It all started with the National Insurance Act of 1911. For the first time people paid
into a scheme which gave them some protection against sickness and unemployment. It was the beginning of the Welfare State. Among doctors a
sequence of events was set in train. In Wisbech, an unassuming town in the Cambridgeshire Fens, it would end with tragedy and riot. Before 1911 there were private GPs who gravitated towards wealthier areas. The 1911 Act provided insurance cover for about 12 million workers earning less than £160 a year and included the free services of a GP. The individual became a ‘panel patient’. The difficulty lay in finding a private doctor prepared to work at panel wage rates.
In Wisbech this was a problem because no doctor would do it. A new doctor, Dr
Horace Dimock, was drafted in to help clear the case-load. Though the poor of
Wisbech took him very much to their hearts, his arrival created hostility among the
other doctors. Dimock was a local man from the village of Stretham, but the local
private doctors, fearing a cut in their incomes, turned their backs on the Government’s health reforms.In October 1913, Dr Dimock’s already difficult relationship with other doctors became impossible. These other doctors were receiving malicious postcards and anonymous letters supporting the wonderful work of Dr Dimock and criticising them. One of the doctors receiving the hate mail, Dr Meacock, informed the police and Dr Dimock was arrested. He was taken before local magistrates and was remanded on bail. Dr Dimock appealed to the Medical Defence Society but discovered they were already acting for the other doctors. Dr Dimock returned tired and distressed to his home village, Stretham. The next morning he was found dead. He had taken an overdose.
On 30 October 1913, the news broke in Wisbech of the death of Dr Dimock. A crowd gathered and rushed to Dr Meacock’s town house by the river and stoned the windows. The local police called for reinforcements but the situation got out of control. Eventually the Mayor of Wisbech read the Riot Act and the police went in with their truncheons.
This is how the riot unfolded, according to one newspaper.
“There was tremendous excitement and grief when the news reached Wisbech. On Thursday evening, October 30th – two days after Dr. Dimock’s death – four or five thousand people attended a meeting in the Market Place. The meeting was orderly enough, although the speaker declared that Dr. Dimock had been “persecuted from the day he came to Wisbech”. Tributes were paid to his services “especially to the poor”, and the crowd, standing with heads bare and bowed, passed a resolution of sympathy with his relatives and then sang “O God our help in ages past”. But, said a reporter “apparently an undercurrent was at work”.
“Hundreds of people went & stood in front of Dr. Meacock’s house on the North Brink. There were cheers for Dr. Dimock and loud boos for Dr. Meacock. Then stones were thrown, and several windows were smashed before the rush from the police broke the crowd up. But they crossed the bridge over the river and reassembled again in front of Dr. Gunson’s house in the Crescent where, booing and hooting, they smashed all the windows. The police charged again and drove them away – only for them to return to Dr. Meacock’s house.”
Before we continue with the saga of the Riots, it should be mentioned that the new welfare measures were a national issue not confined to the Fens. The Riots were widely reported in newspapers up and down the land, and the matter of doctors’ panels in the town had been raised in Parliament earlier in 1913. This is the report from Hansard, and if at least one of the names seems familiar, he was Captain William Benn, MP for Tower Hamlets and Junior Lord of The Treasury. He went on to serve with distinction in The Great War and was, of course, the father of the late Tony Benn.
So, the people’s favourite, Dr Horace Dimock (right), was dead by his own hand, as a result of persecution form his fellow medical men in Wisbech. Was it as simple as that? Had the other doctors received hate mail? Did Horace Dimock have ‘previous’? Here is another side of the story, widely reported in the press, up and down the land. Was Dimock a victim of a concerted plot organised by the establishment, or was he a foolish man with a hatred for anyone who dared to disagree with him?
“As soon as he (Dr. Dimock) came to Wisbech, anonymous postcards of all degrees of scurrility and obscenity were sent the secretary of the hospital, to the doctors, and to various lay members the community. These postcards in (hand) printed characters, not script, were found to resemble most closely those used some nine years before in a number of scurrilous documents that were sent to a medical student at St. Thomas’s Hospital (London)who was living in the same lodgings also occupied by Dimock. A writing expert considers that the St. Thomas’s Hospital documents and the Wisbech documents were, undoubtedly written in the same hand, and anyone who examines the two sets of documents must agree with this. These documents were sent in such a fashion that the wives of the Wisbech doctors saw them. The police, then taking the matter in hand, saw Dr. Dimock post documents at certain pillar-boxes, which were kept under careful observation until the officials of the Post Office could open them. In both cases postcards or similar documents were found near the top, addressed to Wisbech doctors, in the suspected writing, and of a libellous nature.”
