Popham, Alexander (DNB00)

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POPHAM, ALEXANDER (1729–1810), author of the bill for the prevention of the gaol distemper in 1774, the son of Alexander Popham, rector of West Monckton, Somerset, was born in 1729. His family was closely allied to the Pophams of Littlecote [see Popham, Sir John, 1531?–1607]. He matriculated at Oxford from Balliol College on 11 Nov. 1746, but migrated to All Souls', whence he graduated B.A. in 1751, and M.A. in 1755. He was called to the bar from the Middle Temple in 1755, becoming a bencher of his inn in 1785; he was a master of the court of chancery from 1786 to 1802, and was made an auditor of the duchy of Lancaster in 1802. Popham was elected M.P. for Taunton in 1768; in 1774 he was last upon the poll, but was returned upon a petition; he lost his seat in 1780, but was returned in 1784, and held the seat until 1796. As chairman of quarter sessions, Popham acquired an insight into the state of the county gaols, and during his first parliament an outbreak of gaol fever killed eight out of nineteen prisoners in Taunton gaol. In 1774 Popham brought forward a bill with a view to mitigating the evil. It was framed in accordance with the disclosures and recommendations of John Howard (1726?–1790) [q. v.], who, at Popham's instance, gave evidence before a committee of the House of Commons on 4 March 1774, and was afterwards called to the bar to receive the public thanks. Popham's bill was ultimately formed into two separate measures. The first of these abolished the fees demanded by gaolers from acquitted prisoners (14 Geo. III c. 20). The second provided for a more efficient control of the prisons by the magistrates; proper ventilation was to be provided; rooms were to be allotted for the immediate treatment and separation of the sick; arrangements were to be made for bathing; finally ‘an experienced surgeon or apothecary,’ at a stated salary, was to be appointed to each gaol, and to report to the justices at quarter sessions (14 Geo. III, c. 59).

The provisions of this last bill were very largely evaded, and little real progress was made until 1784, when the sale of alcoholic drinks in prisons by gaolers was prohibited, and gaolers were paid a fixed salary.

Popham died at his house in Lincoln's Inn Fields on 13 Oct. 1810, and was buried in the Temple church.

[Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1715–1888; Gent. Mag. 1810, ii. 397; Toulmin's History of Taunton, 1822, pp. 330, 340; Official Returns of Members of Parliament; Journals of the House of Commons, xxxiv. 534 sq.; The Gaol Distemper, by A. D. Willcocks, esq., an address to the West Somerset branch of the Brit. Med. Assoc. in June 1894.]

T. S.