The Rev Henry Whitehead (1825-1896)

Written by Stephen White

Occupation: Clergyman

Henry Whitehead, the eighth child of a family of ten, was born on September 22, 1825, at Ramsgate, Kent. His parents were Thomas Whitehead (1792-1841) and Mary (nee Williams) (1788-1857). Thomas was headmaster at Chatham School (now Chatham and Clarendon Grammar School) from 1817 to 1854, when he was succeeded by his son Alfred, Henry’s brother. 

Henry went up to Oxford, matriculating at Lincoln College in 1847 and taking his degree in 1850. Taking deacon’s orders in 1851 and being ordained priest by Charles Blomfield (1786-1857; ODNB; qv) the Bishop of London in 1852, Whitehead was determined to be a parish clergyman.  The Rev TF Stooks, vicar of St Luke’s, Berwick Street, Soho, offered him a curacy and Whitehead, having found accommodation in Soho Square, immediately entered with heart and soul into the work of a London curate. For the next twenty-four years he was to serve the church in seven different parishes, before moving in 1874 to Cumberland.

His first curacy at St Luke’s coincided with the terrible outbreak of cholera in that parish in 1854, when nearly 700 people living within 250 yards of the Broad Street pump died of cholera, in a period of less than two weeks. This outbreak allowed the remarkable local doctor, John Snow (1813-1858; ODNB), to show that cholera was a waterborne disease. Snow’s case against this particular well and facilitating pump was only based on a survey of those who had perished in the outbreak. He had not investigated the drinking habits of those who had survived the epidemic. Henry Whitehead’s own investigation into the outbreak, initially undertaken to disprove Snow's theory, was key to the acceptance of Snow’s hypothesis. Whitehead was ultimately to find information on as many as 497 residents of Broad Street, which amounted to over half the street’s population.  Many of these families had understandably fled the street and had to be tracked down through the Greater London area. Whitehead was able to do this because of his local knowledge and connections. One woman whose husband and daughter had come down with cholera (eventually surviving it) denied forthrightly that anyone in the house had ever favoured the Broad Street water. But when she relayed the details of her curious interview with Whitehead to the rest of the family, the daughter recalled that she had in fact drunk from the Broad Street supply in the days before the outbreak.

Whitehead noted that: ‘long before Cholera came upon us I was well acquainted with the streets and its inhabitants.  It so happened that during the outburst I was more in this street than any other, visiting very many of the families which suffered’.  In this period Whitehead was diligent in providing spiritual and material succour to the sick and dying.  Steven Johnson wrote in his book The Ghost Map: ‘Persuading an assistant curate of the merits of the waterborne theory might seem like a minor accomplishment. But Whitehead’s investigations in 1855 were ultimately as decisive as Snow’s in solving the Broad Street mystery. His conversion experience (Whitehead had set out to clear the character of the pump), the reading of Snow’s monograph, set him off in a search for the index case, eventually leading him to baby Lewis.’ 

The discovery of this baby, Frances Lewis, an infant diarrhoea victim, led Jehosephat York, the parish surveyor and secretary of the parish enquiry committee, to excavate the pump, which confirmed a direct connection between the pump and the cesspool at 40 Broad Street, where the family of Police Constable Lewis lived. They were the only family with ready access to the cesspool. Some of the waste water from washing the sick baby’s dirty nappies was dumped in the cesspool, only two feet eight inches from the outer edge of the brickwork of the Broad Street well.

‘Between the cesspool and the well’, York reported, ‘swampy soil …….saturated with human filth’, resulted in the contents of the cesspool seeping into the well. It is reasonable to assume that without the Reverend Whitehead’s contributions, the Vestry Committee would have never blamed the outbreak on the Broad Street pump. In the absence of an index case, an unequivocal link to the well water and without the support of one of the neighbourhood’s most beloved characters, it would have been much easier for the Vestry Committee to equivocate.  They could plausibly have blamed the cholera outbreak on the generally pitiful sanitary standards of the neighbourhood, in both the streets and the houses, and upon the ‘miasmatic haze’ in the water and in the air, as mentioned in the Board of Health report.  But the final compilation of evidence had been too overwhelming for such stock explanations. When Snow’s original data is combined with Whitehead’s more exhaustive investigation, the discovery of the index case and the decaying brickwork of the cesspit, the conclusion was inevitable: the pump was the source of the outbreak.The Vestry Committee’s verdict meant that for the first time an official committee investigation had endorsed the (new) waterborne theory. ‘It was a small victory, since the vestry had no power over public health issues outside Soho, but it gave Snow and his future allies something that he had long sought; an official endorsement’ (Johnson). 

