Just who was Sir Frederick Treves?
Steve White examines the life of the surgeon, author and man of Dorset
Published in December ’14
From the founding of the Society of Dorset Men in 1904, for five years, two very famous men were its first and second presidents. Outside of the Society, throughout Dorset and beyond, Hardy is known by one and all, whilst the name of the man who was chosen as first president, Treves, invariably elicits the response ‘who?’, or a silence accompanied by a deep frown on the individual’s forehead. This I know from experience; while following-up on Treves’s journey through the county in his book Highways and Byways in Dorset, I am called upon to ask Dorset folk for information. When I mention that I am writing about Frederick Treves’s travels, I generally get one or both of the aforementioned responses.
Frederick Treves was born at 8 Cornhill, Dorchester in 1853 (a plaque on the wall of Costa Coffee marks the building). The young Frederick was taught by William Barnes at his school in South Street; Barnes was to have a profound effect on Treves throughout his life, he is mentioned at length in Highways and Byways… and was apparently often quoted by Treves, who was very fond of Barnes’s poems. Treves’s father died in July 1867 and, within months, Frederick’s mother had sold the family business and moved the family to London. Here Frederick was to become a student at the Merchant Taylors’ School before going on to train at the London Hospital.
Treves gained fame firstly as the man who looked after Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, and secondly as Royal Surgeon to Edward VII, operating on his appendix and saving his life just two days before the planned date of the King’s coronation. Treves’s decision to operate on 24 June 1902 caused the Coronation to be postponed until 9 August of that year. Considering that all heads of state from the British Empire and other dignitaries from around the world would already have been in London, the pressure on Treves not to operate must have been enormous. Adding to this pressure was the fact that not all surgeons present when Treves made the decision were in agreement, some suggested that the King would be okay to go-ahead with his crowning; Treves, nevertheless, was resolute. In response to Edwards’s outcry of ‘I have a Coronation on hand,’ Treves replied: ‘It will be a funeral, if you don’t have the operation.’
The fact that Treves was so confident about the soon to be crowned King’s prognosis was not merely down to a superior medical intellect; his peers, who didn’t concur with his insistence on operating on the King, were all leading lights of their profession. So what was it? Treves was considered one of the world’s leaders in all things ‘appendix’ but he had made a number of poor judgments over the years, one of which had led to a tragedy. In 1900, his eighteen-year-old daughter, Hetty, developed severe abdominal pain. Treves was sure it wasn’t appendicitis but he was wrong and his hesitation to operate, meant that Hetty developed peritonitis and died. Treves never hesitated again; the future King’s life was probably saved due to Hetty’s untimely death. An indebted King Edward VII commanded that the whole British Empire raise their glasses and toast Sir Frederick Treves. The Dorset lad had reached the pinnacle of his fame.
Treves had always maintained that a surgeon should retire at the age of 50 and this he did in 1903. Now a wealthy as well as a very famous man, he decided to write travel books; the fact that almost all of them have been reprinted several times proves that he had a talent for writing. Prior to embarking on his travel book journeys, though, he was asked by the publishers, Macmillan, to write the Dorset edition of their popular Highways and Byways… series.
Treves accepted the challenge, and a challenge it was: he cycled over 2000 miles around the county researching his book. Here was one of the most famous people in the British Empire cycling on rough chalk tracks visiting almost every part of Dorset. The book was first published in 1906, re-printed many times; it still holds the title of most popular book written on Dorset.
Treves used to rent a cottage in West Lulworth and moored his yacht, Vagabond, in the Cove. An accomplished yachtsman, he apparently taught a number of medical colleagues to sail and he even earned his Master Mariner’s certificate; he would regularly cross the English Channel on Boxing Day single handed. It was while staying at his cottage in Lulworth in September of 1892 that a remarkable event, as well as an astonishing coincidence, took place. Treves describes it in Highways and Byways in Dorset: ‘The cliffs that shut in the cove on the land side are steep and terrible. On the beach at the foot of the highest precipice is a board with this inscription on it:-
‘This marks the spot whereon
Aged 11 years
Fell from the summit of the cliff,
A descent of 380 feet,
September 7th 1892.
She miraculously escaped without
Sustaining lifelong injury
The girl’s name was Edith H Leckie of 1, Morningside Road, Bootle, Lancashire. Her mother was an Australian called Elizabeth, her father an Irish Squire (which is where the initials S.T.S.L come from); Squire T S Leckie. The incident is recorded in a number of local newspapers including the Dorset County Chronicle and Poole & Dorset Herald. Edith and her mother were visiting Lulworth Cove with friends; the Squire was in Weymouth on business.
Treves continues the story: ‘Any who look up from this spot to the fringe of grass which crowns this appalling wall will never for a moment credit that a child can have fallen from a height greater than that of St Paul’s Cathedral without having been mangled to death. I did not actually see the poor girl fall, but I was on the beach when she was brought to the coastguard boat-house, where I was able to attend to her terrible injuries.
‘She came down with her back to the cliff. Her clothes were torn into strings, and it would appear that the catching of her garments on the rough face of the precipice, together with the circumstance that certain slopes and ledges were encountered in her descent, help to explain the incredible fact that she escaped with her life, and still more happily without permanent ill effect.
‘Those who are curious about coincidences,’ Treves continues, ‘may be interested to know that at the time the alarm reached my cottage I was reading a book written by her father. He was himself not staying in Lulworth at the time, nor had I previously made his acquaintance.’
That Treves was reading a book on railway engineering by Squire T S Leckie, when the latter’s daughter fell from the ‘summit of the cliff’, is a fascinating coincidence!
Sir Frederick Treves died on 7 December 1923, at the age of 70, in Lausanne, Switzerland. Ironically it was peritonitis that caused his demise. In the days before antibiotics, peritonitis commonly resulted from a ruptured appendix. Lady Frederick Treves arranged for him to be cremated at Lausanne and sent the ashes to England, so that they could be buried in Dorchester cemetery. She did not attend the funeral, which took place on 2 January 1924, arranged by Sir Newman Flower, Treves’s friend as well as his publisher. The service was organised by Thomas Hardy. Hardy, who was now 84 and very frail, was implored by Flower not to attend; it was bitterly cold and raining hard, nevertheless he insisted and stood beside the open grave, without an umbrella, for the entire ceremony. He placed a poem in The Times titled ‘In the Evening’. The Society of Dorset Men contributed a wreath on which was inscribed a verse from William Barnes, in Dorset Dialect, which had been a favourite of Treves:
‘An’ oft do come a saddened hour
When there must go away
Woone well beloved to our heart’s core
Vor long, perhaps vor aye.
An’ oh! It is a touchen thing
The loven heart must rue
To hear behind his last farewell
The geate a-vallen to!
Treves and Thomas Hardy had been great friends, often meeting to reminisce about old Dorset, dining on Dorset Knobs and Blue Vinny cheese, washed down with a fine Burgundy. Hardy invited funeral guests to tea and talked about Treves. Hardy said the fact that Treves was chosen by The Society of Dorset Men as the first president and Hardy as second, showed the high level of esteem in which Treves was held.
Hardy is justifiably famous and as a son of Dorset he has probably done more to bring the county to the fore than anyone else. Treves conversely, is hardly known in his native county, remarkable, considering that for a time at the beginning of last century, he was one of the most famous men on the planet. ◗