Bonesetter – a family occupation

Bonesetter: a person, usually not formally qualified, who set broken or dislocated bones.

The above gravestone, at Beacon Edge Cemetery, Penrith, caught my eye. It is rare to see an occupation mentioned on a gravestone, and this was one I’d never heard of.

Clearly, it was one that followed down through generations, and it was something the family were proud of.

Those recorded

Joseph, son of Joseph Dennison bonesetter, Penrith, died Nov 5, 1880. aged 22, from the effects of a fall from his horse.

The above Joseph Dennison, bonesetter, died April 20. 1893. aged 77.

Son George died 15 March 1887, aged 33. Son Tom died May 19 1886, aged 30.

Widow Jane died at Kendal, Oct 18, 1887. aged 66.

A little research uncovers a long tradition of bonesetters. And perhaps a reflection that years helping others wasn’t able to prevent the early deaths of the three brothers recorded on the gravestone.

The first bonesetter of the family

The key figure on the headstone is Joseph Dennison, bonesetter, born about 1815/16. But he wasn’t the first.

In May 1840, a cart laden with furniture tipped up going through Plumpton, leaving the man in charge of the cart with a dislocated hip.

Someone took him home to Dacre – where John Dennison put the joint back into place.

The Westmorland Gazette tells us both about the family and the way that bonesetting was viewed by the medical establishment of the day:

Mr. John and George Dennison are the two eldest sons of the late Mr. George Dennison, of Stainton, the most celebrated of all bone-setters in the two counties since tbe time of old Ben Taylor, from whom Mr. D. derived his knowledge of the art of bone-setting.

Since the death of the father, some of tbe faculty of medicine have attempted to prevent these two young men from following their laudable and beneficial profession ; but the law the land being against the faculty, they have utterly failed.

Before and since Mr. D.’s death they have performed many most extraordinary operations, and, without exception. the results nave been complete.

Their respectability and good conduct, coupled with the perfect knowledge of their difficult profession, will earn for them that support and distinction in socicty which they so meritoriously deserve.

The 1841 census records:

1841 Dacre, Stainton

Mary Dennison, 60, publican.

John 25, farmer; Mary 20; George 20 bonesetter; Joseph 20 ag lab; Elizabeth 15.

Bonesetting wasn’t a SOLE occupation, but all the men of the family seem to have learned the the ‘knowledge’. (Mary – the mother – died in 1845).

1851. Dacre. Stainton.

George Dennison, widower, 35, innkeeper and bonesetter. (George had married Ann Fawcett in 1842. Their daugher Mary Ann was 8 in 1851).

Joseph, 33, brother – farmer.

Much lamented

George Dennison was to die just three years later, leaving Mary Ann orphaned – she seems to have been taken in by maiden aunts.

George’s death was lamented by several local newspapers, with the Kendal Mercury saying he was respected for his civility and kindess of disposition, as well as his skills.

The paper also confirms that all the brothers had been brought up in the profession by George senior.

First reference

The first reference to Joseph as bonesetter is in the announcement of his marriage:

May 14 1853

At Gretna, on Sunday 8th, Joseph Dennison, bonestter, Stainton, to Miss Jane Robinson, of the Waggon and Horses Inn, Penrith, and late of Stainton.

However, Joseph had followed the family tradition from a young age:

18 April 1867

Notice.- Joseph Dennison, who has been in the habit of setting bones for the last thirty years, at Stainton, near Penrith, now resides at Keswick. J. D. attends every Monday Mr. Stephen Thwaites the Three Tuns Inn, Cockermouth. Keswick, April 13, 1867. 

Joseph’s expertise

A month later, Joseph gave evidence in the (still distressing to read) case of a baby who had been subjected to cruelty by the (wet)nurse looking after her. The baby’s injuries included a broken arm that had not been reset.

An example of Joseph Dennison’s work can be found in October 1867, when two men waiting for a train at Keswick Station decided to pass the time with a wrestling match. 

