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January 2019 Item of the Month

A clergy 'fit note' from 1842

Compared with the current regime of 'fit notes' and 'work capability assessments', this modest document seems both simple and generous. In it, the bishop of Durham gives permission for Gerald Valerian Wellesley to be absent from his parish (Bishopwearmouth St Michael, now Sunderland Minster), due to his ill health. It confirms that he has produced a medical certificate and that he has "provided for the duty of your said benefice to our satisfaction." It is part of a series of petitions and licences for non-residence within the Durham Diocesan Records (reference DDR/EA/CLN/2), and is accompanied by his doctor's certificate and a petition which details the names and stipdends of the six curates whom he has employed to perform his duties within the parish.

Clergy non-residence licence 1842
Licence for non-residence, for Revd Gerald Valerian Wellesley, 1842 (ref: DDR/EA/CLN/2/672/3)

Note that there have been at least two Church of England clergymen with the same name, both related to the Dukes of Wellington. This certificate relates to the Gerald Valerian Wellesley who was canon of the 5th prebend of Durham Cathedral as well as rector of Bishopwearmouth from 1827, and who died in 1848. His full clerical career is documented in the Clergy Database, and is to be distinguished from the clergyman of the same name who was Dean of Windsor from 1854 until his death in 1882 (see Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for this other Gerald Valerian).

The more interesting of the documents associated with these non-residence petitions are the medical certificates. As well as adding colour to the individual story (and in this instance, perhaps reflecting Wellesley's own attitude to Sunderland, see below), these certificates reflect medical understanding and diagnoses of the times. In Wellesley's sick certificate, he is described as "subject to a chronic afflication of the Larynx and top of the Trachea, which is very much influenced by the state of the atmosphere, and the air he breathes."

As Gerald Valerian Wellesley was also a major canon of Durham Cathedral, we can trace his residence within Durham through the Chapter minute books. A cursory look at the minute book for September 1842 (the date of the above licence, ref DCD/B/AA/14) confirms that he was attending meetings in Durham most weeks at this period, so his bad health was clearly confined to Sunderland, and not apparently triggered by the sweeter air of the cathedral close in Durham. This perhaps explains the repeated references in the medical certificate to the "loaded and impure state of the atmosphere" in Sunderland. In the second page of the certificate (not shown), the doctor states, "Were he to reside at Bishopwearmouth rectory it would very materially tend to increase his complaints, and shorten his life."

To view further examples of such medical certificates, many of them relating to breathing difficulties or lung diseases, please sign up for one of our Breathtaking Books & Inspiring Incunabula workshops, being held to accompany the Catch Your Breath exhibition at Palace Green Library.

Medical certificate for non-residence petition
Medical certificate for Gerald Valerian Wellesley, 1842 (ref: DDR/EA/CLN/2/672/1)

Every month we showcase here an item from our Heritage Collections.