Doctor Spencer: Family Life

“But oh! Not all a mother’s care/ Or father’s fondness could detain/These babes in this sad world of pain”.

Poem 'For Mrs Spencer' by "Lily"

Family Background

John Henry Frederick Spencer was born in 1813 to a family with a long history in medicine. His maternal grandfather, Joseph Haskins, was a doctor, and his father, John Spencer, was a surgeon from London. His uncle, Henry Vicesimus Haskins, died while working as an army surgeon in Sierra Leone.

In 1839 Doctor Spencer married Catherine Rose Lamothe. She was the granddaughter of Dominique Jean Lamothe, the French naval surgeon whose seafaring adventures brought him to the island in 1760. Her father, Frederick Lamothe, was a doctor in Ramsey and her brother, Frederick John Dominique, was an advocate, MHK and Captain of the Parish of Bride.

Family Life

After their marriage the couple moved to Athol Street in Douglas with her mother, who died shortly after their arrival. They went on to have four children but, tragically, only one would live to adulthood. Two girls, Rosina Mary Catherine and Frances Margaret, died in infancy, and the oldest boy, Henry Haskins, died in 1856 at the age of fifteen. The youngest boy, William Carpenter, was born in 1849, although it appears that his twin brother did not survive the birth.

Infant mortality in the UK in 1850 was 273 per 1,000, which meant that about one in four children was unlikely to survive until their fifth birthday. By Victorian standards the Spencers were not unusual but they were unlucky, and a poem written “for Mrs Spencer” by “Lily” in 1849 shows how deeply the family felt their loss.

In 1841 Catherine Rose’s sister, Ann Susanna and brother-in-law Pilcher Ralfe died suddenly in Ramsey, leaving four young children. From a report of a court case between two of the Lamothe brothers in 1843, it appears that the Spencers adopted the two youngest Ralfe boys. Frederick Whitfield and John Henry Lamothe were aged two and three at the time. John Henry later emigrated to New Zealand and gave the name Spencer to two of his sons, presumably after the family that had taken him in.

A plaque on the Spencer family grave in Maughold also memorialises Ellen McDonald, “for fifty years a faithful servant of Dr. Spencer and his family“, who died in 1889.

Discover more about Dr Spencer's family with the evidence below

Death of Dr Spencer

When he resigned as House Surgeon at the Strand Street Dispensary, Doctor Spencer was frank about the impact of the job on his health. In 1841 he suffered a serious attack of typhoid, and he believed that this was responsible for a few weeks’ sickness every winter since.

In 1850 he was continuing to support the work of the new Fort Street hospital, as well as building his private practice. However, he was suddenly taken ill and “after an illness of ten days” died on 7 November 1850 at the age of just 37.

The Manx community was shocked and saddened by his unexpected death. The Manx Sun said that his death was “startling and distressing”. The Dispensary Committee recorded that it “deeply regrets the loss this Institution has sustained by the death of Dr. Spencer one of the Gratuitous Medical Officers who for many years was most indefatigable in his exertion on behalf of the afflicted poor of Douglas and who was one of the earliest promoters of this Institution“. A lengthy and eloquent tribute was carved on his headstone on his family grave in Maughold churchyard.

By 1861, following the death of her husband and eldest son, Catherine Rose had returned to live in Maughold, where she lived with her sister and died in 1864. William Carpenter Spencer grew up to live and marry in Maughold and had several children, including one who became the Assistant Conservator of Forests in Bengal, and another who was a merchant seaman.


See the reaction to Doctor Spencer's death in the evidence below

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