Painless Potts: Tales of a Victorian dentist

PAINLESS POTTS: An advert for the Wearside dental surgeon.
PAINLESS POTTS: An advert for the Wearside dental surgeon.
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TODAY we dip in the archives of Victorian life for a tale of a troubled tooth-puller.

THERE was just one place to go for Wearsiders suffering from toothache in Victorian times – Painless Potts.

In the late 1880s Joseph Potts was one of the region’s top gnasher-fixers, with a thriving dental practice at 58 Tatham Street as well as a pharmacy in Seaham.

“Painless dentistry with nitrous oxide gas” was at the top of his list of services. Once your teeth had been pulled, a full set of new ones could be snapped up for £5.

But, while the surgeon tried to make his patients’ visits pain-free, his own life in June 1887 was anything but. His dear old wife was causing Joseph serious problems.

“Joseph Potts was very definitely an unhappy man. Constant battles were par for the course,” said historian Norman Kirtlan, a member of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“He had even thrown his wife out of their Tatham Street home back in 1886, due, according to their daughter Margaret, to her misconduct – whatever that may have been.

“Problem was, the lass had turned up out of the blue again at the beginning of June - and conflict ensued with a vengeance.”

On the morning of Wednesday June 14, the pair had been at it hammer and tong and, by mid-afternoon, poor Joseph had simply had enough.

Handing a bunch of keys to young Margaret, he told her: “If anything should happen, take care of these.” With that, he took himself to bed - with a bottle of poison.

“A few hours later, when Margaret went upstairs to check on her father, she found him lying on the bed with his coat beside him,” said Norman, a former police inspector.

“Unable to rouse Joseph, she ran out into the yard and summoned a neighbour, who, believing the dentist to be dead, sent a boy to fetch the police and the local doctor.

“Painless Potts had indeed breathed his last and was, thanks to an overdose of opium, well beyond the attempts made by the medical men to revive him.”

An inquest into Joseph’s death was a strained affair, with revelations of behind-closed-doors activities that would shock those who knew the quiet and temperate man.

Margaret, 18, was the first to give evidence at the Crown Stores Hotel in Tatham Street, where she revealed Joseph had tried - and failed - to throw his wife out again.

When the screaming and bawling woman had refused to leave, he eventually retired to bed with a headache, telling Margaret: “If Ma starts to fight, then call me.”

Gasps of disbelief ran through the jury when eldest daughter Mary Ann then gave evidence - after she revealed her mother’s cold reaction to Joseph being dead or dying.

“There is no use fetching a doctor as it is too late,” shouted the woman, who was apparently drunk. “Mind, I am not the cause of this!” she added for good measure.

It was, however, Joseph’s good friend Dr Nursey who painted the darkest picture of family life at the Potts residence.

During the first part of his evidence Nursey revealed he had examined Joseph as he lay dying. The dentist’s breath smelled of opium, and a stomach pump had confirmed this.

“Nursey also told the court that he had urged his friend not to commit suicide, having been privy to a previous attempt while the family lived at Seaham Harbour,” said Norman. Throughout the offering of evidence, the jury was subjected to a loud wailing from outside the hotel. The noise was eventually tracked down to a sobbing Mrs Margaret Potts.

“The jurors decided that they wished to interview the author of those wails, but Mrs P was however adamant that she did not wish to give evidence,” said Norman.

“She had to literally be dragged into the court by two burly police officers. Once inside, she was sat down and pinned to a chair while the coroner examined her.”

The woman simply refused to open her mouth when asked who had been responsible for the death of her husband, but Dr Nursey was having none of it.

“Come Mrs Potts,” he shouted. “Answer the questions. You were all right last night when you refused to fetch me a glass of water while your husband was dying!”

Threats were futile however, and Mrs Potts left the court without uttering a single word. But the jury had heard enough - and returned a verdict of suicide whilst of unsound mind.

Sadly, the tragedy for the Potts family did not end there.

Less than two weeks after Joseph’s death, his wife Margaret was committed to an asylum for the mentally insane.

“Records show that she was violent to staff and refused to take her food,” said Norman. “It is not surprising, therefore, that her health started to deteriorate rapidly.

“By July 24, the 43-year-old had died of congestion of the lungs and acute mania. Both Painless Potts and his wailing wife had died within weeks of each other.”

** A full account of the inquest, together with notes from the asylum where Margaret Potts was detained, have been donated to Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

The archives of the Society are available to view at 6 Douro Terrace on Wednesday and Saturday mornings.