Chris Armstrong looks at the eventful life of the Whitwell-born physician

Monsey was born in 1693, at Whitwell, near Reepham, where his father had inherited an estate. He was to have a long and acerbic life, living to the age of 95. Despite having insulted or offended just about everyone he met he had enough about him to retain the affection of most of those he had upset.

His father had been Rector of Bawdeswell, but lost his living after refusing to take an oath of allegiance to William lll following the deposition of James ll in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. He was not alone – about 2% of clergy, and a number of Bishops did the same; most remained within the Church, though some established an alternative sect, which was relatively short-lived. Monsey, senior, did neither – he retreated to the estate he had inherited and devoted his life to writing indifferent poetry, planting oak trees, and grumbling about the levels of taxation – all acceptable idiosyncrasies for a landed gentleman.

Great British Life: Messenger Monsey stipple engraving. Photo: Wikimedia CommonsMessenger Monsey stipple engraving. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

He also, less usually, took personal responsibility for the education of his son who inherited from his father the habit of writing poetry, but not his political inclinations, becoming a Whig while his father was a high Tory.

At 18 the young Monsey entered Pembroke College, Cambridge, graduating in 1715, at which point he came to Norwich to be trained as a doctor. Training completed, he set up in practice at Bury St Edmunds, but a larger public was soon to have the benefit of this highly eccentric doctor’s medical expertise and caustic wit. The expansion of Monsey’s universe was fortuitous – the Earl of Godolphin was taken ill at Bury while en route to his Newmarket property and as the local doctor Monsey was summoned to attend him.

Godolphin swiftly recovered, whether as a result of Monsey’s ministrations or otherwise, and he was greatly taken by the doctor’s lively conversation – Dr Johnson once described Monsey as ‘a fellow who swore and talked bawdy’. So impressed with him was Godolphin that he invited Monsey to live in his London house, introducing him into the cream of London society, who adopted him with relish for his entertaining and beguiling conversation, if not for his manners.

Great British Life: The Royal Chelsea Hospital where Monsey worked. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphotoThe Royal Chelsea Hospital where Monsey worked. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Monsey, one suspects, was aware that his acceptability at the dinner table was enhanced by his own buffoonery and played up for all he was worth. It’s reported that on one occasion when being entertained by the actor David Garrick, in whose social pretensions Monsey detected - with amusement – a degree of insecurity, he caused a great disturbance. The company at dinner was particularly distinguished, but he caused huge embarrassment by complaining volubly that Mrs Garrick, whom he addressed loudly as ‘a confounded toad’ was taking too long serving the various dishes. That many of his acquaintance continued effectually to be his patrons despite his misbehaviour, though Garrick did eventually ditch him, marks the measure of attraction felt for his wit.

One of the prizes Godolphin arranged for him was a role as a physician at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. One hopes that the veterans there didn’t have to consult him with toothache. He had devised a bizarre form of treatment when he had dental problems himself, attaching the tooth, by means of catgut, to a perforated bullet which he would then fire from a pistol. He claimed that this manner of extraction was painless!

Great British Life: Fanny Burney apparently wasn't thrilled when Monsey became her neighbour. Picture by Edward Fransciso Burney/Wikimedia CommonsFanny Burney apparently wasn't thrilled when Monsey became her neighbour. Picture by Edward Fransciso Burney/Wikimedia Commons

During this time he continued to live in Godolphin’s house, and did so until the latter died in 1766, at which time he took up residence at Chelsea Hospital, where one of the other residents was the father of King’s Lynn born Fanny Burney, who was the hospital’s official organist. Fanny Burney was not over-impressed by her father’s new neighbour.

Another eccentricity of Monsey was his habit of hiding his cash in his fireplace, under the sticks and coal already laid out. It was an unlikely place for a burglar to look and might have been a sensible precaution had he had the sense to tell his housekeeper. He didn’t, and when he returned one afternoon he found her entertaining friends to tea in front of a blazing fire she had lit in total ignorance of what lay under the coal!

