Robert Baker (1803-1880)
Surgeon, Campaigner for the Poor and Opressed

Robert BakerOn 28 May 1832 a little boy, the son of an Irish woollen weaver, fell ill and died in Blue Bell Fold, a filthy, overcrowded slum in the Bank area of Leeds. His death marked the arrival in Leeds of the terrifying epidemic of Asiatic cholera which had crossed the Channel six months before, a silent, mysterious killer. A young Leeds surgeon, Robert Baker, was summoned, and took note of the dreadful conditions in the Fold, the poverty of the family, the speed of infection. Over the next months he recorded and mapped the progress of the cholera, which killed over 700 people in the town. No one understood how it spread, but Robert Baker’s meticulous records linked the disease to the appalling living conditions of the labouring poor. His work led to new methods of monitoring public health and ultimately to much-needed improvements in the town.
Robert Baker had come to Leeds in 1824 as a newly-qualified young surgeon, appointed to look after the medical needs of the town’s poor. Born in York, the son of a druggist, he had been apprenticed at 14 to a surgeon in Hull, then trained in London at Guy’s Hospital, qualifying when he was 20. He was shocked and moved by what he found in Leeds, by the wretched lives of the poor and the terrible conditions they lived in, exploited by employers and landlords. Energetic and ambitious, he did not rest silent: he published a criticism of medical services at the Infirmary and pressed for improvements. He had to battle with people’s mistrust of doctors, exacerbated by scandals over the provision of bodies for dissection – he was briefly involved in a case over a ‘resurrectionist’ who had dug up bodies from graves in Armley to sell for medical research.

When the cholera arrived he determined to track its progress, spending hours collecting, recording and analysing its course. When the epidemic passed he presented a report to the Leeds Board of Health in January 1833, with tables of data on the incidence of the disease, the streets affected, the weather, the age and condition of the victims. He was one of the first to collect and use statistical evidence in this way. He described in graphic detail the festering courts and yards where the poor were crowded in, without sewers or drains, unpaved, never cleaned, piled high with accumulated excrement. He pressed for action. A statistical committee was set up to examine the problems but the town authorities dragged their feet.

During the epidemic, Robert Baker caught cholera himself. He was one of the lucky ones who recovered, but he was unnerved and looked for a safer role.  As a doctor he had already seen the damaging, crippling effects on young children of work in the mills, and in 1833 he took on a new job as factory superintendent, focussing on child workers. Under the new Factory Act, only children over 9 could be employed; they must be medically examined and their working hours limited. Where necessary he pursued the mill-owners determinedly through the courts to ensure compliance.

Meanwhile he continued to campaign for improvements in the town, where pollution from smoke and effluents was making life intolerable. He used his position as Town Councillor to push for improved sewerage, fresh water, street paving and lighting, but little was achieved. In 1839 and 1842 he published further trenchant reports on the condition of the town which, backed up by statistics, revealed a shocking picture of the poorer areas – cottages where 452 people shared two overflowing doorless privies; dirty cellar rooms where families lived with their pigs; filthy, dark passageways leading to airless courts, with no fresh water near. His reports were meant to shame and provoke, and finally triggered an Improvement Act for the town. His work attracted national attention. His reports still cut to the heart, 170 years later.

He was fortunate in his personal life. One of his London friends was Arthur Hallam, the tragic young friend of the poet Alfred Tennyson. The story goes that Arthur Hallam introduced Robert Baker to his future wife, Maria Burton, from Holton Hall, Lincolnshire, near the Tennyson family home. They married in 1841 and went to live at Manston Hall, Leeds (near Crossgates). However, in 1858 he was appointed one of the two principal Factory Inspectors for the whole country and moved with his growing family to Leamington Spa, where he died in 1880 after years of devoted service. He was honoured with a CB. Fellow doctors erected a memorial in York Minster to him: ‘A hater of shams and unswerving speaker of the truth’.

Eveleigh Bradford
May 2013