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Robert Wagstaffe Killer (Part 1)

As like a gentleman as is a Mouse to an Elephant’: The annotated 1794 Manchester trade directory of Robert Wagstaffe Killer (Part 1)

Trade directories provide an invaluable primary source for social and family historians.  In a series of three posts, Special Collections Librarian, Julie Ramwell, introduces a unique 18th-century directory with candid annotations by a Manchester surgeon.

Early Manchester trade directories

Trade directories, which list the names, addresses and occupations of ‘merchants, manufacturers and principal inhabitants’, were produced in response to the rapid expansion of provincial towns during the 18th and 19th centuries.  In Manchester, the cookery writer, Elizabeth Raffald (1733-81) compiled the first directory in 1772.  The John Rylands Library holds six out of the seven Manchester directories published up to 1800.  Of particular interest is an interleaved copy of John Scholes’s 1794 directory, with extensive annotations in the hand of local surgeon, Robert Wagstaffe Killer (1763-1841).

Portrait of Robert Wagstaffe Killer. Reproduced courtesy of Chetham’s Library

In this post I will introduce the man himself.  My second post will explore the range of annotations available. Finally, I will share some of the doctor’s detailed comments and observations on ill-health and causes of death in Manchester in the first half of the 19th century.

Family life

The middle child of Manchester hatter, George Killer (d. 1791) and his wife Elizabeth (née Leigh) (1736-1820), Robert Wagstaffe Killer was named in honour of his maternal grandmother Silence Wagstaffe (1714-53).  As a child, Robert was close to Silence’s second husband, Robert Thyer (1709-81), Chetham’s Librarian from 1732 to 1763. 

Letters from Thyer in the Library’s Bellot Papers reveal that the two Roberts took a trip to Liverpool together in August 1774, for the purposes of sea-bathing.  Staying in fashionable Wolstenholme Square, the Manchester Grammar School student ‘[wrote] his Latin every day’, but found time to purchase a gift for his elder sister, Elizabeth – a sixpenny coconut which, unfortunately, went bad!

In 1787, Robert married Jane (c. 1758-1824), daughter of James Watson (d. 1782), gentleman, of Swinton and Stockport, and his wife Judith (née Holland) (c. 1732-99).  Interestingly, under his own entry in the directory, Robert has added the following comment: ‘Declined practice 1822 & went to Islington near London on account of his wifes [sic] ill health’.  Jane died in Islington in 1824.

Robert’s third-person comment on his own entry in the directory

In 1831, Robert retired to Farley, Staffordshire, where he died on 25 May 1841, aged 77.  He is buried in Alton church, in the family vault of his friend, the Manchester surgeon, John Bill (1756-1847).  As Robert had no children, most of his estate, including the directory, passed to his younger brother, John Egerton Killer (1798-1854), an apothecary and surgeon. John added a few annotations, relating mainly to ‘country manufacturers’ from Stockport.

Professional life

Both Robert, and his brother John, entered the medical profession.  In 1781, Robert was apprenticed to the surgeon Edward Hall (1731?-91) at Manchester Infirmary.  When qualified, he commenced practice in Stockport, but was elected surgeon to Manchester Infirmary in 1790, when the number of honorary posts was increased.

The post of honorary surgeon was unpaid, but the resulting status and prestige helped surgeons to build up their private practices.  Fees were also obtained by taking on apprentices.  Killer had four apprentices during his career, one in Stockport, and three in Manchester.  His final apprentice, William Goodlad (d. 1814), dedicated a book to his former master ‘as a token of respect for his abilities, and of gratitude for his friendship’.

Manchester Infirmary

Manchester Infirmary was located in Lever’s Row (now Piccadilly) from 1755 to 1908. The adjacent Lunatic Hospital opened in 1766, and a Dispensary was added in 1792. The Operation Room was located on the top floor, to afford the best light.  The image shows the Infirmary pond, an ornamental stretch of water, which was refreshed daily.

In 1794, Robert was living at 26 Lever’s-row, a popular address for Infirmary staff, situated next to Piccadilly. In 1804, along with fellow surgeons John Bill and Michael Ward (1761/2-1834), Robert resigned his post at the Infirmary, following a dispute with the house surgeon, John Hutchinson (d. 1808).  By 1815, Robert was living at 19 Piccadilly, with a surgery at 25 Travis-street. He was known for treating the poor without charging for his services.

Map of Piccadilly highlighting Robert’s residences and workplaces (1794)

In addition to his work at the Infirmary, Robert worked as a surgeon to the Manchester and Salford Volunteers. In 1802, the officers of the second Battalion of Manchester and Salford Volunteers presented Robert with a large silver cup, ‘as a Token of their Gratitude for his prompt and disinterested Attention to the frequent Claims of this Corps on his professional Abilities’.  The second Battalion, led by Lieutenant Colonel John Sylvester, consisted of 1,000 men.

The annotations

It is unknown whether Robert acquired the directory as new, but the annotations – which abound throughout the preliminaries, margins and interleaves – seem to date from the 1790s onwards.  These handwritten observations, facts and opinions, which relate to hundreds of Manchester residents, are often delightfully blunt:

Wildsmith Benjamin, dentist, peruke-maker and hair-dresser, 18, Hunter’s-lane
He was a dentist of celebrity in his day, but knew little scientifically – Very pompous.

Hilton James, attorney, 54, Market-street lane
He was a very poor creature indeed and not remarkable for his integrity or honesty

Cropper John, Gentleman, Newton-lane
as like a gentleman as is a Mouse to an Elephant

Further examples will be found in the second part of this blog post.

Find out more

Scholes, John, of Manchester, Scholes’s Manchester and Salford Directory (Manchester: Sowler and Russell, 1794) with annotations by Robert Wagstaffe Killer has been reproduced in full in the Library Digital Collections.

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