It resulted in a broken leg for one of them, which the ‘noted bonesetter Joseph Dennison’ attended to. Joseph ‘reduced the fracture’, with the unfortunate amateur wrestler ‘going on as favourably as can be expected.’

In the same month, Joseph Dennison treated a young man who worked in a solictor’s office – who dislocated both wrists when he fell from a tree. Why he was climbing a tree isn’t revealed, only that a branch he was standing on gave way.

And another friendly wrestling match, in the Lowdore Hotel, ended in one broken collar bone, and Joseph called on again to treat the victim.

In February 1869, Joseph Dennison and a Dr Tweddle attended a plasterer, of Browsfoot, near Keswick, who had fallen 14 feet from a loose scaffolding plank on a house under construction in Southey Street. The ‘poor fellow’ was doing ‘as favourable as can be expected’ – having suffered ‘a broken splinter bone’ in one leg, and a badly bruised ankle.

 A change of location

16 March 1869 

NOTICE OF REMOVAL. JOSEPH DENNISON has REMOVED from KESWICK to PENRITH, the residence of his late brother. JOHN Dennison Bone Setter. JD will attend the Old Hall Inn. COCKERMOUTH every Monday, and the Oddfellows’ Arms Inn, KESWICK every Saturday. Keswick, March 3rd, 1869. 

John Dennison (1809-1869) had been practising in Penrith for a few years for sure: he is listed as a bonesetter in the town in 1863.

Despite suffering from diabetes for many years, he continued to treat patients until a short time before his death, at home in Brougham Street on February 25. The funeral was at Barton.

His obituary in local newspapers shows just how well repected he was in his ‘peculiar profession’. and had a ‘genial and hearty character’.

He and wife Ann had a son, George, who was a solicitor’s clerk in the firm of Messrs Harrison and Little, Penrith. He died in 1877, aged just 29 – with no indication he had ever followed the family ‘profession’.

With his brothers both dead, Joseph Dennison was left to carry on setting broken limbs, treating sprains, and so on. 

As a quick reminder:

Joseph Dennison was born circa 1816 and died 1893.


George: born 1854, died 1887, aged just 33.

Tom: born 1855, died 1886, aged just 30.

Joseph: born 1858, died 1880, aged just 20.

John: born 1860

William: born 1866

(daughters Mary, Jane, Sarah).

Tom died in Salford Royal Hospital, ‘after a long illness’.

George ‘succombed to a sharp illness. having broken a blood vessel a day or two previously’.

He left a widow and three young sons, with no time to teach them his skills.

William had no children.

John was widowed by the age of 40, no children.

And what of young Joseph and the riding accident?

It seems his horse slipped, and he was thrown – hitting his head hard, which rendered him ‘insensible’.

He was stretchered home, bleeding from his mouth, nose and ears. He never regained consciousness, and died the following evening.

Not just the menfolk

Joseph senior died peacefully at home in Kendal, in April 1893. His obituary says while he hadn’t been able to practise bonesetting for around 13 years, he had continued to advise his wife.

For after the death of their son George, Jane had taken up and carried on the practice ‘most successfully’ in the Kendal, Ulverston and Lakes districts.

‘There are already scores, nay, hundreds, in these neighbourhoods, who could, if required, give ample testimony to the clever and resolute manner in which Mrs. Dennison goes about work in the first instance, and to the motherly care, attention, and cheerful advice she gives to her patients. As very frequently happens, the patience of the sufferer is most sorely tried, and it is then that the skill of a clever nurse (which Mrs. Dennison possesses in an eminent degree) averts and the gradual slackening of a bandage, readjustment of a splint, or a promise obtained that perhaps in another week he or she will be allowed some little liberty, keeps up the spirits of the sufferer, and allows time for the fracture to become strong.’

Soulby’s Ulverston Advertiser and General Intelligencer.