William Hempson Denham was not a native of Portsmouth, indeed he was 53 years of age before his name first appeared in local records when he was listed as a surgeon in the 1859 Post Office Directory. At that time Denham and his family were living at 10 Landport Terrace, Southsea but by the time of the 1861 Census they had moved to 124 High Street, Portsmouth, a house formerly occupied by the surgeon, Moses Piercey, whilst another surgeon, Julian Slight lived next door at No. 125. William Hempson Denham was to remain based in Portsmouth for 25 years before he and his wife moved to London in 1886. During his time in the town he made something of a name for himself as homeopath, inventor and inveterate letter-writer.
William Hempson Denham was born on 26th December 1806, the third child and only son of William Denham and his wife Susannah, nee Hempson. He was privately baptised on 9th January 1807 and received into the church, St Mary le Tower, on 8th June 1811. His father, William Denham, was a bricklayer living at Tower Ditches. The young William was educated at Ipswich Grammar School between 1816 and 1822 before becoming apprentice to Thomas Harsant, a surgeon, in Wickham Market. His indenture began on 9th October 1822 and continued until April 1828 when he enrolled at Guy's Hospital on 3rd October 1827 as a medical pupil for 6 months and a surgical pupil for 12 months. His training at Guys was completed on 28th January 1829 after which he returned to Wickham Market to practice as a surgeon.
On the 28th April 1838 William Hempson Denham married Harriet Elizabeth Kemball in St Stephen’s Church, Ipswich. They remained in Wickham Market where their first son, Kemball Hempson Denham, was born in February the following year. They did not stay long after that though, as by March 31, 1840 Denham was writing letters to The Lancet from Maidstone, Kent where their second child, Louisa Harriot, was born in August of that year. By the 1841 census, the family had moved again and were residing in St Giles, Camberwell, Surrey, but again they didn't stay long before moving to Herefordshire where their three boys, Arthur William, Sidney Horace and Percy Vero, were born in Doram Canon Pyon in 1843, 1844 and 1846. Their last child Jessie Alice was born in Southsea in 1859.
From his early days as a practising surgeon, William Hempson Denham was in the habit of writing letters to both local and national publications, including The Times and The Lancet, on professional matters deemed worthy of his opinion. Letters to The Lancet expressed his views on the state of medical training, the Stowmarket Penny Club, Mr Jeafferson's cases of Lithotrity and the competancy of coroners. In his letters, William Hempson Denham was not afraid to name names, but The Lancet had to edit at least one of his letters to keep it to a manageable length and reduce the potential for numerous responses. During his time at Wickham Market Denham published his first book, entitled 'Verba Consilii : or, Hints to parents who intend to bring up their sons to the medical profession' (1837).
In the book he advocates 'a constant and well regulated course of training.' On page 23, he offers this advice to parents: 'When parents are not in a situation to enable them to give all their sons the benefit of a first rate education, it is desirable that they should, at as early a period as possible, determine on the one they intend to bring up to the profession.' As to what subjects to study, he suggests 'a thorough knowledge of Latin, knowledge of Greek. As well as dead languages, knowledge of French, German and Italian.' The knowledge of the modern languages was to enable the pupil to read medical research written in these languages first hand rather than rely on translations. He goes on to comment on the practice of some medical practitioners. 'The profession has had some very badly educated men admitted into its ranks.'
Denham's letters to The Lancet stopped for a time in 1841. The subject of the last letter was to make known his views on homeopathy and in particular, the use of arnica. Denham writes: 'Evidently, so far as my humble judgement goes, the credit of the cure should here again be ascribed not to the employment of the doctor's globules, but to the topical application of the water and the very kind assistance of the vis naturae.' He did not seem to rate homeopathy highly.
By the 1851 census, the family were in Foulsham, Norfolk and shortly before the census was taken, their last son, Algernon Astley was born. In this census, the birth places of William and Harriet are not given and those of the children, except Algernon, are given as London. Two of the children are not named on the census. Denham, it seems, did not have a high opinion of the census as his returns are riddled with deliberate errors.