But then on the other hand, one of Dr. Dimock’s admirers spoke up in his defence.
“Who are the authors of the anonymous and libellous letters and postcards written to the late Dr. Dimock, which he received from the first day he began to work in the town ? Why have colleagues called him “blackleg”, boycotted and ignored him? Who repeatedly pulled down and defaced his brass plate, and were they acting for others? Who threw the gate to his back garden off its hinges, and who smashed his windows? Who repeatedly called him the telephone at night to attend to distant cases which not exist? and What evidence have the police regarding the secret persecutors of the doctor, which, it is hoped, may lead to an arrest?”
Not to be outdone, Dr Meacock was not slow to reply in the press.
Sadly for our modern tastes, the salacious postcards allegedly sent by Dr. Dimock were not revealed in their full glory in Meacock’s letter, as newspaper readers of the time were expected to use their imagination much more than we are today. It was also evident, according the outraged Meacock, that Dimock was something of an amateur artist. Dr Meacock finished his letter regretting that Horace Dimock had died – if only because that sad fact had prevented justice from being done, and seen to done.
Meanwhile, the public disturbances had continued, not without a few moments of unintentional humour.
“Since an early hour this evening a mob has been parading the streets and demonstrating alternately before the residences of Dr. Meacock and Dr. Gunson. At nine o’clock a double police cordon was drawn across the bridge which gives access to the street front of Dr. Meacock’s house, and the crowd, which must have numbered about 1,500 strong, concentrated upon Dr. Gunson’s in the Crescent .The Police who barred the way were subjected to a fusillade of squibs and detonators, the explosion of which, though harmless, sounded remarkably like revolver shots. An arrest in Bridge-street before ten created some disturbance, and three or four stones were thrown at Dr. Gunson’s windows, one or which was broken. About ten o’clock night there was a recrudescence of the rioting in the neighbourhood of the Market-square. A crowd numbering several hundred invaded Market-street, and in a few moments had broken every window in the surgery.”
“Further rioting took place on Saturday night. The streets were crowded with people, but there was no trouble until nearly ten o’clock. Then the people formed into mobs, and powerful explosives were discharged. Several of these exploded perilously near the faces of some of the police on duty. One bomb was so strong that it smashed the window in a jeweller’s shop. That was the only damage to property during the evening, the crowd seeming to be more anxious to attack the police than damage the property of residents. This was probably due to the fact that the police had been too vigorous in their handling of the crowd on the previous evenings. From ten o’clock until two this morning there were continuous conflicts between the police and civilians in various parts of the town, and the mob was really more riotous than it had been on any previous occasion. The rioters attempted to rush the cordon of police guarding the approach to Dr. Meacock’s house, but the constables used their batons, and the crowd was repulsed, several men and women being knocked down and others receiving hard blows from the batons. A number of police were struck in return.”
The worst disturbance took place about 11.30 in the market-place. About 2000 people were assembled, and a rowdy element commenced throwing explosives and empty bottles at the officers. Three or four of the bottles struck policemen, inflicting nasty cuts their faces. Then the police drew their batons and charged into the crowd. They hit hard, and several of them were struck heavily in return. One aged man was hit on the head with such force that he sustained a bad wound, and was treated by doctor. The man alleges that he was standing at the top of the passage where he lives and was struck without any provocation whatever. Another man received a blow in the mouth and some of his teeth were knocked out. Order was restored in the market-place about one o’clock, but when the police attempted to clear the streets there was a renewal of the disorder. Blows were freely struck, and there were instances of of stand-up fights between civilians, while police constables on duty in the outskirts of the town were attacked at several points by villagers returning home. It was not until two o’clock this morning that order was restored.
One former Constable clearly was a gamekeeper turned poacher.
“There was a sequel to the recent disturbances yesterday at a local police court, when Ernest Langford, an ex-policeman, pleaded guilty of having assaulted the police, and was fined 20s. Constable Wallace said that on Saturday night the police had just cleared the demonstrators from the Bridge, when Langford rushed across and hit the witness on the head with a stick. The blow knocked off his helmet plate and also the chain. The defendant ran away, but fell down, and was stopped by another constable. He was rescued, however, by the crowd and got away. The Defendant expressed regret, and stated that he had been a police officer, and was discharged from the force with a good character.”