By Julie Smith
Dr Thomas Lettis was Parish Surgeon and a GP for Great Yarmouth, and the Police Surgeon for over 40 years. During his time in office he carried out the forensic investigations of many dreadful crimes, not least the infamous ‘Shoelace Murder’ or ‘Murder on the Beach’. He is also my 3x Great Uncle by marriage. This is his story.
Thomas Lettis was born in Great Yarmouth on 26 January 1845 to Thomas Lettis Junior a fish merchant and rope maker and his wife Mary Crow nee Haynes.
In 1851 the family which included 4 siblings – Hannah (1836) Emma (1840) Mary (1845) and Charles (1847) were living in King Street, Great Yarmouth.
Unfortunately, in 1857 Thomas’s father took his own life and by 1861 Thomas, Emma, Charles and Mary were living in Crown Road with their mother, who had taken over her late husband’s business. Thomas is listed as a medical student however he is also listed as living in Norwich as a pupil/medical student so we are not quite sure where he actually was on census night!
According to the census, Thomas was lodging with Frederick Bateman and his family. Frederick was an MD and in 1851 he was elected house surgeon at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital and was likely to have been Thomas’s mentor and teacher. Bateman who was knighted in 1892 had gained worldwide reputation as a specialist in diseases of the brain and died at the age of 80 in 1904.
Thomas’s Aunt, Mary Ann Lettis who died in Heigham Hall Asylum in 1890 aged 72 had, according to her death certificate been suffering with brain disease for 30 years. Interestingly, in 1838 her younger sister Emma Weeds died at 18 years of age of effusion of fluid on the brain.
According to the Medical register for 1913, Thomas qualified as a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons (MRCS) in 1866 when he was only 20 and by the time he was 21 he held a license of the Society of Apothecaries (LSA) which is a license granted to Surgeons who want to engage in general practice.
Below are copies from the register of 1863 which show the lectures he began attending.
Thomas’s mother Mary’s died in March1869 His sister Mary Crow Brand continued to run the business in partnership with him and their brother Charles, although I assume that Thomas may have been a partner in name only as by now he is qualified as a Surgeon. In May of the same year at the age of 24 he was elected as Medical Officer for the Southern District of the town.
In 1874, aged 17 Charles had started working as an Articles Clerk for a firm of Solicitors in Grays Inn Road, London, however, by 1869 he has given up his studies and describes himself as a Merchant. No occupation is ever listed on any of the census leading up to his death in 1900. He died in Bethal Hospital aged 53 and one of the causes of death given was epilepsy.
After Mary’s death the family home in Crown Road was put up for sale by auction. It was described as a Freehold residence known as “Elm House situate on St George’s Denes.
By 1871 Thomas has moved into King Street and in the census it lists him as Head of the house and Surgeon MRCS. With him are his unmarried siblings Charles and Mary. Shortly after Mary moves out when she marries Henry Howard Brand in September of that year.
The following year the Partnership between the siblings was dissolved and taken on by Thomas and his brother in law, Henry Howard Brand.
“Notice is hereby given, that the Partnership hitherto subsisting between the undersigned, Thomas Lettis, Mary Crow Brand (late Mary Crow Lettis) and Charles Crow Lettis, as Rope makers at Great Yarmouth, in the county of Norfolk was dissolved on the 1st day of January last. All debts due and owing from the said late firm will be paid by the said Thomas Lettis and Mr Henry Howard Brand (by whom the said business will in future be carried on); and all debts due and owing to the said late partnership will be received by the said Thomas Lettis and Henry Howard Brand – dated 2nd February 1872.”
Following a visit to Ireland in 1849 when Queen Victoria heard of a poor woman who had given birth to triplets she introduced the “Royal Donation” which was later become known as The Queens Bounty. To qualify the babies had to be born alive, the parents married and British subjects.
In January 1872 Dr Lettis was asked to present a Yarmouth family with £3, which today would be in the region of £240, on behalf of the Queen and it was reported in the Ipswich Journal on 13 January 1872.
The girls, Harriet, Mary Ann and Sarah Ann were born on 17th December 1871 but sadly all three died within 8 months – Harriet on 12th July, Sarah Ann on 19th August and Mary Ann a few days later on 26th. I assume and hope the family were not asked to return the money!
At some stage Thomas may have lived in Row 81 as in a book about the Rows under number 81 it says – “Dr Lettis was the Parish Surgeon and lived in Row 81” however, no date is given as to when this may have been.