A book published in 1804, 16 years after his death, and intriguingly entitled The Life and Eccentricities of the late Dr Monsey, FRS with Curious Anecdotes of Persons of Rank And Consequence tells that Monsey, returning after a month in Norfolk, arrived home soon after the fire was lit and throwing himself at it scrabbled away the burning coals, pulling out the remains of his money, folded and re-folded in a tight wadge and in parts more scorched than destroyed. Telling the story to Lord Godolphin, his lordship offered to accompany Monsey to the Bank the following day, and use his influence to get the currency replaced. He was also unable to resist the temptation to tell the King, George ll, about Monsey’s misfortune, which His Majesty found highly diverting.

But this was not the end of the story. The next day Godolphin arranged to meet Monsey later at the Bank because the latter had to make another call first. Hurrying to keep his appointment with Godolphin Monsey took a boat from Whitehall. During the trip he pulled out his pocket-book to check the banknotes were still there, only for the wind to catch the money and blow it into the river. The boatmen pursued the notes and Monsey recovered them by using his hat to pluck them from the water before they sank. Arrived at the Bank, Monsey threw down the hat, still full of water as well as the charred and waterlogged currency, soaking Godolphin and the bankers, who nonetheless replaced his money.

Monsey was a man of strange habits, totally unconcerned with his appearance, and one to whom personal hygiene apparently did not matter, yet he continued to move in the highest circles. Another regular dinner companion was Sir Robert Walpole, generally acknowledged as our first Prime Minister. Perhaps the shared Norfolk connection helped, but Walpole enjoyed his conversation so much that he overlooked Monsey’s less attractive characteristics – and his ability to defeat him at billiards, and continued the friendship.

Great British Life: Monsey was a guest at Heydon Hall. Photo: Newsquest libraryMonsey was a guest at Heydon Hall. Photo: Newsquest library

Some of his friendships lasted longer than others. That with the Bulwers lasted a lifetime, and he was a welcome guest at Heydon, where he wrote one of his, generally indifferent, poems in honour of the beautiful garden. His friendship with the Bulwers differed from those with his London dinner companions. There seems to have been a genuine and familial affection. Monsey brought his daughter when he stayed at Heydon, and was on good terms with the whole Bulwer family. Although his correspondence, as it always had, featured unsavoury jokes it lacked, according to R W Ketton-Cremer in his 1944 book ‘Norfolk Portraits’, the savagery and bitterness which characterised his correspondence with others.

The bitterness increased over time, but his correspondence had always been lengthy - a cocktail of appalling puns, punctuated with Latin tags, overlaid with insult, shaken with just a smidgeon of crudeness, and almost illegible.

Medically, he was regarded as something of a traditionalist – he was apparently uninterested in new discoveries. He continued, it was said, simply to stick to traditional remedies and treatments. How active his medical practice was after he moved to London is not wholly clear.

Great British Life: Messenger Monsey coloured etching by J Gillray. Photo: Wikimedia CommonsMessenger Monsey coloured etching by J Gillray. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As he grew older, and outlived his circle of friends and patrons, he became lonely, more bitter than ever and obsessed with both his own longevity – and his imminent death. He planned to leave his body for dissection and shortly before his death he wrote to a leading anatomist, asking whether he would be prepared to undertake the dissection in the event of Monsey’s early death, as his regular surgeon happened to be out of town. He was, and carried out Monsey’s wishes including the disposal of his remains in the River Thames, which makes something of a mockery of his self-composed epitaph, which concluded:

What the next world may be, never troubled my pate:

If not better than this, I beseech thee, oh Fate,

When the bodies of millions fly up in a riot

To let the old carcase of Monsey lie quiet.

Monsey’s will must have left his Executors some intriguing tasks. He bequeathed an old coat to one friend, but the buttons on it to another, and his Will contained a clause stating that he would have left one girl a large legacy had he not regarded her as ‘a pert conceited minx, with as many affected silly airs as a foolish woman of quality.’

Clearly, he died as he had lived, full of opinion and happy to offend. But his wit was entertaining, he was accepted in distinguished company and there must have been a charismatic streak in his mischievous character.

My wife always proof-reads my articles before I submit them. ‘Well’ she might have said after reading this one, ‘son of a Norfolk parson, caustic, rude, fond of Latin tags and bad puns, scruffy, incapable of writing legibly, and offensive – sounds just like you!’ Happily, she resisted the temptation.