Old Doctor McEwan

Local doctors have often adopted other duties leading to their becoming pillars of the community. That was most certainly so during the late 19th and early 20th Century in Prestonpans, East Lothian when Dr William Crawford McEwan practised.

He was born  a son of the manse  on 2nd October 1859 in Ancrum in Roxburgh where his father John was minister of the Free Church. Together with his siblings, John, Margaret, Jane and Isabella, William was cared for by their mother Mary, and enjoyed a Scottish Borders primary education. The Reverend McEwan was later transferred to Edinburgh and the new family home in the City was at 36 Lauder Road – from where William attended Edinburgh University as a medical student.

Post graduation, and the obligatory period gaining experience, the new Doctor McEwan moved to Prestonpans where, in addition to becoming the village doctor, he became an integral part of life for more than forty years. He was already established in Prestonpans when he travelled to Paisley in Renfrewshire to marry Agnes, daughter of Reformed Presbyterian church minister George Clazy and his wife Janet Orr. With both Doctor McEwan and his new wife being children of the manse, their wedding service was conducted jointly by their respective fathers.

Doctor McEwan established his surgery – and living quarters – at Walford House in Ormiston Place, but it was then known as “Doctor’s Wynd”. That establishment bore little resemblance to its modern equivalent. There were no receptionists or pre arranged appointments; patients simply presented themselves at the published surgery times, rang the big brass door bell at Walford House, and were admitted to a waiting room by housekeeper Jane Stewart. They were ultimately summoned for consultation by the Doctor calling “Next!” Allegedly, that method never caused any problem.

The Doctor arrived in Prestonpans at a time of some hardship and deprivation in the town and, from the outset, he became involved in alleviating that situation – often at great personal financial cost, and the related inevitable demands on his otherwise free time. By 1893, Dr. McEwan had been elected to the Town Council and two years later became Town Provost – a position he retained until 1904.

Decades before impure industrial emissions were considered legal “Nuisance,” in his capacity as Provost, Dr McEwan was instrumental in improving air quality in Prestonpans. Parish Minister George Stuart Smith had written to the Council on behalf of his parishioners to complain of excessive smoke and other pollutive emissions emanating from various industries throughout the town. There was then absolutely no statutory deterrent over what, today, would certainly be illegal production methods leading to air pollution.

As a doctor, McEwan would certainly have been aware of medical conditions likely to be aggravated by breathing impure air. He formed two council committees, which were each detailed to visit all the production units in Prestonpans to investigate working procedures. Where fault was identified, the industrial owners were asked to implement improvement measures. They could, of course, then, only be asked. In many cases,it caused the works’ owners little trouble as they already possessed the means to do so but had never bothered to implement them prior to the Town Council initiative. Remedial action caused by Dr McEwan’s actions did achieve a discernable improvement in air quality.

The Doctor’s council election coincided with an ongoing controversy regarding the need for a Town Hall. An 1892 population survey suggested little desire – indeed much apathy – among the residents, but Dr. McEwan recognised a real need for such a centre and its possible social uses. In his new position as councillor, ably assisted by other prominent figures such as the estimable Lady Susan Grant Suttie of Prestoungrange, he was able to overturn the negative 1892 decision. On 2 June 1895 a new village poll showed a balance in favour of a new hall, which resulted in a completed new town hall being opened in 1899 by Lord Haldane, Member of Parliament for East Lothian. Doctor McEwan made extensive use of the Town Hall as a venue for his many welfare projects – which perhaps inevitably contained some religious elements. It seems he never did abandon the religious upbringing experienced as a son of the manse.

Another early and important project initiated by Dr. McEwan was the provision of a public library –an establishment now taken for granted but then not usually found outwith major conurbations. He was already a member of the School Board and considered a library to be an integral part of the educational process. It opened in 1904 with Dr. McEwan appointed as its first chairman, around the time he also became patron of the annual Prestonpans Regatta.

During 1910, Doctor McEwan formed the “Men’s Club” which regularly met during the winter months in the Town Hall. In addition to religious instruction, the members were encouraged to engage in debating diverse subjects – another extension of the Doctor’s interest in education. Most of the members were coal miners and First Aid instruction obtained at the club would also certainly be of at least occasional use in the then unsafe underground working conditions. The club was disbanded in 1914 with the onset of World War I, when most of its members voluntarily volunteered for military service. It was replaced by “The Lad’s Club” a new club for boys of the burgh in which Dr McEwan shared the distraction with a local newsagent.

That new club, in addition to being a Bible Class and general social rendezvous, also arranged an annual outing to somewhere outside the town – but perhaps only to nearby North Berwick. The Lads met on winter nights but the Doctor also ran a similar class for girls during the Summer. Somehow – at weekends – he also found time to attend women’s meetings at the old Cuthill Mission Hall.

His work over the years as a general medical practitioner gave rise to many stories concerning their experiences by the old residents of Prestonpans. One who knew him well and worked with him in public service, records, “He was sympathetic with real illness but had little toleration for those who made much of their maladies”. Dr. McEwan gained the overall respect of his patients – though not always payment for his services. Many were too poor to pay – but that never detracted from the doctor’s willingness to help. Initially in his horse drawn carriage – then later in one of the first motor vehicles seen in the town – the Doctor was regularly noted on his rounds to visit those too infirm for a surgery visit.

For four decades, Dr. McEwan was an Elder at Grange Free Church and a good friend of its minister, Patrick Robson Mackay. In 1901, when the latter was serving abroad in India, Dr. McEwan travelled to the nearby Tranent, temporary residence of Mrs Mackay, to deliver her baby and – in the absence of its father – registered the baby’s birth.

His own wife, Agnes died on 26th June 1925 at the age of 65. Doctor McEwan worked on for nine years before formally retiring in 1934 at the age of 75. For some years, he had been assisted in practice by his two sons “Doctor Willie” and “Doctor George,” both of whom would continue as general practitioners in Prestonpans through the advent, and into the era of the National Health Service. From the time his sons joined the practice, Dr. McEwan became affectionately known as “Old Doctor McEwan.”

On retiral McEwan returned to live in Edinburgh – but did not adopt sedentary pursuits, or completely sever his links with Prestonpans. He pursued an Edinburgh involvement with various Christian bodies including the Scottish Evangelistic Council, the Y.M.C.A. Fellowship and, particularly, the Religious Tract Society of Scotland – of which he had been Chairman of the Board of Directors since 1933.

On Friday 9th July 1943, in his eighty fifth year, William Crawford McEwan died suddenly in his Edinburgh home. A well attended joint funeral service was held on Sunday11th July in Prestonpans comprising the congregations of both Grange and Preston Church, conducted by The Reverend Kenneth MacLennan B.D., and next day Dr. McEwan was interred beside his wife in Prestonpans Cemetery.

To adopt that often abused phrase, Dr. McEwan had indeed become a “legend in his lifetime.” In a mini biography published in the September 1943 issue of Monthly Visitor, a contemporary, Andrew Stewart, described his late friend as “a man of great force of character, sterling honesty, fearless courage and a born leader who, for over half a century was probably the most influential figure in Prestonpans.” The latter part of that statement might be contentious – but equally difficult to dispute.

One thought on “Old Doctor McEwan”

  1. Very interesting story-very much reminds me of the delightful ‘Leaves From The Life Of A Country Doctor’ (Clement Bryce Gunn, who was a doctor in Peebles) edited by Rutherford Crockett with a foreword by John Buchan. Gunn was born in 1859 so they may well have studied together at Edinburgh-they certainly practised at the same time.

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