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John Swan 1812 - 1891

One of the earlier garden tenants was local veterinary surgeon John Swan (sometimes spelt Swann). John had a well-established plot by 1877, which he retained until the year before his death in 1891. A keen horticulturalist and exhibitor, he is typical of the professionals and more affluent tradesmen we find renting walled Waterfurlong Gardens from Lord Exeter as places of respite outside the overcrowded and disease-ridden town.

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John Swan's Wharf Road premises

John is born in 1812, the only child of a middle-class family living on the Edgware Road in London. His father (also John) is a clerk with the Bank of England and his mother, Mary (née Acome), is the daughter of a prosperous Buckinghamshire tailor.


John trains in the new profession of veterinary surgery at The London Veterinary College and we find him establishing his business in Stamford in 1838. The town is at the height of its prosperity as a

staging post on the Great North Road, with vets in heavy demand to treat the many horses passing through.John sets up his first practice in Broad Street, before relocating home and surgery to 15 Wharf Road, where he is joined a few years later by his retired parents.

There is an existing family connection with both the profession and the area through John's maternal uncle by marriage, the colourful Lieutenant Robert James. Robert James had left the army after contracting 'plague' in Malta and set up as a vet and stud owner behind the Coach and Horses pub in Stamford's High Street St Martin's. In 1819 competitor T H Water announced in the Stamford Mercury that Robert James had failed his final veterinary exams and was practising unqualified. Robert went bankrupt and was forced to leave Stamford and remove first to Yarwell, then to Woodcroft, near Helpston.


By the time John arrives in Stamford his uncle is doing well again, manufacturing and selling his proprietary 'Lieutenant James' Horse Blister' ointment. 

London Veterinary College

The London Veterinary College was founded in 1791 by members of the Odiham Agricultural Society - 'gentleman farmers' such as Thomas Burgess, who perceived the need for improved education in the treatment of sick animals and a more scientific approach to animal husbandry. It was situated in Camden Town on land leased from Lord Camden, where it remains to this day. The College was the first veterinary school in the English-speaking world and received its royal charter in 1875.

From later records, we know John was proud of his MRCVSL qualification, which would have been gained after two years' intensive academic study (costing about £80), followed by apprenticeship. There were many self-styled 'veterinary surgeons' at the time and the unregulated profession did

not share the status or income of its medical counterpart until the 

following century. There had been no legal bar to John's unqualified uncle Robert setting up in practice - disgrace came from the fact he had misled his customers (and indeed continued misleading purchasers of his horse blister) about his status.


The fact Robert and Maria named their eldest son Robert Swan James suggests that the two branches of the family were close. Robert Swan James was also to become a (qualified) vet, practising in Chipping Norton.

Dr Abigail Woods and Stephen Matthews make the point that most vets - qualified and unqualified - were essentially treated as tradesmen. 'They rubbed shoulders with local grooms, horse-dealers and smiths, and entered clients' homes via the servants' door. Unlike dentists and doctors, vets were not exempt from jury service on the grounds of their national importance, and there was some dispute over whether, like doctors, they were eligible for a reduction on their horse tax. When appearing as expert witnesses in court cases, vets were paid less than surgeons.'(1)

For more information on 19th century vets, see Abigail Woods and Stephen Matthews' interesting article from which this quote is taken.

Mary dies in 1854 and John senior in 1859 and they are buried in Stamford's St Michael's Church. Like his uncle before him, John junior is an avid racing fan and a couple of years later we find him negotiating the sale of his race-horse, The Spy.

In July 1861 we come across the first record of John's horticultural success when he wins two first prizes at the Stamford and Neighbourhood Floral and Horticultural Society show - one for six cut pinks, the other for twelve poppies. The following summer his cut dahlias are singled out for commendation.

After his parents' death John engages a young live-in housekeeper called Elizabeth Polson. Elizabeth was born in Stamford in 1828 and trained as a dressmaker; she probably met John through her father, William, who was a local currier and saddle-maker. By 1871 the census shows John and Elizabeth as man and wife, but there is no record of a marriage and after John's eventual death we find Elizabeth in the probate register as 'Polson, spinster', although in the town she continues to be known as Mrs Swan. Perhaps John is not free to marry?

illustration of pinks
18th century French illustration of pinks


The 1841 census (which contains limited information) shows a Mary Swan living with John

in Broad Street but their relationship is unclear and, at fifteen years his senior, she could possibly be a cousin or an aunt. The 1851 census, which records John staying as an overnight visitor of Edward Marriott, a groom living at 100 High Street, St Martins, gives John's status as 'married'. Whatever the circumstances, John and Elizabeth do not go on to have children. 



'A youth of respectable appearance named 

William Simpson residing in Water Street and employed at the terra cotta works, was charged by Mr John Swan, veterinary surgeon, Wharf Road, with throwing a stone in Wharf Road, to the annoyance of the prosecutor on 28th ult, contrary to the bye-laws of the borough. Mr Swan said his only object was to suppress, if possible, the dangerous practice of throwing stones, his sitting room windows and the cucumber and melon frames in his garden having been repeatedly broken, but without his ever having been able to detect the delinquents.


On the day in question, however, about 9 o’clock in the morning, he was standing near the frames in his garden between the road and the river, when he saw the defendant in passing along the road pick up a stone and throw it across over the corner of his garden into the river; it was most decidedly to his (the prosecutor’s) annoyance. Unfortunately for the defendant he was the first offender he had caught; he did not wish to press the charge harshly, but it was really necessary that an example should be made.