According to the Register of Electors, between 1883 and 1897 he owned three freehold cottages in “Every Place, York Road which had tenant in. It is possible that the cottages may have been renamed at some stage as between 1913 and 1915 he owned three freehold cottages at 1, 2 and 3 St James Walk, York Road.
Following the sale of Crown Road Thomas moved into 20 King Street where he would remain until the late 1880’s at which time he and Kate would move into, according to the 1911 census, a ten roomed property in 6 Regent Road where they would remain until their deaths and it would appear that he ran his practice from here.
At some stage, Thomas went into partnership with a fellow surgeon by the name of William Edward Wyllys.
According to the 1881 census Dr Wyllys and his family lived at 25 King Street. He was born in Somerset about 1846 so was similar in age to Thomas. It is possible that they met whilst studying to become surgeons.
However, on 14 January 1882 it was reported of the Dissolution of the Partnership by mutual consent between William Edward Wyllys and Thomas Lettis as Surgeons at Great Yarmouth in the county of Norfolk.
On 29th May 1886 at Heigham, Norwich, at the age of 41, Thomas married 32 year old Kate Anna Norman whose father Richard Robert Bowles Norman was also a GP and Surgeon.
On 26th August 1888 Thomas was involved in a minor accident as he was driving from Regents Road to Wellesley Road when his horse slipped on the granite crossing and fell, or partly fell, so that he was pitched out of the trap, and a lightened with considerable violence on his back and hurt his head, but it was believed, not seriously. Mr W.H. Moxton’s trap was close, and Thomas was driven to his home in Moxton’s vehicle.
On Saturday 29th December 1888 the evening was spent by the patients of the Great Yarmouth Hospital on the occasion of a concert and Christmas tree entertainment. It was held in one of the wards on the ground floor.
It was intended to present a silver mounted Malacca cane to Mr Lettis who is on the medical staff, and is just recovering from a severe illness, so as to cheer him up a bit. The gift was subscribed to by the staff and a few outside friends. Mr Lettis being unable to be present through his sickness, the cane was therefore handed to the Rev Bowyer Vaux on his behalf.
I do not know the extent of his illness and wonder if the accident he had in August of that year had been worse than first thought.
On 8th April 1896 the couple place an advertisement in the Eastern Daily Press advertising for staff. Given the tone of the article I feel they may have been let down by previous employees! Rather short notice as well!
Wanted – Good House Parlour Maid for April 10th; only competent, reliable servants need apply: Two in family – Lettis, Regent House Great Yarmouth.
Dr Lettis had for 40 years been the police Surgeon for Great Yarmouth and at one time he was the surgeon on a murder case when a body was found on the beach in great Yarmouth in 1900. This has been the subject of several books and films.
Consequently because of this role he was involved in dozens of deaths, either natural, accidental or even murder. In 1906, Thomas was called out to a John Weir who had been found dead in his bed. The following article appears in the Yarmouth Independent on 8th September 1906.
The witness – Maud Stiles (Styles) is connected to us through marriage and mum remembered here very well as “Granny Grey”. Maud’s husband was Thomas Styles also a slater like the deceased. John Weir had married Thomas’s sister Harriet in 1887.
In August 1916 Dr Lettis handed in a letter of resignation from his role of Police Surgeon for the Yarmouth District to take effect on 9th November. The Committee accepted his resignation, however, it was suggested that he took on the role of Consulting Police Surgeon at an annual salary of £20. Alderman Mayo suggested that this appointment should be referred back to the Committee for further reconsideration as they would already be paying the same salary for a Police Surgeon and could not both jobs be undertaken by one man?
I do not know whether or not Dr Lettis took on the new role.
On 9 April 1921 the Yarmouth Independent reported that Thomas had been involved in an accident.
We regret to report that Dr Thomas Lettis, when walking across Northgate Street, was knocked down by Mr E Taplin’s car, and received injuries to his forehead and back of the head. He was conveyed to the Hospital, where he remains. We learnt yesterday (Thursday) that his condition was as satisfactory as could be expected. The car, we are informed, was travelling slowly and the driver did his best to avoid Dr Lettis.
Thomas died on 9th April 1921 in Great Yarmouth General Hospital. His death was reported in the Yarmouth Independent on 16th of April –
THE LATE DR. T. LETTIS
The injuries sustained by Dr Thomas in the accident last week were more serious than was first supposed, and on Saturday night he passed away at the Hospital in the presence of his sorrowing wife. Dr Lettis, the oldest practitioner in Yarmouth, was a very fine type of medical man. He was extraordinarily careful in treating his patients, and was ever courteous, kind and fatherly – a lovable personality.
