Nick Black

Author of The Honourable Doctor



Doctor denied: James Lambert Clapham

Posted on: 3rd January, 2023


One bright, chilly May morning in 1862, James Lambert Clapham walked down the gangway onto the quayside in Lyttleton, New Zealand.1 After over 100 days at sea, the relief at having arrived safely must have been tinged with sadness knowing he’d probably never see his homeland and relatives again.2 Many of the seven thousand emigrating from Britain that year were, like him, young and single. Each had their reason. What was it that drove him to leave the small Fenland village that had been home for most of his life and venture into the unknown?

James was born in 1840 in Wansford, a village five miles west of Peterborough. His father, William, was the local general practitioner (apothecary-surgeon). He’d taken over the practice in 1834 and, two years later, had married Sarah Crane. Their first child, Emily, was born in 1837, followed by James and then Frederick, in 1843. Life appeared to have worked out well for William. A thriving practice, growing family and living only ten miles from his parents and other relatives in Thorney where his father, to whom he’d been apprenticed, was in practice in partnership with William’s older brother, John.

Life for James was about to change. In 1844 his father,  still only 33, died. With no relatives to take over the practice, his mother had no choice but to sell it. At this point, the first puzzle in James’s life occurred. His mother moved 40 miles away, to Bedford,3 but only took his sister, Emily, and her servant with her. Why move to Bedford? Her parents and many of her thirteen siblings lived in Thorney, as did most of her deceased husband’s relatives.4 And why did she part from her two sons, still only seven and four years old?

Whatever her reasons, James was, in effect, orphaned. Fortunately, one of his aunts, Sarah’s sister Amelia, had recently married and set up home with her husband, John Buck,5 in the Doctor’s House. This large Elizabethan building on The Green in Thorney housed three related families. John and Amelia, who lived in the southern part, had plenty of space and, having married at the relatively advanced age of 35, may have considered it unlikely they would have children of her own.

The move must have been quite traumatic for James (and his brother Frederick), now parted from both parents. On the other hand, having seen little of his relatives while living in Wansford, he was now surrounded by family. In the northern part of the house lived his maternal grandparents, Wright and Mary Crane, while in the central part was his uncle John (his father’s brother), aunt Ellen and their three children. The eldest, Edward, was the same age as him so it’s likely they spent much time together.

Uncle John was now the sole doctor in Thorney, James’s grandfather having retired and, with his wife, moved to Eye, a nearby village. Just as the apothecary’s workshop at the back of the building had fascinated his uncle and his father when they were boys, so it captured James and Edward’s imagination. They’d spend time watching John’s apprentice compounding medicines, maybe asking if they could help. By 1855, having reached fifteen, the two boys were ready to start their apprenticeships.

It was common for general practitioners to take on and train their sons. Although it meant foregoing the apprentice’s fees, the loss for John was minimal and there was the attractive prospect of being able to hand on the practice one day to Edward. As for James, his uncle could see his nephew’s interest and desire to be a doctor, something he would have recognised in himself at that age. He’d also have known that his deceased brother, who he had been close to as a child, would have wanted his son to train to be a doctor. Out of a sense of duty, he took on James as a second apprentice, alongside Edward.

Over the next five years, Edward and James would have gained the practical knowledge and skills to be an apothecary and a surgeon. All that was needed to complete their training and qualify, was to attend a medical school in London. But in autumn 1860, it was only Edward who set off for a year in the capital. Why didn’t James go too? It’s possible, though unlikely, that he’d decided he no longer wanted to be a doctor. Few apprentices turned away from a medical career after completing five years training. Maybe no one would pay for him to be a pupil – not his mother,6 the Bucks, John Clapham or his maternal grandfather, Wright Crane. If this was the reason, why wouldn’t any of them? All could have afforded it.7

Curtailing his medical career at that stage is particularly poignant given his name. His father, William, had died before he’d have had the opportunity to explain to James the origin of his name. That responsibility passed to his uncle. At some point, John, will have told him about James Lambert, the cousin who had been apprenticed to his father, William senior. He’d have talked of how, for five years, James Lambert had lived with them in the Doctor’s House, becoming a much loved member of their family. Of how both he and his brother, William junior, were in awe of their cousin. To them he had been more like an elder brother. And he’d have told him of the extraordinary life James Lambert led in London, becoming one of the leading proponents of reform of the medical profession and the hospitals. Of how he had tried to help James Lambert in his hour of need. Painful though it must have been for John, he will have told him how unjustly both James Lambert and he himself had been treated by the medical establishment. How it had resulted in his imprisonment for six months and how the dreadful consequences had led to the untimely death of James Lambert, there in Thorney.8 John would have taken and shown him the sombre white marble plaque in the Abbey, a memorial to his namesake.

Given all that, it makes it even harder to believe that John wouldn’t have paid for his young nephew to complete his training. Whether abandoning medicine was his choice or not, James Lambert Clapham went to work for another uncle, John Crane, on his farm on Towers Fen, not far from Thorney. James was now twenty, old enough to see how limited his opportunities and prospects were. He’d have seen advertisements in the newspapers for assisted passages to various colonies, including New Zealand. The promises offered for enterprising men must have convinced him. So on a cold Tuesday morning in February 1862, he went to London and embarked on a ship. Did he leave, savouring the opportunities that life in a new country offered or saddened and resentful that his hopes of becoming a doctor had been dashed, feeling let down by those nearest to him?