The defendant acknowledged having thrown the stone, but denied that he did so with any intention to annoy or injure the prosecutor. He explained that as he was walking down the road to the terra cotta works he chanced to kick a stone, which he then picked up and threw out of his way into the river near to Mr Swan’s residence. The Bench, after full consideration of the case, were disposed to deal as leniently as possible with the defendant, and merely inflicted a fine of 6d and 18s.6d costs.' Stamford Mercury 11 July 1862(2)

Shattered Cucumber Frames and the Stamford Terracotta Company


John is one of the more litigious gardeners and we have records of three court cases brought by him - two involving his Waterfurlong plot, the other his Wharf Road property.


You can the melon and cucumber frames by John's property on the left of this painting. Nearby are some of Blashfield's terracotta kilns. In the distance is the old Albert Bridge and the East Station.

In 1874 John summons shoemaker William Poulson for trespassing on his Waterfurlong garden. This seems to have been Elizabeth's younger brother, who had been living in the Swan household only three years previously. In 1877 John pushes for the prosecution of two schoolboys by the name of Jaggs, whom he claims have stolen strawberries from his plot. 

John Marriott Blashfield set up The Stamford Terracotta Company in Wharf Road in 1858. The firm employed 59 men and boys and was initially very successful. The clay came mainly from brickyards in Wakerley and Uffington and goods were transported by river. Unfortunately, Blashfield's overambitious determination to expand into the USA led to the firm's collapse in 1874.

John's litigious streak is shared by his extended family. Uncle Robert James has left the secret recipe for his now-famous but unpatented horse blister to John's cousin, Robert Swan James. Robert Swan James shares the recipe in turn with his son, Robert Joseph James, who divulges it to a friend and sets up a rival manufactury. Numerous aunts, uncles and cousins with a vested interest in the ointment become involved in the 1871 case of James-v-James. 


'I have NOT retired'

Back in Stamford, the late 1870s are trying years for the Swan household. In 1877 John has a narrow escape when he is thrown from a carriage whilst being driven by the ostler at the Stamford Hotel to treat a horse at Normanton Hall. On 31 January 1879 he feels compelled to place the following advertisement in the Mercury: 

'John Swan, Veterinary Surgeon, MRCVSL, returns his sincere thanks to the inhabitants of Stamford and Neighbourhood for the support he has received for the past 41 years he has practised, and informs his friends that he has NOT RETIRED from the Veterinary Profession, as has been so ingeniously reported by some members of the profession, nor is it his intention to do so.'(2)

This is almost certainly a reflection of Stamford vets jostling for trade during the downturn to the coaching trade caused by expansion of the railways.

Even in prosperous times the profession's lack of regulation led to fierce competition between local vets, with few practitioners having the wherewithal to set up in partnership. Income was frequently supplemented by horse dealing, 

stabling, shoeing and sale of home-made remedies, much to the dismay of the veterinary colleges. During economic slumps business could become very cut-throat indeed, with farmers and horse-breeders reducing costs by using unqualified individuals to tend to injuries and deal with difficult deliveries.

The Most Destructive Flood That Ever Visited Stamford

Eighteen months later on St Swithin's Day we find John and Elizabeth caught up in 'the most destructive flood that ever visited Stamford'(2), in which the pedestrian bridge over the Welland was swept away (the current Albert Bridge was built the following year to replace it). The Mercury reports:

'One good lady anxiously watching for her spouse had well-nigh fainted at the sight of a half-submerged tub which had no legitimate business there, and which was mistaken for a drowned husband! Meanwhile the interior of the lower apartments and out-buildings of Mr John Swan, veterinary surgeon, Wharf Road, looked like the inside of a bad sailing man-o’-war in a gale – nearly everything that was there was in its wrong place, and a good many things which ought to have been there were not there at all: the window of the surgery had passed into the Welland, followed by saddles and bridles and brushes; and some of the water and mud from the Welland had entered into close relationship with the costly drugs, a valuable stock of which had only been received a few days before. Mr Swan’s pony had a narrow escape; the poor animal, which nobody could get to, saved itself by putting its fore feet on the iron rick of the stall, and thus managed to keep its head above water… Mr Swan’s loss estimated to be £150.'Stamford Mercury 15 July 1880(2)

By February 1890 John's health seems to be failing, as he advertises to sub-let his Waterfurlong garden, describing it as 'well-stocked with choice fruit'(2). John dies on 15 May the following year in an influenza epidemic and the Mercury reports 'Another well-known figure has been removed in the person of Mr John Swan, veterinary surgeon. He was 80 years of age, and until the last few months was remarkable for his physical and mental energy.'(2)


John leaves his meagre estate of £73 to Elizabeth. Perhaps ill-health and losses incurred in the flood have eaten into his financial reserves or perhaps, like many vets of the era, his interest in horse-racing has led to debts. Left in reduced circumstances, Elizabeth moves into widows' quarters in St Peter's Callis Almshouses in All Saints, where she dies fourteen years later in 1905.  

The new Albert Bridge © Sean Morgan

St Peter's Callis Almshouses. The term 'callis', meaning hospital or almshouse, is probably a local corruption of the word Calais, stemming from the time when the wool staple at Calais was the source of many Stamford wool merchants’ wealth.

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St Peter's Callis circa 1860


(1) “Little, if at all, Removed from the Illiterate Farrier or Cow-leech”: The English Veterinary Surgeon, c.1860–1885, and the Campaign for Veterinary Reform by Abigail Woods and Stephen Matthews. © Abigail Woods and Estate of Stephen Matthews 2010.

(2) The British Newspaper Archive © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. All Rights Reserved.

With grateful thanks to Frank Newbon's History of Stamford Facebook page for several of the images.


Copyright © Karen Meadows 2019

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