According to the medical directories, William Hempson Denham was still in Norfolk in 1854 but in Slater's Commercial Directory of Yorkshire 1855, he turns up as the surgeon at St James Hospital, Doncaster. St James Hospital was the first purpose built hospital in Doncaster and it was set up, specifically, as a homeopathic hospital. In 1854, William Hempson Denham published his 'Essays on Health, No 1 – My Conversion to Homeopathy'. In the essay, he explains how he came to be at St James Hospital and the battle between the established medical practitioners and the homeopaths. 'So fierce was the struggle, and so loud the outcry, that jealously raised against Homeopathy, which had to fight its battle single handed, that no competent person could be found to take medical charge of the embryo institution. I was asked to do so, with an earnest appeal that I would investigate the truth or falsehood of homeopathy, and honestly decide according to the evidence.' This leopard did change his spots: William Hempson Denham became a staunch advocate of homeopathy. His Essay on Health contains many examples of patients' recovery after his administration of homeopathic remedies.
The Denham family's move to Portsmouth around 1859 did nothing to modify William's promotion of alternative medicine as he was listed in the trade directories as being the owner of a Homeopathic and Hydropathic establishment at 124 High Street, Portsmouth. This probably set alarm bells ringing amongst the members of the orthodox medical community who on Nov 11th 1861 placed an advertisement in the Hampshire Telegraph inviting all legally qualified medical practitioners of the town and district to a meeting for the purpose of forming a Medical Registration Society under the new Medical Act. Personal invitations were also sent out and William Hempson Denham duly received one. At the meeting, W H Garrington esq., a surgeon and also Mayor of Portsmouth, was voted into the chair. The meeting was then informed of two previous preliminary meetings that had been held and certain resolutions that were agreed upon. These resolutions were then put to the whole meeting. The second was: "That the Society shall consist of all legally qualified medical practitioners residing in the district, duly registered, and practising orthodox medicine."
The resolution was passed which must have alerted William Hempson Denham who immediately put pen to paper. He wrote a letter to Mr Garrington, which was published in what he termed a pamphlet, a copy of which he lodged with the British Museum. In it, he allowed his antipathy full reign, writing, "I dared to differ from you and from them (other medical men at the meeting), and to adopt Homeopathy, a well tried, LOGICAL, and THOROUGHLY EFFICIENT system of medical treatment of disease, which you and your friends are too lazy to study, and too ignorant to comprehend." The letter carries on for 21 printed pages, with sections in Latin and Greek, as well as quotes from the Lancet. One article quoted from the Lancet suggests that 'more is known of disease, yet the treatment is worse!' Denham used this to say that Homeopathy might be using age old treatments but newer ones were not working even with better knowledge of the disease.
Whilst resident in the Portsmouth area, William Hempson Denham published another book: 'The Use and Action of Stays and Corsets, on Disease & Developement of the Female Figure'. In this publication, he compares the female corseted form to that of two triangles, one corner balancing on top of another corner. He also points out the damage done to the internal organs by the pressure of the stays and corsets. In taking such a stance Denham must have risked alienating himself from another group within the community as stay making was an important form of employment for women, many of whom relied on the income from the trade during the long absences of their seafaring husbands.
By 1868 the Denham family had moved from High Street to Sussex Place in Southsea, another elegant address but in 1871 events took a bizarre twist when at the time of the census William was recorded as being resident at Wandsworth prison. Careful examination of the records showed that his crime was the ill treatment of animals. This had come about following his purchase or rental of a farm in Surrey at which he employed a worker to look after the animals whilst he continued to reside in Southsea. The RSPCA became involved as it was alleged that the animals did not have enough to eat and Denham was charged accordingly. He was initially fined £5 but five weeks later was again charged with the same offence. He was sentenced in his absence to three months imprisonment with hard labour, was arrested at his home in Southsea, and began his sentence in Wandsworth Prison on Monday 6th March.
After leaving Wandsworth Prison, William Hempson Denham’s life took on a new direction. He returned to the Portsmouth area and continued to practice as a homeopath. Most of the children had left home and only the two youngest, Algernon Astley Denham and Jessie Alice Denham, remained at home. This did not last long as by 1872, Algernon is recorded as living in Putney, Surrey, but before he left he, his father William and brother Percy applied for, and were granted, a patent for the invention of an improved watercloset. The stated object of the invention was "to prevent the generation of fevers and other diseases in houses and elsewhere by stopping or preventing the rise of noxious gases from drains or sewers by waterclosets, sinks and other places." The new design used a straight soil pipe, rather than the 'usually bent objectionable form.' The gas was prevented from escaping by airtight valves and 'thus by no possibility can foul gas pass through them, because the air tight valves being kept in their respective places by a screw capable of sustaining several tons weight, nothing can pass through the valves or the water.' There is no record of whether the watercloset was ever manufactured or installed.