The St James Vestry Cholera Committee Enquiry of 1855 paid full tribute to the work of the Rev Whitehead. ‘In the hands of one member of the Committee, the Rev H Whitehead, whose previous knowledge of the district both before and during the epidemic, owing to his position as Curate of St Luke’s, Berwick Street, gave him unusual advantages, the Visitors’ Inquiry elaborated itself into a most minute and painstaking investigation of a principal street, situated in the very heart of the locality affected. His Special Report upon Broad Street, the Committee have thought it necessary to append at length’.

Years later, Whitehead recalled the ‘calm, prophetic’ manner in which Snow described the future of their mutual investigation. ‘You and I may not live to see the day’ Snow explained to the young curate and my name may be forgotten when it comes; but the time will arrive when great outbreaks of cholera will be things of the past; and it is the knowledge of the way in which the disease is propagated which will cause them to disappear’. A portrait of Dr Snow was retained for many years in Whitehead's study and he said it ‘ever serves to remind me that in any profession the highest order of work is achieved, not by fussy empirical demand for something to be done but by patient study of the eternal laws’.

Family Life

On 25 August1864 Whitehead married May Juliana Belson (1841-1900), the only daughter of Captain Frederic Belson (1808-1884), formerly of the 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade and his wife Maria E Berkeley (1820-1897).  They had two daughters, Mabel (1866-1944) and Beryl (b.1872).  In London, Whitehead became acquainted with the Rev Stopford A Brooke (1832-1916), soon to be a chaplain in ordinary to the Queen, who introduced him to George Howard (1843-1911), the future 9th earl of Carlisle, who persuaded his father, the Hon Charles Howard, to recommend Whitehead to the trustees of the Brampton living.  He was appointed and upon leaving London, Whitehead was entertained at a dinner by a body of his friends. It is proof of his originality and humour, that in returning thanks for the toast of his health, he was able to fix the attention and sustain the interest of the hearers for three hours upon the title: ‘Twenty years as a London curate’; perhaps the longest after dinner speech on record. 

Whitehead arrived at Brampton in April 1874 and soon called a meeting for 22 June ‘for the purpose of considering the advisability of re-pewing the Parish Church’. A committee was appointed to examine the entire state of the building which was described in 1860 as in a ‘dilapidated state’ and it reported to a further meeting on 14 September.  On that occasion, a resolution was passed ‘that it is desirable that a New Church be built for the parish of Brampton’.  George Howard and the new vicar were the prime movers in the scheme. Whitehead recognised that the previous curate, William Miller, had ‘broken up a good deal of rough ground and so prepared the way for radical change’. The new building was to be designed by the architect Philip Webb (1831-1915) and was to be the only church he built.  Apart from the ‘wilful’ design, the church, which was constructed in 1877-8, was hugely enhanced by the stained glass designed by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), a friend of George Howard, and made by Morris and Co.  The windows had been commissioned to celebrate the life of the Hon Charles Howard who had died in 1879 and, apart from saints and personifications, are notable for the east window featuring a pelican in her piety and several unusual biblical figures on the north elevation.  Nikolaus Pevsner described St Martin’s as ‘a remarkable building’ with an east window ‘glowing with gem-stone colours...what a revolution Morris glass was, with its clarity and intensity ....The church is impressive everywhere...’ 

Whitehead himself  later said ‘the time will come when strangers will seek Brampton, not for the sake of the town itself, but for the windows in St Martin's Church, the work of the honoured and world-famed Burne-Jones’.  He was entirely correct in this observation.

