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William Tuckwell (c.1785–1845)


William Tuckwell

William Tuckwell originated from Aynho in Northamptonshire. He was apprenticed to a Woodstock surgeon, and then became a pupil of Abernethy’s at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. in 1808 at the age of 23 he came to Oxford, but before he was allowed to work there he had to be matriculated as a “Chirurgus” by the University, and his matriculation duly took place on 10 November 1808. In March 1809 he was elected Surgeon to the Radcliffe Infirmary.

Tuckwell became a leading Oxford surgeon. His practice was at 64 High Street in the parish of St Peter in the East. In 1843 he bought Cowley House (now the Hall Building of St Hilda’s College), which was then in St Clement’s parish.

Tuckwell married his wife Margaret Wood in about 1828, when he was 43 and she was 24. They had ten children:

  • William Tuckwell, born on 27 November 1829, baptised at St Peter-in-the-East Church on 29 December 1829
  • Margaret Tuckwell (I), baptised at St Peter-in-the-East Church on 7 March 1831, but died at the age of 5 and was buried there on 5 February 1836
  • Ann Abernethy Tuckwell, baptised at St Peter-in-the-East Church on 22 May 1832
  • Harriett Frances Tuckwell, baptised at St Peter-in-the-East Church on 5 February 1834
  • Henry Matthews Tuckwell, born 24 November 1834 and baptised at St Peter-in-the-East Church on 20 May 1835
  • Margaret Tuckwell (II), baptised at St Peter-in-the-East Church on on 18 May 1836
  • Ellen Sarah Tuckwell, baptised at St Peter-in-the-East Church on 21 June 1837
  • David Gregorie Tuckwell, baptised at St Peter-in-the-East Church on 20 July 1838
  • Lewis Stacey Tuckwell, baptised at St Peter-in-the-East Church on 31 August 1839
  • Edward Tuckwell, baptised at St Peter-in-the-East Church on 2 July 1840.

Tuckwell’s son William, in his Reminiscences of Oxford, writes:

But by far the most conspicuous and interesting of Lockhart’s Hakims [see Lockhart’s novel, Reginald Dalton, set in the 1820s] was Tuckwell, for thirty years – from 1815 to 1845 – the leading Oxford surgeon. In costume and demeanour he was a survival from the more picturesque and ceremonious past. He pervaded Oxford in a claret-coloured tail coat, with velvet collar, canary waistcoat with gilt buttons, light brown trousers, two immense white cravats propping and partly covering the chin, a massive well-brushed beaver hat. His manner and address were extraordinarily winning; a contemporary described him to me long ago, in a letter which I happened to preserve, as “the most fascinating man I ever met, a favourite with all who knew him; his cheery brightness invaluable in a sick room, supported as it was by his high repute and skill”.

Mr Abernethy, discontinuing practice, entreated him to take his place; he was, said Sir Benjamin Brodie to me in 1853, “one of the cleverest surgeons of his day.” He was not a member of the University, but had been educated at the then famous Aynho Grammar School, whose eccentric master, Mr Leonard, was known for his scholarship and for his addiction to green tea, which he kept ever by his side to moisten his construes in Tacitus and Horace. So Tuckwell knew his Latin books minutely, and could quote them effectively. He was pupil to Abernethy, who became much attached to him; his dinner table after his marriage held a magnificent epergne, a wedding present from the famous surgeon. Amongst his comrades were the lads known afterwards as Dr Skey and Sir George Burrows. He worked hard at his profession, and made himself a proficient besides in French, Spanish, and Italian.

He went to Oxford, without introduction, friends, or money, about 1808, but rose rapidly into practice, establishing himself in the house opposite Magdalen elms, which a few old Oxford men still associate with his name, and was to bear in later years the door-plate of his son. His name is not only embalmed in Lockhart’s novel, but points the moral of a bitter passage in the “Oxford Spy”:

If tutors punish what they seldom shun,
Severe to all who do – as they have done –
Their wild career at once pursue, condemn,
Give fees to Tuckwell and advice to them.

His son describes how Tuckwell was one of the best piquet and whist players in England, and also skilled at chess, and then goes on to say:

His heart was as large as his brain was keen; if he fascinated his equals, he no less won the love and gratitude of his humbler neighbours. During the thirty years of his celebrity his doors stood open for the first two hours of every over-busy day to the poor who chose to come, and who streamed in from the country round to be tended without a fee.

