James Dawson (1779-1875)

James Dawson

Written by Kevin Grice

Occupations: Landowner and Surgeon

Early Life of James Dawson 

James Dawson was born in Liverpool on 17 December 1778 and baptised there at St Nicholas Parish Church on 14 January 1779. It has been stated (Menuge and Goodall) that he appears to have belonged to an established medical family but this is not entirely correct. He certainly had relatives who were listed as physicians and apothecaries in Gore’s Liverpool Directory from the 1790’s onwards and one of them, Thomas Dawson, was listed as a surgeon in 1796. However James’ father was also named James Dawson and it is probable, but not certain, that he is the man described as an engraver in Dale Street in the heart of Liverpool’s commercial centre in the same directories. This would also seem to fit better with the later description of James Dawson as having come from humble beginnings.

James Dawson did not undergo formal medical training at a hospital or university but began instead as an additional apothecary at a dispensary in Church Street in Liverpool city centre, where he is so listed in 1800.  That he took the apothecary route of training is again supportive of his origins being outside the medical world. This route of training, a type of apprenticeship, was common in the period.  Examination by the Society of Apothecaries would usually follow and then study and examination by the Royal Society of Physicians for a proportion of the abler candidates.  Even as late as 1856, only four per cent of medical practitioners had a university degree in medicine.

James Dawson was however able, ambitious and energetic and in about 1800 he took up the post of Librarian at the Liverpool Medical Library, housed at Liverpool Infirmary, work which he undertook for six years and where, with ready access to the key textbooks, he was able to study alongside his duties both as an apothecary until 1803 and then as a junior surgeon. He also responded to the nationwide fear of French invasion following the collapse of the Peace of Amiens in 1804 by offering his services as Assistant Surgeon to the Liverpool Volunteers. He thus obtained both a theoretical and a practical grounding in surgical medicine which was to underpin the rest of his life.

Medical Career of James Dawson

James Dawson was made a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons on 15 February 1805, being known as Dr Dawson thereafter. He was one of three surgeons listed at the Liverpool Dispensary in 1805-1821 and he was described as ‘Gentleman’ in 1816, an indication of a clear rise in status. He soon had a busy surgical practice in the city, first in Mount Pleasant (1807, 1810, 1811 and 1813), then in Bold Street (1817 and 1818) then at 18, Newington Bridge (1824, 1825 and 1829) before moving finally to the prestigious address of 101, Mount Pleasant before 1840. For many years he was Consulting Surgeon to Liverpool Infirmary on Brownlow Street, the Lunatic Asylum and the Lock Hospital, the first being a post he continued to fulfil up until 1850 even after his retirement from full time surgical practice several years earlier. He also acted as Honorary Surgeon to both Liverpool Workhouse and the Fever Hospital (or House of Recovery). His work as one of four ‘accoucheurs’ or obstetricians for the Ladies’ Charity (an ‘Institution for the Relief of Poor Married Women in Child-bed at their own Houses’ founded in 1796) between 1805 and 1825 was an early sign of his philanthropic nature. He published a pioneering article in 1833 in the fledgling journal of the Provincial Medical & Surgical Association on the treatment of spina bifida, although unhappily the patient whose case James Dawson detailed did not survive the treatment.

In time he became President of the Medical Library and the Lyceum, both prestigious Liverpool institutions, and in 1839 he was a co-founder of the Vaccine Institute (a forerunner of Liverpool’s now world-renowned School of Tropical Medicine). When the new Liverpool Medical Institution was being founded in that same year, James Dawson was a member of the Building Committee and he contributed £100 towards the cost; he was later to become the Institution’s President for twenty-five years. He lectured on surgery at the Medical School at Liverpool’s Royal Institution and became a member of the Council of the Provincial Medical and Surgical Association (which would in 1855 be renamed the British Medical Association). In the light of this body of work, it is unsurprising that James Dawson was made a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons on 11 December 1843, one of the original three hundred Fellows. He was not however above using his positions to give commercial endorsement to medical products, being a signatory to various advertisements for anatomical stays and corsets by the corset-maker to Queen Victoria, who had workshops in both Liverpool and London.

He also appeared as an expert witness in court. In August 1834 he gave evidence for the Plaintiff in the case of Driver v Feather in Liverpool Sheriff’s Court where a surveyor sued the coach company responsible for a grave accident as he dismounted the Kendal to Liverpool stage coach at its destination. This passenger suffered very serious head injuries and James Dawson described in quite gruesome detail how he had diagnosed then treated the brain injury in question. The claim succeeded and the Plaintiff was awarded £500. Later the same year he described to a murder trial how he had removed a pistol ball from the victim of a shooting at Liverpool Custom House but that despite his best endeavours, the man had died. The culprit was convicted and hanged.

