LINETHWAITE, Ormathwaite, Crosthwaite……three ‘thwaites’ that all played their part in the life of the renowned Cumberland doctor, William Brownrigg.

The first was the home, near Moor Row, of his bride to be, Mary Spedding; the second his ancestral family home near Keswick; and the third, his last resting place, Crosthwaite churchyard.

As most of us around these parts know, the common placename of thwaite comes from the Old Norse (oveit) meaning clearing, meadow or paddock. In Whitehaven we have Arrowthwaite, Thwaiteville and, as if to prove the point, a large area of open ground overlooking the sea, known locally as the Big Waite. And then there’s Bassenthwaite, Thackthwaite, Brackenthwaite, Seathwaite, Armathwaite, Thornthwaite, Rosthwaite, Braithwaite….the list goes on.

The eminent William Brownrigg, MD, was the son of George and Mary Brownrigg of Ormathwaite but spent his working life in Whitehaven where he sought to improve the health and welfare of his fellow man. An indication of the high respect in which he was held is demonstrated by the fact that three baronets – Sir Wilfred Lawson, Sir Frederick Vane and Sir Michael Fleming – were all bearers at his funeral, alongside two vicars and his friend and associate from Whitehaven, Dr Joshua Dixon. Dixon, with support from his mentor Brownrigg, had in 1783 established the Whitehaven Dispensary on Scotch Street (later moved to Queen Street), to assist the town’s ailing poor. It was a pioneering step in the field of public health.

Brownrigg himself was a dedicated physician and chemist whose studies and experiments with mine gas attracted support from the Lowthers and also a visit from Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s founding fathers. (The Speddings would take Dr Franklin down Saltom pit to gain first-hand knowledge of conditions underground). It is believed that he had a laboratory in the area of Newhouses at Whitehaven, the remains of which can still be seen, and to which he had mine gases piped to facilitate his research.

Dr Brownrigg mainly administered healthcare to the rich, but when a typhus epidemic broke out in mid 18th century Whitehaven, he became a local hero having proposed that the poor should be treated at public expense.

Born at High Close Hall, near Plumbland, William Brownrigg (1711-1800) had at the age of 13 been tutored in Greek and Latin by the vicar of Bridekirk. His medical studies later took him to London and Leyden in Holland and his experiments contributed much to the scientific understanding of gases. He also achieved national recognition for his work on salt manufacture, the discovery of platinum and his part in the establishment of the iron industry in Wales.

His friend Joshua Dixon, however, felt that Brownrigg’s modesty and his reluctance to leave Cumberland had robbed him of the high acclaim he was due. Following his father’s death Brownrigg retired to Ormathwaite, which had been the family home since 1677, and he was the last of the Brownriggs to live there. He died in 1800, aged 88.

Interestingly, this beautiful Georgian Grade II listed house, which sits in over three acres of land between Bassenthwaite Lake and Derwentwater, is currently up for sale, nowadays adapted to modern living with its spectacular walled gardens and converted coach house, a building in which, at one time, Brownrigg could be found carrying out his experiments. And the price of all this remarkable history? A cool £2.25million if you’re interested…