Simon Gage Britton. © Britton Collection.
'Britton performed admirably, resulting in rescued French sailors outnumbering the Pickle’s crew'.
Simon Gage Britton had a colourful medical career; from humble beginnings as a 14 year old apprentice in Bristol, to surgeons mate at the Battle of Trafalgar (reportedly attending Admiral Lord Nelson on his deathbed), and ending finally as an eminent, yet arguably unorthodox, physician at the newly established North Devon Infirmary. The story of Britton’s medical escapades are reflected in the Museum’s collection.
Britton’s naval career began shortly after the outbreak of war between Britain and France in 1803 upon his appointment as assistant surgeon to HMS Pickle – a position he held during the Battle of Trafalgar, 1805. Unable to engage the French ships of the line at Trafalgar, HMS Pickle was instead tasked with assisting French survivors – a task which Britton performed admirably, resulting in rescued French sailors outnumbering the Pickle’s crew and whispers of mutiny.
Simon Britton’s naval surgeon’s coat © MBND
'his frock coat was...scrubbed of bloodstains from the Admiral himself'.
During the battle, Britton was summoned aboard the HMS Victory to assist surgeon William Beatty because ‘the rows of shattered men lying on the orlop deck were so overwhelming’. It is speculated that he was present at Nelson’s death bed and according to local tales his frock coat was later scrubbed of bloodstains from the Admiral himself. Though a tempting tale, it is more likely Britton was simply requested to relieve pressure on the Victory’s overburdened surgical crew. His actions at Trafalgar subsequently prompted Beatty and the Victory’s then acting captain, Thomas Hardy, to recommend him for promotion to the rank of surgeon; which he finally obtained on the 7th March 1806.
Although it is unknown whether this coat formed part of the uniform Britton wore at Trafalgar, it nevertheless remains in remarkable condition – especially considering that he was said to have worn a uniform for many years after leaving the Royal Navy, even during his tenure as a consultant physician at the North Devon Infirmary.
Simon Britton’s naval surgeon’s coat (detail) © MBND
'...a horse doctor from Bristol'.
Britton was discharged from the Navy in 1814 and spent some time further honing his craft in London and his home town of Bristol before finally coming to Devon in 1825 and taking up residence at Kings Close in Newport, Bishops Tawton. Shortly after his arrival in Barnstaple, Britton was appointed consultant physician at the North Devon Infirmary in Litchdon Street in 1831 – seemingly much to the chagrin of the local Barumites.
He was ridiculed for his unorthodox choice of civilian attire (he was said to have worn his naval uniform as he continued to practice medicine) and his storied career and impressive qualifications became largely ignored replaced with a local narrative of a bizarre and eccentric ‘quack’ fit to be little more than a ‘horse doctor from Bristol.’ He finally retired from his post in 1843 after a period of continued ill health
Britton died in on March 6th 1856 Barnstaple and was buried at Ilfracombe Holy Trinity Church. Modest memorials exist both in Holy Trinity, Ilfracombe and St Bartholomews in Cadeleigh, where his son Paul Ford Britton was rector for a number of years. Although he appears as somewhat of an afterthought – simply mentioned as ‘Simon Gage Britton of Newport, Barnstaple’ the impressive items the Museum holds ensures that this marvellous medical man will not be forgotten.
Dr Britton’s patient card. © MBND
Simon Gage Britton's coat is on display in the museum's Merchants and Manufacturers gallery. Dr Britton's patient card is available to view on request. Written by Tyler Pollard Editor Adam Murray