Victorian doctor’s Australian journey that ended tragically

SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: Memorials placed in Croydon Minster are often just the beginnings of DAVID MORGAN’s historical research

Croydon servant: Henry Whitling worked as a doctor in the town for 25 years

Visitors to Croydon Minster often comment on the number of brass memorials on the walls. Some ask whether the people remembered on them are buried in the church.

“This person can’t be buried here because it says he died at sea,” one eagle-eyed youngster observed on a recent school visit.

The memorial to Henry Townsend Whitling was erected by people who “valued his friendship and in token of the high esteem in which they held him and of their sorrow for his loss”.

The brass is dated Christmas 1889. Whitling had died on March 30 that year.

Whitling had been a well known and respected professional in Croydon. He was a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and his medical practice was located at 53 High Street.

In the 1866 directory, he was one of 29 surgeons named in Croydon. Carpenter, Whitling and Lancaster were the three doctors who shared the High Street practice, with Whitling also giving that address as his private residence.

Whitling arrived in Croydon in 1860 after working as a house surgeon in a York hospital and in the children’s hospital at Great Ormond Street.

He qualified as a surgeon in 1855, with the pass list revealing that he came from Bavaria. His father, John Whitling, wrote early travel books about Heidelberg and Nuremberg and had studied in Germany.

Well-remembered: the plaque for Henry Whitling placed ‘by many who valued his friendship in token of the high esteem in which they held him’

In his personal life, Whitling married Emma Mary Penfold in Reigate Parish Church on April 28 1864. Whitling’s cousin, Rev H J Storrs, officiated at the ceremony. A newspaper report about the wedding added that Emma’s late father was a member of the Honorable East India Company and came from Magill, South Australia, now a suburb of Adelaide.

The couple’s first child, Alice, was christened at Reigate in April 1865. The Whitlings went on to have eight children, though their eldest son died in infancy.

Whitling joined the Croydon practice headed by Dr Westall. Alfred Carpenter had been a partner there since 1852 and had been the surgeon for the East India Military Academy at Addiscombe as well as being the surgeon for the Archbishops of Canterbury.

Carpenter went on to give sterling service to the town of Croydon. He was at the forefront of the arguments to create better sewage facilities. He had predicted the 1865 Croydon typhoid outbreak, saying that the lack of investment in proper water supply and sewage would result in disease spreading through the local population. Largely funded by his own pocket, the Croydon Baths were part of his legacy.

1866 register: the entry for the doctors’ practice in the town centre

The eminent Victorian surgeon James Paget recommended a replacement to join the practice when Dr Westall retired, so in 1862 Henry Thomas Lancaster became the third partner in the Croydon practice. Whitling continued to work in Croydon for 25 years until January 1885.

It was four years later that Whitling, together with his wife, set off for Australia. This change was decided upon due to concerns about his health. Diagnosed with heart disease, it was hoped that the warmer Australian climate would be better for him. Using Emma’s family connections in Australia, the two set off for retirement on the SS Orient.

This ship, built in 1879 in Govan on the River Clyde by J Elder and Sons, was at that time the second biggest vessel in the world. Only Brunel’s SS Great Eastern was larger.

The ship was commissioned by the Orient Steam Navigation Company, with the Australian run in mind. It was designed to get the mail to and from Australia as quickly as possible. On its first voyage, the Orient set a London-to-Adelaide record of 37 days 22 hours.

On its second voyage, it set a record from Plymouth to Capetown of 17 days and 21 hours.

Top ticket: using steam and sail, the SS Orient set speed records sailing to Australia and South Africa

In 1884, the ship was fitted out with electric light making it a great attraction for its passengers.

When Whitling and his wife boarded the ship on Thursday February 28, 1885, they must have been full of differing emotions.

The SS Orient, skippered by J K Ridler, left London to sail to Plymouth, where more passengers embarked. Travelling via Gibraltar, Naples, Port Said and Suez, they reached Aden on March 20. Crossing the Arabian Ocean, they arrived at Colombo, the capital of what was then called Ceylon, on March 27. From there they sailed southeast across the Indian Ocean towards Australia.

One passenger on the Orient kept a diary about their voyage, recording the marvellous engineering they observed on board. “I saw the condensing engines that drew the salt water from the sea, turned it into fresh water and supplied the boiler; the engines that made the electric light; and the wonderful steam refrigerator. This was the greatest novelty to me. Never before had I seen snow and ice made by steam before.”

But it was on this last leg of the journey that tragedy struck.

Whitling’s heart, weakened by the disease diagnosed back in Croydon, could not cope with the tropical heat and he died aboard ship on March 30.

The SS Orient arrived in Albany on the southern tip of Western Australia on April 7 before reaching its destination of Semaphore, Adelaide, on April 10. It is not known whether Whitling was buried at sea or in Adelaide after the ship docked. His widow decided not to stay in Australia and returned to live in this country. She died in January 1896 in Bognor Regis.

Dr Whitling’s friends and colleagues were shocked by the news of his sudden death. On May 25, 1889, The British Medical Journal wrote: “He was very dearly loved by his wife, seven children, relations and a very large circle of friends. He was deservedly respected and esteemed by everyone who knew him.”

Family and friends arranged for the memorial brass to be erected and there it stands to this day, to the doctor who served Croydon so well for 25 years.

Previously by David Morgan:

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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1 Response to Victorian doctor’s Australian journey that ended tragically

  1. Grace Onions says:

    Wonderful history – thank you for taking the time to uncover it all.

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