▪Witness for the child

One of the turning points in the early history of the NSPCC occurred in Shropshire – and Margaret’s father, Dr Henry Rope, was at the centre of the event.
This is that story.

Henry Rope

It is a shame that Henry is not much in the historical record.
As the Lancet Journal said at the time, he was so busy with his work in the town (he was the Senior Surgeon at the Shrewsbury Infirmary, among other duties) that he had no time to publish his researches.

Agnes, Marga and Henry Rope
Family portrait of: Marga’s mother (Agnes), herself, and her father Henry Rope. Thought to be taken after 1890

Yet the amazing public grief at his early death in 1899, at the age of 51, seems to have been genuine and the tributes unfeigned. A famous triptych sculpture to his memory was created at the time and it can still be seen in Shrewsbury Hospital.

One tribute though especially catches the eye. It comes from ‘The Child’s Guardian’, the journal of the NSPCC, and it made a special point: “His professional reluctance (to give evidence against a medical man) was outweighed by his passionate loyalty to children. He was pre-eminently a children’s doctor.” The article goes on: “…his first siding with the Society excited much surprise, especially as it was in what is known as a ‘well-to-do people’s case’; he is an honoured man with us.”
The case referred to is that of the prosecution in 1887 of Dr Henry Williams for whipping his three year old daughter black & blue.


The facts of the case were undisputed. Dr Williams, a very rich medical man who lived at Grinshill (a few miles from Shrewsbury), admitted that he and his wife had taken a whalebone riding whip to their infant for her failings at her lessons, causing her to have a series of raw, blackened bruises all down her back & legs and marks on her face.
However, the Williams’ defence was two-fold – they were portrayed as good & kind people, and as parents who were merely “anxious to subdue an obstinate will in the child”. A fellow local doctor spoke for the defence, supporting this view of his colleague.

The fact is that this sort of punishment was not unusual. Whippings, even for such young children, were commonplace at the time. The author Samuel Butler, a Shrewsbury man himself, wrote of his treatment at the hands of his clergyman father: “…if attention flagged, here was an ‘ill weed’… and the only way to pluck it out was to whip or shut one in a cupboard… Before the age of four, one was learning Latin…”.*
Such was the feeling that parents had the perfect right to chastise their children (however they wanted to) that there was a struggle to establish the NSPCC , which only got its royal charter late in the century, in 1895.

Doctor vs doctor

Despite the public disquiet caused by the case, the defence looked sound. The main prosecution witnesses were profiled by the defendants as ‘disloyal’ working-class servants; and the police refused to say who had alerted them to the incident.
The lynch-pin to the prosecution case was Henry Rope.

As The Child’s Guardian said, there was much surprise that the doctor who came with the police at the time to examine the child was Henry, the chief medical man of Shrewsbury. To agree to be a witness, not just against a very rich man with much influence, but against a fellow doctor who moved in the same circles, was highly unusual. It’s hard to realise now just how difficult this decision must have been for Henry… and why The Child’s Guardian was so impressed.

Not only Henry’s evidence but his standing as a reliable witness was crucial, and the jury found the Williams guilty.

As it turned out however, the judge saw fit to give Dr Williams and his wife just a £25 fine for assault, and they were declared innocent of the charge of GBH.
Nevertheless, public disapproval of them was such that they left Grinshill shortly after.

Two years later, Parliament passed the first ever UK law to protect children from abuse.

Children’s rights

It’s a shame that Henry never kept a diary or wrote articles, as we will never know how he came to be convinced that children had rights. We do know however that he did go on to be the NSPCC’s official medical advisor in Shropshire for most of the rest of his life.

Memorial plaque to Dr Henry Rope at St Mary's
Memorial plaque to Dr Henry Rope – at St Mary’s Church, Shrewsbury

It is also interesting to speculate if the case might have had any effect on the reformer Eglantyne Jebb. She would have known of the case, as she was a young woman living in north Shropshire at the time.
Eglantyne went on to form the Save The Children charity, and was also the driving force behind the international Declaration Of The Rights Of The Child (1925).
It’d be curious to think that Henry’s actions may have inspired the great reformer.

And the effect on Henry’s own children, including Marga?
It is well-known that Henry was very devout, but for them to see that his religion was not just a matter of form but practice as well must surely have had a profound effect on them.

* From Butler’s book The Way Of All Flesh, written in the same decade as this case.

Our thanks to Jane Morgan, who carried out much of the research for this article. The fullest account of the court-case is in The Wellington Journal, Jan 1887

If you’d like to comment on this article, please use the Comments Box below

One thought on “▪Witness for the child

  1. Very interesting article, Mark.
    One thing: the photo has to be later than 1890. If you look at the original photo, Irene (born 1889) is in the same image and has to be at least five, maybe older. Also, Marga here looks older than she did in her grandfather’s 80th birthday photo, which was in 1894. I think about 1895, making Marga about 12.


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.