A distinctly dodgy District Health Officer

You know how sometimes you keep coming across someone's name, get a bit curious and poke around a bit further? Well I seemed to keep coming across a Dr Hugh Earnshaw Finch, Christchurch's District Health Officer in the 1900s and 1910s, so I decided to investigate further.

I first came across him in a picture of the opening of the septic tank at Bromley Sewage Farm, when doing a spot of research on the Christchurch Drainage Board (as you do). Obviously a District Health Officer is going to know a lot about sanitation and that kind of thing. Certainly, he was keen to install a septic tank at his house near Dudley Creek. So keen, in fact, that he installed one illegally, having been turned down for a permit from the aforementioned Drainage Board. The prosecution was dropped, but this does illustrate the tension between public health standards and effluent damaging the environment.


Using our great online family history resources reveals details and Papers Past has information about his background and career. He was born in Staffordshire in 1871, the son of a vicar and studied medicine at Keble College, Oxford, having attended public school at Winchester College. In April 1896 he married Emily Katharine Jacques at Brindle in Lancashire. However, this was not to last. A more general search of the internet brought up an article which revealing that Hugh was a "philanderer". They were divorced in 1901, citing his adultery and cruelty. It also transpires that he gave her a venereal disease. However, she went on to become the jujitsu trained suffragist bodyguard of Emmeline Pankhurst, Kitty Marshall. He went to the Antipodes.

In Australia he married Alice Hester Carr, one of the women he committed adultery with. He worked in district health in various places in New Zealand, being based in Christchurch from around 1903 - 1913 and involved in much important public health work. In January 1903 he and Alice welcomed a daughter, Peggy, although I haven't been able to discover anything more about her so far. In 1915 Hugh and Alice's divorce case was being heard at the Supreme Court. He'd gone off with another woman and was living in Wellington....

During the First World War he served with the Sanitation Section of the Royal New Zealand Medical Corps. This certainly would have been important work. His service records show that he had married again in February 1916, this time to a Mabel Chote. His trail goes a little cold (and I really ought to do some proper work, instead of disappearing down research rabbit holes) at this point but it looks like he made his way back to Australia, where he died on 27 April 1934 in the Liverpool Hospital, Sydney. He is buried in St Luke's Cemetery in the same part of Sydney.

I definitely find him an intriguing person, although I'm not sure I like him. I'd like to find out more about the kick-ass Kitty Marshall, as the world needs to hear about more jujitsu suffragettes and less love-rat husbands. However, these stories show just how much can be discovered using our online resources, particularly Ancestry (in library use only - but this means our Family and Local History Librarians are on hand to provide expert help), our image collection, the wonderful Papers Past and bit of carefully considered internet searching.

What great family and local history stories have you uncovered?