He devoted to their care gratuitously the same minute and searching skill, the same unerring memory and rapid judgment, the same urbane and cordial presence, which had made him popular and fashionable among those who were glad to pay him highly for these gifts; and when the large heart ceased to beat and the keen brain to toil, while amongst a troop of friendly mourners I followed his remains along streets darkened by the signs of universal sorrow, I saw the crowd of poor – to be counted, it was said, by hundreds – gathered in from village and from slum for a final tribute to the friend who had dispensed among them health and healing through so many years. He was the last of the old Oxford school; the “Brilliant Man” – to quote from Henry Bulwer – amongst his University compeers, as was Canning among a wider and more high-placed set. He retained the “grand manner” of a fading age; the refined and pointed, not conventional and effusive, courtesy to women; the bounteous fund of ever-ready talk, alternating not monologist, seasoned not swamped with allusion, recitation, epigram.

In 1842 Tuckwell’s wife Margaret died at the age of 38 at home in Cowley House. Her memorial on the wall of St Peter-in-the-East Church (below) reads: “In Memory of Margaret Tuckwell, who died November 23rd 1842. A virtuous woman is a crown to her husband, her children arise up and call her blessed”.

Memorial to Margaret Tuckwell

Tuckwell was elected FRCS in January 1844. He died at Cowley House on 20 September the following year at the age of 60 and was buried at St Peter-in-the-East Church on 27 September 1845. His memorial on the same wall as that of his wife reads: “In Memory of William Tuckwell, Surgeon to the Radcliffe Infirmary, who lived many years in this parish and died in his work Sept. 20th 1845.

Memorial to William Tuckwell

The Revd Edward Hill wrote in his (unpublished) diary for Saturday 20 September 1845:

Shortly after we returned home were much shocked by the information of the sudden death of Mr Tuckwell. He was seized while at dinner with his children about half past three with a paralytic seizure which at once affected one side, & which appears to have been clearly followed by apoplexy. He spoke no more, altho’ there appeared some slight symptom of consciousness. He expired at 8 o’clock. He leaves 9 children: the oldest 16 next month: the youngest 5 last June.

And on the next day he wrote:

Mrs Hill went directly after breakfast to Mr Tuckwell’s to see if she could be of any service to the children. she found Miss Sophia Gutch & Mrs Parker there – with whom she staid and conducted a domestic service with them and the children and servants.

The “William Tuckwell, Surgeon of Oxford” (date of probate 12 November 1845) was deposited at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury: ref PROB 11/20278.


Tuckwell’s children:

  • William Tuckwell (born 1829) attended Slatter’s School at Rose Hill, then a preparatory school in Hammersmith, then Winchester College, and finally New College itself in 1848. He was Master of New College School from 1857 to 1864; the Head of the Collegiate School at Taunton from 1864 to 1878; and then Rector of Stockton in Warwickshire. He was the author of 24 books and papers, including Reminiscences of Oxford. See his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  • Henry Matthews Tuckwell (born 1834) gained his MA from Lincoln College in 1856 and joined his father’s practice as a surgeon, first at 64 High Street and then at Cowley House. He sold the latter in 1862, and appears to have resumed living at 64 High Street, where he is listed in the 1881 census with his wife (Martha Grace McLean) and nephew, plus a cook and three housemaids. In 1863 he published On effusions of blood in the neighbourhood of the uterus; or, The so-called periuterine hæmatocele. He died at 64 High Street at the age of 71 on 2 March 1906 and was buried at St Peter-in-the-East Church four days later. His wife died at 64 High Street at the age 82, and was buried with him on 14 November 1921.
  • Lewis Stacey Tuckwell (fourth son, born c.1840) was a chorister at Magdalen College School from 1847 to 1857. He was matriculated from Magdalen College on 14 January 1858, aged 18, gaining his BA in 1863. From 1866 to 1877 he was Chaplain & Precentor of Magdalen College, as well as Curate of St Andrew’s Church in Headington (while living in college). He was Rector of Standlake from 1877 to 1881, and Vicar of Northmoor from 1881 to 1885 . He was the author of the book Old Magdalen Days.

Memorial to Henry Matthews Tuckwell

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