The historian of the Liverpool Medical Institution, after summarising his career, noted that in later years James Dawson: ‘remained a paternal figure who on occasions expressed emphatic opinions which could not be ignored. Most of all he was a great benefactor… and during his active professional career he was held in great respect by his colleagues’. 

Marriage, Margaret and the Preston Family

On 15 April 1810 at St Anne’s Church in Liverpool James Dawson married Margaret Preston (1789-1862). She was the daughter of Robert Preston (c1761-1833) and Jinnet Wilkinson (c1765-1812), who had married in Liverpool on 4 May 1788. Margaret was born on 28 October 1789 and baptised at St Peter’s Church Liverpool on 22 November 1789. She had a younger brother, also Robert Preston (1792-1847) and a cousin William Preston (1806-1871) and it was the wealth which she acquired through her family, in particular her father, which was to be so instrumental in the lives of herself and her husband. 

Margaret was part of a well-established landed family in Lancashire, which could trace its origins back to the eleventh century. In the late thirteenth century they owned vast estates in Westmorland; Preston Patrick is named after them. At one time they owned Holker Hall and Park and, following the Dissolution, Furness Abbey. Their lands were however gradually lost over the years by marriage, forfeiture and necessity. Margaret’s grandfather Robert Preston (1713-1773) was born in Ireland but farmed near Cockerham and his son, again Robert, succeeded him to what was left of the family estates in Pilling. At an early age however Margaret’s father determined to repair the broken family fortunes and he went to Liverpool in 1783 to seek prosperity as a merchant. There he founded Robert Preston & Company, a firm of rectifiers (whereby spirits are either repeatedly distilled to purifying effect or mixed with flavourings) and brandy merchants and later, with William Preston, he also established William Preston & Company, distillers of spirits, in particular gin. These two businesses ran in tandem with trading connections to Portugal and the West Indies and were the basis of the restored Preston family wealth. It seems that this family history of wealth, loss and revival was to play an important part in Margaret’s life.

In due course the Preston family also diversified into other fields of commerce. In 1758 a foundry had been established by George Perry (1719-1771) as the Liverpool branch of the Coalbrookdale Company, specialising in cast iron cooking pots. Over time the firm expanded under the name Fawcett & Littledale and new Liverpool works were built, which in 1816 supplied steam machinery for four sugar plantations in Cuba. Even more significantly the following year, the firm provided engines for the wooden paddle steamer Conde de Palmella, the first ocean-going steamer to leave England when it made the voyage from Liverpool to Lisbon in four days. The firm went on to provide engines for all types of steam vessels crossing the Atlantic and thus came to the attention of Margaret’s father, whose wares were being transported over these routes into and out of Liverpool. In 1823 the partnership of Fawcett & Littledale was dissolved and Robert Preston joined the firm, which then became known as Fawcett, Preston & Company, Iron Founders and Engineers. 

On 19 November 1833 Robert Preston died at the family home Fir Grove in West Derby, an affluent village which was by then becoming a suburb of Liverpool. His will described him as ‘Distiller, Rectifier and Brandy-Merchant’ and his executors, including James and Margaret Dawson, then gave notice that all three partnerships were dissolved so far as the estate was concerned but each continued trading and indeed expanding. The spirit firms continued to be run by his son Robert and his nephew William; the engineering business expanded to London, making in 1838 the largest iron plates then manufactured in England. In time they supplied equipment for sugar refineries in many parts of the world including the West Indies and New Orleans, they manufactured armaments including mortar and cannon (1842) and they also built steam locomotives (1845). It is of significance that by his will Margaret’s father was explicit in stating that anything bequeathed to her and his other female relatives was to be for their sole benefit so that she was ‘free from the debts, control or interference from her present or any after husband’.

James and Margaret Dawson moved in society circles in Liverpool, living for the most part at his several residences in Mount Pleasant, and in time they also became known in the Lake District, in particular around Ambleside. As early as 1831 a letter from Sir Frederick Fletcher Vane (1760-1832) of Armathwaite Hall begs James Dawson to accept some venison and the Dawsons were also well acquainted with the Wordsworths. Liverpool Records Office holds a set of pencil and crayon portraits of the family which are attractive examples of the early work of the Liverpool artist William Gawin Herdman (1805-1882). Interestingly they refer to ‘the Dawson family of Low Wray’ and are dated 1835/6 so their connection with that area was becoming established by that date. This was because all their Liverpool commerce and industry was producing great wealth for the Preston family and Margaret was to have her share, particularly after the death of her father in 1833, although she was not seemingly involved in any of the businesses directly. It was her family money which was then to be put to use in the Claife area of Wray.

