Founder of Epsom College, Dr John Propert, left no diaries, books, or written notes from which we can deduce his personality. The surviving photographs are typically Victorian, giving no hint to the character of the man, however we can certainly draw some conclusions from historical records of the time.
John Propert was born in Blaenpistyll, Llangoedmor, Cardiganshire, in 1793, the only son of Thomas and Jane Propert. He was educated at Cardigan Grammar School, and joined a county militia regiment at the age of 15. A year later, in 1809, he carried the regimental colours at the Golden Jubilee of George III. Lacking the funds to purchase a commission, he had no prospect of advancing his career in the army and so left to work for a surgeon in Cardigan where he dispensed medicines.
He left Wales at the age of 17, with financial assistance from a relative, to study medicine at St Bartholomew’s in London. He first qualified as a naval surgeon, finally obtaining his diploma of Member of the Royal College of Surgeons at the impressive age of 21. He returned to Wales and started a successful practice in Cardigan before setting up practice in Portland Place, London which he continued until his death.
He married in 1824. He and his wife Julia had 3 sons and 4 daughters, the eldest son, John Lumsden Propert eventually succeeded his father in his practice and was himself a renowned physician and art critic.
Throughout his medical career, and as trustee of the Medical Protection Society (founded to give assistance to medical men and to help them in the recovery of bad debts.), John Propert had seen the hardship suffered by members of his own profession and their dependents. Fortunately, his many years of successful practice ensured he was well regarded by his peers and it had also brought him into contact with wealthy patients and their friends.
Driven by the conviction to help those less fortunate than himself he founded the Royal Medical Benevolent College in 1851 to assist elderly doctors, their widows and orphans.
He set about raising funds, and by 1852 a site was purchased on Epsom Downs. A year later the foundation stone was laid by his friend, supporter and first president of the College, Earl Manvers, in the presence of almost 5,000 people. An official opening was performed on June 25th 1855 by Prince Albert, accompanied by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII).
Within a few years The Royal Medical Benevolent College became known as Epsom College. The College first opened its doors to 20 pensioners, either qualified medical men or their widows, providing them with accommodation and income, and to 40 foundation scholars (sons of medical men) who were fed, clothed and educated. Within a few years, the numbers of pupils rose to include those able to pay fees, and by 1865 the school had been enlarged to house 300 boys.
John Propert became the College’s first treasurer, and though maintaining a busy practice in London, he continued fundraising to ensure a secure future for the College, and was at the heart of every improvement up until his death in 1867. Nor in his latter years did he forget the place of his birth or its people, becoming High Sheriff and later Deputy Lieutenant of Cardiganshire; Governor of the Welsh Charity School; and as Chairman of the Carmarthen and Cardigan Railway Company, he sought to encourage the benefits of this new method of travel; and touchingly, at the age of 63, he erected a stained glass window to the memory of his parents in Aberporth Church.
John Propert was undoubtedly a man of great social conscience. His obituary in the British Medical Journal recalls his “strong public feeling and deep interest in the welfare of his brethren”.
If we who are associated with Epsom College take anything of the spirit of the College and its Founder with us when we leave, it is perhaps a quote taken from a short biography written just before his death:
“This successful career has not rendered Mr Propert unobservant of the difficulty of the race, which he has run so safely. He has looked back upon the field and those left behind, and has not been content to utter common-places on the uncertainties and perils of professional life. He has come forward to give assistance, and the Asylum and College at Epsom are proofs of the wisdom and the benevolence of his designs.”