He was a pupil of Sir Frederick Bateman, and for some time was at University College with Christopher Heath, a name known to fame. Having a regard to a happy event afterwards it is an interesting coincidence that Mr Heath and Mrs Lettis are related. Dr Lettis had an extensive practice, was a Medical Officer for the South District, a Guardian a member of the honorary staff of the Hospital and in recent years Hon. Consulting Surgeon, was Police Surgeon for 40 years, and was the doctor for several Friendly Societies, and also on the panel of National Health Insurance. In all these positions duty was his first and greatest consideration. The University of Durham, after a very stiff examination, conferred upon him the degree of M.D. Dr Lettis was an Oxford University student, with very high attainments. He married Miss Kate Norman, daughter of the late Dr, R.R.B. Norman another well-known Yarmouth surgeon. The town deeply sympathises with her in her bereavement.
The report continues –
The funeral took place at Caister Cemetery yesterday (Thursday). The mourners were Mrs Lettis and Miss Stevens, and William Baker, who had been in Dr Lettis’s employ. Eight old members of the Borough Police Force acted as bearers: – Inspectors Parker and Buckle, Sergeants Fairhead, Turner, Gooch, Batly, Constables Tink and Scott, who walked by the side of the hearse the whole way from Yarmouth to the Cemetery.* Other mourners included Mr and Mrs, E, Taplin, Dr and Mrs Dix, Miss Raven (who came from Yoxford), Mr A.C. Mayo, Mr. W.E. Wyllys three retired police officers, Inspectors Crisp and Legood and Constable Mark Chase and others met the procession at the gates. Dr Lettis rests in a basket coffin and we understand it was Dr Lettis’s wish he should be so interred. An immense number of lovely floral tributes were sent. Dr and Mrs Lettis have always had an intense love for flowers. Dozens of floral tributes were received from family and friends which included many from the medical profession as well as the Chief Constable, and officers and men of the Great Yarmouth Force.
*That would have been a car ride of about 3.3 miles and would probably have taken over an hour to walk.
Also Reported in the Medical Journal – 23 April 1921
Dr Thomas Lettis of Great Yarmouth died on April 9th as the result of injuries sustained three days before, when he was knocked down by a motor car while endeavouring to board a tramcar. Dr Lettis, who was a member of an old Yarmouth Family, was born in 1845. He received his medical education at University College Hospital and took the diplomas of M.R.C.S in 1866 and L.S.A. in 1877, graduating as M.D. Durham in 1899. After holding the post of assistant house-surgeon at University College Hospital he returned to his native town to practice. At the time of his death he was consulting honorary medical officer to the Great Yarmouth Hospital and a member of the Great Yarmouth Division of the British Medical Association.
An inquest was held on 11 April by the Coroner for Great Yarmouth – George Preston and the death certificate stated that cause of death was haemo-pneumothorax due to fractured ribs through being accidentally being knocked down by a motor car.
He was a man respected by many and this is proved when eight members of the borough police force acted as bearers at his funeral.
On 23 April, the Yarmouth Independent published an article that had been sent in anonymously from a contemporary of Dr Lettis. I think this article points out just how caring a man he was.
At the time of death his effects amounted to £12140.6s.8d which today would be in the region of £415K. Thomas’s first will was signed on 6 November 1895 in which he left his microscope and case of objects to Alfred Charles Mayo and his books to Robert Wrigley. Everything else was left to Kate – “All his property absolute to Kate Anna Lettis – that is to say all houses, cottages, shops and stables”. In addition all his stocks, shares and all personal effects were also left to her. A codicil was added on 14th November 1904 but did not change the beneficiaries.
Both Alfred and Robert were Surgeons living in Alexandra Road, Great Yarmouth. Robert predeceased Thomas and died in 1918 whereas Alfred passed away in 1933.
Kate died in 1924 her effects were valued at £13986.14s.2d. Nowadays that would be in the region of £595k. The couple never had any children, but in her will Kate left monies to numerous beneficiaries from staff to friends including £50 to “Sergeant George Gooch of Police Station Gorleston.”
In memory of her husband she donated £500 which today would be in the region of £21250 to the Great Yarmouth Grammar School for a scholarship to be known as “Dr Lettis Classical Scholarship”.
Kate’s will was rather interesting as insofar she directed that “A Doctor should be paid £105 to open a vein in her right arm to make certain she was dead”. She also requested that she should be buried in a white wicker coffin.
On 16th October 1924 Kate was buried alongside Thomas in the cemetery at Caister.
Following Kate’s death in October 1924 Regent House was put on the market and sold in December the same year for £3000 which today would be in the region of £127,000.