Wray Castle

The Claife estate spreads down the western shore of Lake Windermere several miles to the south of Ambleside and includes an area known as Wray. This latter name derives from the Norse for nook or hollow and there may have been a farm there even before the Normans arrived in England (Lund).  Owned for many years by Furness Abbey, the land, including a farm at Wray, is certainly mentioned in the monastic surrender documents of 1538/9. The Strickland family of Sizergh Castle owned property at Low Wray from 1740 until 1824 before selling it to their sitting tenant John Marr who in turn sold it to Andrew Henry Thompson of Windermere for £6,000 in 1834. 

By this time James Dawson was 55 years of age and was contemplating retiring from his full time surgical practice in Liverpool, so was looking for a site on which to build a permanent home near Windermere. He had initially purchased a parcel of land at Low Wray in about 1832, followed by further purchases of agricultural land in the area over the next four years before in June 1836 he acquired the remainder of the estate from Andrew Thompson for £6,500. This included Low Wray Farm and its farmland, together with The Wray (or Wray Cottage), a late eighteenth or early nineteenth century building later known as The Dower House and into which James and Margaret moved for their early stays in the area. They held a grand party in a barn at the farm to celebrate the coronation of Queen Victoria in June 1838 with Margaret pouring the champagne, after which there was dancing long into the night. It is unlikely that James Dawson initially had in mind the creation of a grand residence on the site but a severe storm on 7 January 1839 seems to have changed his mind. A letter two days later gives a terrifying description of the occupants of The Wray huddling in the centre of the house whilst the windows crashed inwards; on the same night all the chimneys at the nearby Sandys house at Graythwaite collapsed. Beatrix Potter (a later visitor to the Wray estate) wrote that in consequence Dr Dawson: ‘vowed he would build a house that could stand the weather’.

The Dawsons continued to live at The Dower House while Wray Castle was being built. The precise construction dates are unclear but the period 1840-1847 is most commonly accepted. The work was both expensive and difficult. The initial architect was John Jackson Lightfoot (1795-1843). He was not an architect by trade but an accountant in Liverpool with a keen amateur interest in architecture and Wray Castle seems to be the only building ever constructed to his designs. However: ‘he killed himself with drinking before the house was finished’ according to Beatrix Potter; the irony of this alongside the source of the funds to build the house has not been lost. Consequently Henry Horner (1809-1854), a well-known Liverpool architect, completed the construction but the cost was astronomical. The diary of Beatrix Potter records that the castle cost around £60,000 to build (about £4.8 million at today’s prices) and another account suggests that the costs even exceeded this amount and that James Dawson reputedly abandoned account keeping once he had spent the £60,000. The building divided opinion from the outset. William Wordsworth visited often (in 1846 James Dawson assisted with the illness of John Wordsworth, the poet’s nephew) and said that it: ‘added a dignified feature to the interesting scenery in the midst of which it stands’ and he is reputed to have planted a black mulberry tree in the grounds in 1845. Harriet Martineau described it thus: ‘A most defensible-looking place for so peaceful a region, but an enviable residence, both from its interior beauty and the view it commands’. The American author Nathaniel Hawthorne however was less enthusiastic, referring to it in 1855 as: ‘a mimic castle…a great, foolish toy of gray stone’. 

The castle is of exactly the kind lampooned by Augustus Welby Pugin (1812-1852) in his True Principles of 1841. It is built in sawn slate and limestone in the Gothic Revival style typical of the era and includes castellated towers, corner towers with arrow slits and even a portcullis. The Dawson coat of arms is carved above the porte-cochère and another carving displays the monogram of James and Margaret. Ornate woodwork and wall panelling, along with impressive plasterwork and moulded ceilings, enhance the interior. The main hall contains a particularly splendid pattern of Minton tiles, some of which are monogrammed and a marble starburst pattern in the reception hall is equally well executed. Around the same time two mock ruins or follies were erected in the environs and a great deal of landscaping work was undertaken on the wider grounds, including an arboretum, an orchard and two walled gardens with a garden house.

It was a clear statement of status by James but may also have been for Margaret a return to the style of living of her forbears. The suggestion that her husband simply used her wealth to create a folly for himself certainly appears wide of the mark. Their marriage was very much a partnership of equals (they had married well before his elevation in society and her inheritance from her father) and the support the Preston family gave to the project seemingly confirms their approval of it. The use of Gothic Revival, Baronial, Renaissance and Jacobean architecture, as well as the inclusion of all the typical trappings of a country estate – a local church, a home farm and so on – imply that the Dawsons wanted to create the illusion of having always been there, almost as if they had never left the Lake counties. Their references to lineage, as well as the inclusion of expensive and fashionable items, suggests that they indeed sought the best and wanted to show that they had always lived an aristocratic and luxurious lifestyle (Major). The lineage and history was, of course, Margaret’s rather than James’. It may not be without coincidence that in the 1850’s her cousin William left Liverpool to rebuild a grand family house, Ellel Grange, near Cockerham; she also wanted to show the world that her family was doing well again.