Arriving in the port of Lyttleton in Christchurch,9 he’d have been hounded by agents looked to recruit new arrivals off the ships. All over South Island, employers were in need of labour. With some experience of farm work, James opted to take up the offer of a job on a farm in the northern part of the island. It was owned by Charles Wiesenhavern who had himself arrived from Lower Saxony some years before and established a sheep station near Nelson. Nothing is known of the few years he spent there nor his reason for choosing that option against all the other possibilities there would have been. Employed in menial, manual work on a remote farm wouldn’t have offered him much and the isolation would have provided few opportunities for finding a wife.

Around 1867 he moved to Feilding, a small town 20km north of Palmerston North on the North Island. He took a job as a clerk for Bartholomew Brothers, a firm manufacturing doors and sash windows. It probably paid better than a farm labourer’s wages and being in a town meant greater scope socially. The town and job must have suited him as he was to remain working and living there for 13 years. During that time, he met Maria Lane, eleven years younger than him and newly arrived from England (in 1873). They married in 1876 and that year their first child was born. Seven more were to follow over the next 16 years.

Despite the hard manual labour involved, his time on his uncle’s farm in Thorney and on the sheep station in Nelson must have stimulated an interest in farming. Maybe it was a desire to live in the country, surrounded by nature and animals. His interest in farming even led him to write to the local paper in Feilding about flax dressing machinery.10 Whatever the reason in 1890, James and Maria moved to Halcombe, 12 km away, to start farming. He was to remain a farmer the rest of his working life, later moving to Colyton.

Around this time, James dropped his first name in preference for Lambert. The surgical skills he’d learnt back in Thorney as an apprentice doctor were not forgotten. Although he’d never trained or qualified in veterinary medicine, he offered a service to local farmers which, by all accounts, was most welcome and valued. Maybe he harboured a long held frustration that he’d never had the opportunity to qualify as a doctor.

Whether James ever heard from his mother or sister Emily in England is not known. A relative, probably Lawrence Clapham, who’d succeeded his father as the doctor in Thorney in 1882, will have informed him of the death of his mother in 1902 (just as he was to in 1918 about Emily’s death).

After nearly 30 years farming, Lambert (James) retired and he and Maria left the land and, in 1919, moved to the local town, Palmerston North. The year before, like so many others, they’d suffered the loss of a son fighting in Europe. Harry Cautley Clapham, their youngest child. Of their seven other children, three lived locally, the others scattered across North Island.

Despite having eight children, Lambert (James) had felt no inclination to perpetuate the name, James Lambert. Having, as a child, never met his father’s cousin, there’s no reason for him to have felt any strong connection. All he’d ever known was a simple plaque in a church on the other side of the world. And that was a lifetime ago.

However, the name didn’t disappear with Lambert’s death in 1926.11 His eldest son, William John Ward Clapham, had, in 1907, named one of his children, Lambert William. That was probably in tribute to the boy’s grandfather rather than to an English doctor from the previous century.

Whether Lambert William ever learnt the origins of his unusual name is unknown but what is clear is that he was last faint vestige of James Lambert, either in New Zealand or England, until his death in Halcombe in 1979.



I’m indebted to Alison Whelan in Hamilton, and several other contributors to for supplying vital documents and information, and to Emma Burton for her usual forensic genealogical detective work.


  1. His obituary states he travelled on the SS Zealandia from London arriving 24 May, though his name is not on the passenger list. At that time, arrivals of immigrants from the UK were equally spread between Lyttleton (Christchurch), Auckland and Dunedin.
  2. His younger brother, Frederick (b 1843), also emigrated, settling in Blenheim. Descendents of both men believe they travelled from England together but no documentary evidence has yet been found to confirm this.
  3. In 1851, lived at 3 Tavistock Street, St Paul, Bedford.
  4. Sarah Crane’s mother, Sarah Jenkins, had been born in St Neots (15 miles from Bedford) so its possible that some members of the Jenkins family were living in Bedford.
  5. John Buck was an agent for the Norwich Union Fire and Life Insurance Company.
  6. Sarah (Crane) Clapham had moved back to Peterborough. In 1861 she lived at 1 Albion Terrace, Fletton, described as a ‘landed proprietor’ (ie income from owned property) which might suggest she was reasonably well-off. Frederick had rejoined her from Thorney.
  7. William Clapham senior, James’s paternal grandfather who had trained James Lambert and sons John and William, had died thirteen years earlier in 1847.
  8. The full story appears in: Nick Black, The Honourable Doctor. Grosvenor House Publishing, 2022.
  9. Further evidence that Lyttleton was his port of entry is an unclaimed letter to him that was recorded in March 1863 awaiting him in Christchurch Post Office.
  10. Lambert Clapham. New fax (sic) dresser (letter). Feilding Star, 26 March 1889:10 (3);2.
  11. (James) Lambert Clapham died on 17 November 1860 only five months after his wife, Maria died (3 June 1860). They were buried in Terrace End Cemetery, Palmerston North.

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