By 1877 the family had moved again, this time to Gloucester Terrace, Southsea, where Denham's inventiveness took on the public utilities in the form of a sewage disposal system. He applied for a patent citing "Improvements in the construction of sewage works, and in utilising and disposing of sewage, house refuse and scavenged matters." This was the Denham circinating sewage disposal system. The sewage would flow into tanks and the solid waste would drop to the bottom of the tank. The liquid would be drawn off and pass through a series of tanks. Scavenged matter, such as vegetable waste, animal droppings, street sweepings, slaughterhouse waste etc would be incinerated in a furnace above the sewage tanks and the ashes would then drop down into tanks below. The ashes would absorb any liquid left in the tank and this would then form a fertiliser when mixed with the solids in the tank. The surplus liquid in the subsequent tanks would be pumped back into the sewers to keep them moving as 'the heart of an animal or man empties the blood into arteries, from the arteries to the veins, to be taken back to the heart.'
By the time of the 1881 census the family had moved yet again, to 2 Dover Terrace, described as being in Portsea but the only record of a Dover Terrace locates it in Osborne Road, Southsea. There William Hempson Denham filed another patent application for improvements to his sewage disposal system. In this design the waste liquid from the final tank would pass through a boiler, 'the water is then converted into steam in order to destroy any germ of disease that may by possibility remain in the filtered element.' The steam would condense back into pure water, and be piped back along new pipes laid above the sewers and eventually be returned to the sewers to wash them out. Hydrants would be attached to this return pipe so 'water can be drawn to wash foot paths and pavements, to water roads, to help extinguish fires, and for any other purpose that may be wished or wanted.'
Denham's interest in sewage systems was not confined to those in Southsea as he soon had Sir Joseph Bazelgette's new system for London in his sights. On 30th July 1883 he wrote again to The Lancet firmly asserting that no waste from sewage should be discharged into rivers or the sea, 'Yet with all that cost the scheme was imperfect, for Sir Joseph Bazalgette was unable to dispose of the sewage without poisoning the Thames with it. Therefore though he did a good act by draining London as it then was, he made the Thames a pestilential ditch, and London obnoxious to pestilence and disease.' This however did not stop William Hempson Denham finally leaving Portsmouth and taking up residence in London where by 1885 he and his wife were living at No. 1 St Mark's Crescent, Regent's Park. Denham continued to write to The Lancet on the subjest of sewerage systems and also applied for patents in boat design and a sectional horseshoe.
On the 21st September 1891 William Hempson Denham died 'somewhat unexpectedly from syncope' at his final address 23 Cromwell Grove in Shepherd’s Bush. He is buried in plot J13, Section XX, Margarvine Cemetery, Hammersmith. There is no headstone or memorial to mark the place. There was a notable obituary published in the British Medical Journal, but rather than repeat it here, a more fitting finale might be to simply record the entry for William Hempson Denham in the medical journals from 1883:-
"William Hempson Denham, MRCS Eng. 1829, LSA 1828 (Guys): Mem. Council Inventors’ Inst: Mem Soc. Arts,; Mem. Sanit. Inst. Gt Brit.; formerly Asst. Surg. Conv. Depot, Dartmoor; Editor of Portsmouth Guardian. Author of 'National Finances', 'The Queen, the Parliament & the People', 'The Law of God and the Law of Man considered with Reference to the Punishment of Death', 'Verba Consilii: or Hints to Parents who intend to bring up their Sons to the Medical Profession', 'On Vivisection & Therapeutic Experiments'. 'The Extinction of Small Pox & Diseases of Vaccination by a Practical Process'. Contrib. 'Poor law Medical Relief', 'Lithotrity': Lancet. Inventor of the Denham Circinating Process for the sanitation of Towns and the Disposal of Sewage".
Written by Jean Parkinson, Great Granddaughter of William Hempson Denham
Edited by Tim Backhouse
A complete version of Jean's original research is available here by download