James Parkinson, Physician of Hoxton
James Parkinson delivers an alehouse sermon (Image courtesy of Wellcome Library)
Eighteenth century maps show Hoxton – like Tottenham Court – as a small village surrounded by fields. To the south, only a few houses stood between it and Moor Fields, while open fields lay north and west, and to the east beyond Shoreditch, all the way to Bethnal Green.
James Parkinson, the man who would describe the disease which was posthumously given his name, was born in this hamlet in 1755. He grew up in Hoxton and, like his father before him, worked there as a Surgeon and Apothecary. Subsequently, Parkinson was followed in the same calling by his son and grandson.
He practised as a General Practitioner from his family home on the south-west corner of Hoxton Sq, which survived until the early twentieth century. Its successor on the same corner bears a plaque commemorating the Square’s most famous inhabitant. Occupied by a busy restaurant today, 1 Hoxton Sq, the site of his surgery and the house where he and his wife Mary had their six children, is no longer recognisable.
Parkinson lived all his life in Hoxton but he was far from parochial. He trained at the London Hospital and became an early member of the Medical Society of London, then housed near Fleet St – an important forum which spanned disciplinary boundaries, with members drawn from the fields of surgery, physic and pharmacy. He was also an early member of the Humane Society, devoted to the resuscitation of people injured in accidents and drownings, and a founder member of the Geological Society.
In those days, a good doctor might be called far and wide. Parkinson’s professional catchment area had a wide radius, focused on Hoxton but perhaps extending as far west as Charterhouse, as far south as the City’s edge, and as far east as Whitechapel and the scattered farms and market gardens of Hackney and Mile End. His home patch probably included most of the neighbourhood of Shoreditch and Spitalfields, including the neighbourhood that would later become famous from Arthur Morrison’s novel as ‘The Jago’ – the great slum which once existed around New and Old Nichol Streets, now buried underneath the Boundary Estate.
Doctors see and learn a great deal about their patients’ predicaments as well as their illnesses. Like many in his profession, before and since, Parkinson was exercised by the politics of the day which favoured the rich and left the poor to suffer. Politically, he was a reformer and a member of the London Corresponding Society, an organisation which pressed for social improvement at a time when criticism of the government was a dangerous endeavour.
The British government was jittery for a generation after the French Revolution and their informers infiltrated every political meeting. Parkinson got caught up in the ‘Pop-Gun Plot’, a non-existent conspiracy to kill the King dreamed up by a spy to implicate a number of London Corresponding Society members. For a time, several of them were under threat of execution if convicted, but Parkinson gave evidence to the Privy Council and it became clear, during the legal process, that the spy had fabricated the story.
The inhabitants of streets like Shoreditch High St, Pitfield St, Elder St and Fournier St would have seen Parkinson’s familiar figure passing to and fro, visiting the sick in their homes. Historically, the area was clustered with City almshouses and madhouses, some of which Parkinson served. But of those people whose disease he described, and which bears his name, we know little other than they lived in the vicinity of his surgery at 1 Hoxton Sq.
Parkinson saw enormous changes in his lifetime. Before he died in 1824, he witnessed the disappearance of the fields surrounding Hoxton and the retreat of the open country northwards. Very little now survives of the Hoxton he knew. In present-day Old St, which has encroached upon the ancient road bearing the lovely name of St Agnes le Clare, it is difficult to visualise the rural nature of the area as it was then. But vestiges of his time do survive. One house still standing on the opposite side of Hoxton Sq was among those built when the square was laid out in the sixteen-eighties and the old parish pump still stands in St Leonard’s churchyard, while the eighteenth century girls’ school rebuilt in 1802 still boasts its presence on the facade of a building at the junction of Kingsland Rd and Old St.
Among the monuments in the lovely church of St Leonard’s Shoreditch, many commemorating those who were likely patients of Parkinson, is a modern stone commemorating his life. It was erected by nursing staff at the former St Leonard’s Hospital on the Kingsland Rd, which originated as the Shoreditch Workhouse where Parkinson once served as Parish Surgeon, Apothecary and Midwife. His tombstone in the churchyard has disappeared and the site of his grave is unknown, yet Parkinson was a Church Warden at St Leonard’s and he knew its stones well.
Hoxton of 1747 from John Roque’s Map
1 Hoxton Sq, today
1 Hoxton Sq, c. 1900 (courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London)
Parkinson’s memorial stone
St Leonard’s Shoreditch
Title page of James Parkinson’s ’Villager’s Friend & Physician’ 1804 (courtesy of the Wellcome Library)
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