John Sims: a Quaker doctor in Regency London

The recently-catalogued diaries of Dr John Sims (1792-1838) provide some fascinating insights into the everyday life of a Quaker physician in Regency London.

The diaries of the physician John Sims (1792-1838) have recently been catalogued as part of the Medical Manuscripts Collection (MMM/25/1).

The diaries, which cover the years 1811 to 1836, provide fascinating information about Sims’ life as a doctor in Regency London, and his experiences as a prominent member of the capital’s Quaker community.

The diaries themselves have an interesting history. We have only typed transcripts of the originals, compiled by the Manchester physician Ernest Bosdin Leech.  In 1940, Leech borrowed the diaries from a descendant of Sims, a Royal Navy officer serving at Plymouth. Recognising their importance and fearing they would be at risk during wartime, Leech copied the diaries, noting in his preface that ”their journey up north may have saved them, for Plymouth has suffered very badly”. Leech donated these transcripts to the University’s Medical Library. Whether the original diaries survived the War is not known.

If the diaries had not survived, John Sims would likely be a forgotten figure. He was born in 1792 at Stockport to Ollive and Sarah Sims, both Quakers. Ollive was a successful pharmacist and his professional connections enabled John to be apprenticed to a leading Manchester doctor, John Atkinson Ransome (1779-1837). Apprenticeship was then the main route into medical practice, although John also undertook further study in London and Edinburgh. In 1818, he received his M.D. (Edinburgh), and the following year was admitted to the Royal College of Physicians (London). 

John set up in practice, initially in the City of London, and later in St Marylebone, where he acquired a residence in fashionable Cavendish Square. As a physician, he was expected to maintain a certain social status and required the income to sustain this, which in turn required having a large pool of patients.

Many of his earliest patients were fellow Quakers, and he travelled across London to minister to them, including the Quaker communities in Tottenham and Walthamstow. Despite the prominence of Quaker doctors such as John Fothergill and John Lettsom in Georgian London, Sims considered his Quaker faith might have professional disadvantages. Diary entries ponder the advisability of wearing Quaker dress when working (diary, 9 March 1820), and whether Quakers were discriminated against when applying for hospital posts (diary, 2 January 1824).

Although his Quaker patients were loyal, the diaries indicate that Sims’ practice was often financially precarious, and there are several references to income problems during the 1820s. Finally, in 1831, Sims achieved a major professional advance when he was appointed honorary physician to the St Marylebone Infirmary.

As a wealthy London parish, St Marylebone was one of the few to provide hospital treatment for the local poor. Generally, it seems to have had a good reputation, with lower death rates than some prestigious London voluntary hospitals.

18th-century engraving of the St Marylebone workhouse and infirmary
St Marylebone workhouse and infirmary, 1792

Senior hospital appointments were then made by election; in the case of St Marylebone, the electorate consisted of the parish directors and guardians. These included two peers and four Anglican clergymen. The diaries are very informative about the Sims’ lobbying these voters, including his expressions of relief when a clergyman elector does not raise any religious objections to him.

Sims’ growing professional status was also reflected in his appointment to the Central Board of Health, appointed by the Privy Council in 1831 to deal with a cholera outbreak in London. This epidemic dominates the diary entries for 1831/2.

The other main theme of the diaries is Sims’ membership of the Quaker community. The Quaker network in London played a major role in his  life, not only professionally but also socially; nearly all his close social contacts were Quakers, and there are numerous references to important Quaker families such as the Bevans, Gurneys, Trittons, Dillwyns and Frys (Elizabeth Fry, the penal reformer, was a patient).

Although a diligent attender of Quaker meetings, Sims rarely speaks of his faith. He did however reflect on this at the end of each year: in 1829, he records: “I hope I shall make some progress next year in true religious knowledge; my resolutions are almost powerless” (diary, 31 December 1829), whilst in 1833 he says: “My anxious wish is to attain during the next year more substantial knowledge of Christianity and to practise it” (diary, 31 December 1833). Although the diaries say relatively little about contemporary events,  Sims was a supporter of the anti-slavery movement.

The diaries also record his family life. Sims married Lydia Dillwyn (of a prominent Quaker family) in 1823, who predeceased him, as did two of his four children. One of his sons, William Dillwyn Syms (1825-95), later became a successful businessman in East Anglia. John Sims himself died in 1838, after apparently catching typhoid while working at St Marylebone Infirmary.

John Sims’ diaries provide an unusually detailed picture of a physician’s life in the late Georgian period, with the added interest of his experiences as a member of an influential religious minority group.

James Peters, University Archivist

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