Wray Church

The wider estate was also developed by James and Margaret Dawson to include a fernery, a pavilion, a gatehouse and a number of attractive boathouses on the lake shore. Older buildings at Low Wray Farm were also developed as a home farm, which included a new stable and coach house as well as a bank barn. Most importantly St Margaret’s Church was built at Low Wray in 1856 adjacent to the house lodge. The choice of St. Margaret of Antioch as patron is almost certainly to honour both James Dawson’s wife and his sister (1795-1880) who shared that forename and it was described as being for: ‘the spiritual benefit of Dr. Dawson’s family, retainers and estate workers, servants and friends’ (Mannex). A further resonance for James Dawson may have been that St Margaret, by tradition, burst from the belly of a dragon and thus became a patroness of childbirth, an echo of his work for the Ladies’ Charity. The church was consecrated by Bishop Waldegrave of Carlisle in 1861 when it was assigned parochial boundaries. Margaret’s cousin William donated a very fine stained glass window and her nephew Robert Berthon Preston (1820-1860) gave the organ as a gift. In December 1877 it became the incumbency of the Reverend Hardwicke Rawnsley (1851-1920), whose cousin Edward Preston Rawnsley (1860-1938) had inherited the bulk of the estate two years earlier, and who had been ordained as a priest at Carlisle Cathedral in November that year. He lived at the vicarage close by for several years and there he met the Potters during their stay in 1882, becoming a lifelong friend with Beatrix as well as renewing his friendship with his former Oxford lecturer John Ruskin (1819-1900) of nearby Brantwood.  

Later Life and Legacy

James and Margaret Dawson continued to live at Wray Castle for the rest of their lives, although James returned to Liverpool from time to time to fulfil his medical roles. The assertion that Margaret hated Wray Castle seems to be false; she entertained there with enthusiasm and the Dawsons took part in local flower and vegetable competitions, winning prizes for dahlias, hollyhocks, gladioli and various vegetables. The myth seems to derive from the fact that a relative of her husband, also named Margaret Dawson, lived nearby, from which it has been wrongly inferred that this was Margaret herself who did not want to live in the castle with him. On the 1851 and 1861 Census returns they are certainly both shown as resident, on the former having seven servants living in and many more employees on the wider estate. James was a JP for the area from 1839, another mark of his acceptance into local society, and he was long gratefully remembered for the ready help which he was always willing to give to the poor of the Ambleside district when they were in search of sympathy and advice. His obituary in The Lancet noted that: ‘to our knowledge, up to five years ago, he was not prevented by weather or the weight of ninety years from consideration for the poorest of his neighbours or courtesy to the most casual of his visitors’.

Margaret Dawson died at Wray Castle on 15 June 1862, aged 72. Her probate was granted on 7 August 1862 at just under £40,000, a clear testimony to the wealth which she had retained from her family’s businesses under the will of her father and despite the expenditure upon Wray. James Dawson also died at Wray Castle on 17 January 1875. He was buried alongside his wife in a tomb in the grounds of St Margaret’s Church and there is a marble tablet in Latin and English to them inside. His probate was granted on 23 March 1875 at just under £45,000. At his death the estate totalled some 830 acres and included all the main buildings as well as a number of farms to the south, together with areas of broadleaf and conifer woodland. The valuation of his probate clearly reflected the difficulties of upkeep which had been encountered after construction of the castle and grounds when contrasted with the initial expenditure upon the buildings themselves. 

As the Dawsons had no children, the bulk of the estate descended in 1875 to the fifteen year old Edward Preston Rawnsley, a nephew of Margaret’s. He let it as a holiday home and Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) celebrated her sixteenth birthday there in 1882. It was her first visit to the Lake District, so her love of the region can be said to have started at Wray. Edward Rawnsley owned the estate until in 1898 it was bought by David Ainsworth (1842-1906) MP for Westmorland 1880-1885 and 1892-1895. After passing through several other hands, in 1929 the Castle, the Dower House and 64 acres were acquired by the National Trust for the relatively nominal sum of £4,500, paid for by Sir Noton and Lady Barclay to commemorate his year as Lord Mayor of Manchester. At the same time William Heelis, Beatrix Potter’s husband, bought High Wray Farm which was also left to the National Trust upon his death in 1945. Wray Castle then served as a youth hostel, the headquarters of the Freshwater Biological Association, a training school for Merchant Navy radio officers, a conference centre and business offices before the National Trust opened it to the public in 2012. It even housed exhibits from the Natural History Museum during the Second World War.

James Dawson’s RCS obituary noted that ‘He was a venerable man, of dignified appearance, of extreme courtesy, of well-judged liberality, of high culture, and in thorough sympathy with all his neighbours.’ He and his wife undoubtedly constructed one of the more extraordinary buildings in the whole of Cumbria. 


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