By Jennifer Mason, Assistant County Archivist (Collections Management)
Anyone who lives and works in West Sussex is likely to be well aware of what an important role agriculture has played in the history of the county. At WSRO we have photographs, farm diaries, account books, and maps all of which record agricultural activity through the ages. In many of these records there will be references to the health of stock but how many of us have thought about the people treating cattle, horses, sheep, and pigs?
My own interest was piqued when a colleague and I were shown a fragment of a stoneware jar or bottle which bore the partial text ‘R. W. D veter surg, Chichester’. The depositor who showed it to us asked if we could find out anything about this mystery vet and the possible date of the jar.
Armed with this minimal amount of information, we started by checking the trade directories and were lucky enough to strike gold nearly straightaway. We found that there was a Richard William Dawtrey, veterinary surgeon, MRCVS who was working in East Street, Chichester, in 1895.
But in order to get a rough date for the fragment, we needed to know how long he was practising in Chichester for. Looking at earlier trade directories we couldn’t find Richard Dawtrey but, in what was a bit of a surprise, we found that there was a Jeffrey (or Jeffery) Dawtrey working as a veterinary surgeon in East Street in 1874, 1862 and 1855. Further research using the census records revealed that Jeffrey was Richard’s father so it seems likely that Richard Dawtrey followed his father into the veterinary profession and later took over the practice.
However, this still didn’t shed any light on how long Richard Dawtrey was practising for and what the likely date range of the jar was. We found him working as a veterinary surgeon on the 1891, 1901, and 1911 censuses and then, as we don’t yet have access to the 1921 census, turned to the British Newspaper Archive for further information about him.
There are a number of references in the newspapers to Richard Dawtrey acting as a petty sessional veterinary inspector and later he seems to have been a Veterinary Inspector for the County Council. Based on this research, it looks like he was practising from 1888, retired at some point between 1932 and 1935, and moved to Rustington where he died in July 1935. This meant that we could narrow the date of the jar to between roughly 1888 and 1935.
Having found out a bit about Dawtrey’s life, I was curious to know a little more about the kind of work he might have been engaged in. Again, local newspapers provide a huge amount of information. Dawtrey’s name crops up in a number of articles in connection with tuberculosis cases. Bovine tuberculosis was a disease which posed a twin threat – firstly because it could be passed to humans, with children being particularly vulnerable, and secondly because it posed a financial risk to farmers who, in the period that Dawtrey was practising, were becoming increasingly dependent on dairy farming as a source of income. Identification of infected cattle was crucial in combatting the disease and there are several newspaper articles which record Dawtrey giving evidence in contested cases. In one case the defendant argued that he thought the cow had swallowed a nail, rather than suffering from TB.
As a veterinary inspector, Dawtrey was responsible for identifying other infectious conditions, such as swine fever, as in this article from 1888. Swine fever was extremely contagious with a high rate of mortality so tracking and controlling any cases in the district to prevent spread was crucial. Heavy fines would be imposed on farmers who failed to report cases.
Another article in the Bognor Regis Observer from 1907 states that Dawtrey had been acting at the Chichester Cattle Market for 22 years. Vets at markets had an important role in terms of disease prevention as markets provided the perfect environment for the transmission of disease from infected to healthy animals; the First Annual Report of the Chief Veterinary Officer of West Sussex County Council (CC1078) records that approximately half the cases of swine fever in West Sussex in 1935 were associated with recent purchases through markets.
These Veterinary Inspector duties, which were carried out by Dawtrey in a part-time capacity alongside his own practice, would go on to become the responsibility of the West Sussex County Council Veterinary Department. Formed in 1935, the department comprised a Chief Veterinary Officer, four full time Veterinary Assistants, and five part time Veterinary Inspectors responsible for the local markets.
Unfortunately, the records of Dawtrey’s own practice do not survive so we do not know much about what his private practice would have been like. We do, however, have this invoice for work done for a Miss Woods of Chilgrove from Christmas 1918. The elaborate header, prominently displaying the coat of arms of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, suggests a confident and thriving business.