise to 36% in the city.
Treating the Cholera Victims
The hospital was full to overflowing. 60% of cholera patients were attended to in their own homes. Doctors and medical staff worked at immense risk. Many of the ill refused to go to hospital. The death rate of hospital patients was much higher than those attended in their own homes.
Also, people were afraid that their bodies may be dissected for training purposes without the consent of their families. One of these was Dr Thompsons patient, William Murdoch, a porter in a wine business in Donegall Street.
“His wife would not permit him to be taken to the Hospital, as he had given her positive instructions to let him die in his own house”Thomas Thompson, Cholera 1832
Thankfully Mr Murdoch survived.
Managing Plague Victims
The authorities ordered that all victims be buried within 24 hours and wakes were forbidden. Many of the poor were buried in ‘plaguey pits’ with no markers and little ceremony. Belfast, although it suffered less than most Irish cities, was left desolate with most folk remaining indoors to avoid infection.
“…melancholy state of the streets, deserted by the inhabitants, most of the few who remained being in mourning, hearses passing continually by day and the noise of the wheels of the cholera carts rattling at a gallop…in the night time”Dr William Howison (a visitor to Belfast from Edinburgh), 1832
During this time doctors like Thompson were working tirelessly to try to save patients. Dr Andrew Malcolm (see related post below) was particularly insistent on the importance of improved hygiene. He persuaded the municipal authorities to establish a Belfast Sanitary Committee.
Advice, posters and reports were distributed promoting safer practices in the home and in the workplace. Sewers were constructed in some areas. Lanes and alleyways were cleared of refuse, houses whitewashed, infected bedding and clothing were burned, houses fumigated and fresh straw provided for beds for the poor. The benefits of ventilation were advocated. When cholera returned in 1866 it was much less severe.
“Ultimately the fight against cholera was to lead to a sanitary revolution in the towns and cities throughout Britain and Ireland, following a greater understanding of cause, prevention and treatment and the realisation that society as a whole would always be vulnerable to illness unless the poorest were free from disease”Gillian Allmond, History Ireland Vol 28 No 4, 2020
Thomas Thompson – Personal Life
Little is recorded about Thompson’s personal life. We know that he was married and had a family of nine children. The family lived in Wellington Park.
The eldest, James a barrister, was killed in a railway accident at Dover on 2nd June 1862, aged 34. He had been on his way to Malta to see his dying brother William. Thomas’s wife Anne (nee McCalla) died in November of the same year at the age of 61. His daughters Emily  had passed away in 1858 and Annie  in 1859 of consumption [tuberculosis]. Another four children died in infancy. Indeed, all but one child, his daughter Eliza, predeceased him.
Dr Thompson died in Harrogate, England on 27th May 1867. His body was returned to Belfast and buried with his family in the New Burying Ground at Clifton Street (see Related Posts below).
The Thompson Memorial
The memorial fountain that was erected in Thompson’s honour was the brainchild of his surviving daughter Eliza Thompson. She wanted a practical reminder for the citizens of her father’s work. She paid for the construction and donated the fountain to the people of Belfast.
The Gothic style monument was designed by the architectural firm of Young and Mackenzie. The construction contract was put out to tender and was won by Robert Corry of Donegall Pass. The work cost £280 and Corry was given a 2-month deadline to complete the project.
Design of the Monument
The Thompson Memorial stands on a grey Castlewellan granite plinth. The fountain basins were composed of red Aberdeen granite and were flanked with cast-iron lamp standards with copper lanterns. The lights were commissioned from Messrs W T Coates & Son of Fountain Street. Above were what is called ‘flying buttresses’ (stone arches).
The construction was topped with a panelled octagonal pillar with a spire, on top of which was a gilt weathercock. Just below the spire were 8 male and female carved medieval-style heads. However, one of these heads deserves special attention as it seems a tad out of place – displaying fancy whiskers and a monocle!
The plumbing and bronze work was completed by Mr John Dowling.
One of the bas-relief carvings (now gone) depicts Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well. This was based on the oil painting by the Italian artist Annibale Carracci completed in the 1590’s.
Around the structure are the words ‘Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again, but whoso drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst again’
The design of the Thompson Memorial was based on the 13th century Eleanor Crosses in England. These highly decorative stone monuments were erected by Edward I in memory of his wife, Eleanor of Castile, who had died on 28th November 1290. The 12 crosses were constructed by local masons in 1291-1295 and placed in the 12 towns where the funeral cortege had stopped overnight on its journey from Harby in Nottinghamshire to Westminster Abbey near London. While not quite so lavish or ornate the Thompson memorial does bear a resemblance to these English monuments.
Opening of the Thompson Memorial
The Thompson Memorial Fountain was officially opened on 15th April 1885 by the Mayor of Belfast, Edward Harland. While a short speech was given by Rev George Shaw.
“Yesterday afternoon the beautiful memorial fountain at the junction of Ormeau Ave and Bedford Street, erected to the memory of the late Dr Thomas Thompson RN of Wellington Park, an eminent physician of long standing in Belfast, was unveiled by the Mayor (Mr E J Harland JP), in the presence of a large number of spectators“Belfast Morning News, 16th April 1885
Also present at the opening ceremony were local dignitaries including – Rev Dr Bellis, Mr S Black JP, Mr Robert Curry and Mr James Shaw. Surprisingly Miss Thompson herself, was not present as she was in Europe at the time.
On the grand unveiling there was great applause and cheering. Mr Harland then tried the water.
“…and the Mayor, turning on the tap of the fountain, said he would do himself the honour of taking the first drink of water (cheers)”Northern Whig, 16th April 1885
The Thomas Thompson Memorial Fountain Today
The fountain, described as “one of Belfast’s High Victorian curiosities” by Paul Harron in his book Young and Mackenzie (2016), celebrates the life and selflessness of one of Belfast’s forgotten heroes.
Perhaps now, as we are swept along this busy junction, caught up in the flow of hurrying pedestrians or streams of traffic, we can spare a thought for Dr Thompson, his colleagues and the harrowing times in which they lived.
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