The poet Peter Burn (d.c.1910) of Brampton, author of Border Ballads (1877), wrote of his friend: ‘Though of a passive nature, he could, when the case demanded it, manifest a master-spirit. This he did at a committee meeting convened to consider the question of placing a window in St Martin's Church, to the memory of the late Dr Thom. Some were for buying at the cheapest market; but [Whitehead] argued that harmony of design should be sought rather than the saving of money. They already had a window executed by Messrs Morris, the design of the poet artist Burne-Jones, and, as vicar he would rule that the work be entrusted to Messrs Morris. He was sorry to cross his friend but he acted for posterity’. [Quoted by Penn]

Whitehead remained in Brampton for ten years until he accepted the small living at Newlands, near Keswick, in 1884 and in 1885 the bishop of Carlisle, Harvey Goodwin (1818-1891; ODNB;qv), offered him the rectory of Newton Reigny, near Penrith.  Finally, in 1890 he accepted the living of Lanercost Priory, close to Naworth castle, the home of George Howard.  Here he remained until his sudden death on 5 March 1896, aged 71.  His widow died in 1900.

In all his north-country parishes, Whitehead left his mark. At Brampton, an entirely new parish church was built during his incumbency; at Newlands, the church was re-seated in oak; at Newton Reigny, he transcribed the parish registers (1571-1813); while at Lanercost, he rebuilt the long-ruined and isolated church at Kirkcambeck, east of Longtown. In all his parishes he was the centre of intellectual life.  When he died in 1896, Henry Whitehead was buried at Brampton Old Church and a cross was raised as a memorial there. 

His obituary in the Carlisle Journal said he ‘was at the head of every movement for the promotion of the material, moral, spiritual and intellectual advancement of Brampton’.  The obituary in the Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society described him as ‘one of the most valued members of its council’ and ‘one of the most painstaking and accurate contributors’ to its Transactions, contributing many articles, the principal subjects with which he dealt being Parish Registers, Church Plate and Church Bells.

A fitting tribute to Henry Whitehead was paid by the Presbyterian minister in Carlisle, the Rev T Christie: ‘Who could help loving Henry Whitehead ? Massive in frame, with the flowing white beard of a Roman senator, and a dark penetrating eye, protected by the black penthouse of an eyebrow, powerful in intellect, wise in sympathy, full of goodwill to men, capable without knowing it, gentle as a woman, and tender as a father to his child, the vicar of Lanercost, as parish priest, neighbour, and English gentleman, is one whom to know is to remember and respect’. 

Brampton St Martin’s also has a memorial window to Henry. In the west window of the narthex are Burne Jones designs, once again in Morris glass, showing the reception of souls into Paradise above four lights; the outer lights depict angels with long trumpets and the central two have angels displaying scrolls, one of which reads: ‘Well done thou good and faithful servant’ and the other ‘Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord’. The church tower was completed in 1896 and dedicated to Whitehead's memory.  That same year Mrs Whitehead decided to commemorate her husband further by placing a terra cotta relief of Saint Martin dividing his cloak with a beggar by the main door. She brought back from Venice a photograph of a panel of a door in the Ducal Palace and commissioned a Miss Rope to execute the work. JH Martingale designed a moulded frame for it.


  • Steven Johnson, The Ghost Map : A Street, an Epidemic and the Hidden Power of Urban Networks, Penguin, 2006
  • Arthur Penn, St Martins: the Making of a Masterpiece, 2008, David Penn
  • Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England; Cumberland and Westmorland, Penguin, 1967
  • HD Rawnsley, Henry Whitehead 1825-1896: A Memorial Sketch, 1898, MacLehose and Sons (This contains a bibliography of Whitehead’s published works)
  • Handbook of all Places of Worship in London, 1848
  • Report of the Cholera Outbreak in the Parish of St James, Westminster during the Autumn of 1854, presented to the Vestry by the Cholera Inquiry Committee, July 1855 (Introduction, General report, Dr Snow's Report, The Rev H Whitehead's Report, Mr York's Report and Appendix)
  • Carlisle Journal, obituary 6 March1896
  • The Times obituary 9 March 1896
  • Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, obituary, CW1, 14