Hey, William, of Leeds

Eminent surgeon, born at Pudsey on 23 August 1736. His father Richard Hey was a drysalter and his mother came from a family of surgeons. Two brothers became fellows of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge: John Hey (1734-1815), Norrisean Professor of Divinity 1780-1795 and the essayist Richard Hey (1745-1835).

His education at Heath Academy, near Wakefield, gave him a lifelong interest in music. At 14 he was apprenticed to William Dawson, a Leeds surgeon and apothecary, completing his training at St. George's Hospital, London in 1757-59. For a year, from February 1762, he was medical adviser to the Leeds workhouse. He played a significant part in establishing the Leeds Infirmary in 1767, being appointed as a surgeon and from 1773 until his retirement in 1812 as senior surgeon. Despite accidents in early life which left him partially crippled and blind in one eye, he gained prominence in his profession and several developments in surgery were named after him. He was also an outstanding anatomist.

Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1775, on the proposal of his friend Joseph Priestley, he was also the first president of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, founded in 1783. He was elected an alderman of the self-perpetualting, oligarchical Tory/Anglican borough council in 1786 and was mayor in 1787 and 1802.

He joined the Methodists about 1754 and served for many years as the Leeds Circuit steward. Wesley consulted him when suffering in 1774 from a hydrocele. His interest in electrotherapy may have derived from his friendship with Priestley and Wesley. When the Conference met in Leeds in 1781 he was allowed to address it, voicing his concern that Methodism was separating from the Church of England. This was published as Heads of a Discourse delivered to the preachers of Mr. Wesley's Society assembled in Conference at Leeds, 1781. He left Methodism over this issue and it seems that his friendship with John Wesley was also severed. George Smith in his History of Wesleyan Methodism, vol. 1 pp.452-3, treats this incident dismissively, with no indication of Hey's eminence. Tyerman's account (Life and Times of John Wesley vol. 3 p.363) is more measured.

Hey played a prominent part in establishing Sunday Schools in Leeds. He lived close to Albion Street chapel, where soon after its opening in 1802 noisy prayer meetings were taking place under William Bramwell. He complained, as mayor, to the superintendent, John Barber, about the disturbance and the proceedings were brought to an end. He died on 23 March 1819.

William Hey I established a dynasty especially active in the medical developments of Leeds. His second son William Hey II (1772-1844) studied medicine in London and in 1794 became a Member of the Company of Surgeons. He went into partnership with his father, and on his father's resignation in 1816 was elected to fill his place at the Leeds Infirmary, retiring in 1830. He was twice Mayor of Leeds. He died on 3 March 1844. John Hey, the second son of William Hey II was a surgeon with a specialised interest in natural science, especially botany and geology; he lectured at the Leeds School of Medicine when it was founded in 1831.

Another son of William Hey II, William Hey III (1796- 1875), was elected a surgeon at Leeds infirmary soon after his father's resignation and continued so until March 1851. He was a founder member of the Leeds School of Medicine in 1831 and President of the British Medical Association, 1843-44, as well as being a founder member of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society. He died in May 1875.

Edward Atkinson (1830-1905), whose mother was the daughter of William Hey II, served under Florence Nightingale at Scutari in the Crimean War. He returned to Leeds in 1860 and went into partnership with his uncle, William Hey II. From 1864 to 1874 he was a surgeon at the Leeds Public Dispensary and then from 1874 at the Leeds Infirmary. He was a pioneer of the use of ambulances. He died on 1 March 1905.

One of the sons of William Hey I,, George Hey (c.1755-1808), and his family became members at Wesley's Chapel, London, where he and several members of the family, are buried.


'As Mr. Hey's religious principles regulated his professional conduct, he was equally sedulous in his attention to his Infirmary patients, as to those in his privaye practice, and his kindness and solicitude were distributed with much impartiality to all who were under his care and superintendence.'

John Pearson, Life of William Hey (2nd edn., 1823) p.100

'Mr. Hey continued a member of Mr. Wesley's Society aftr his return to Leeds, and frequented their chapels at the hours which did not interfere with his attendance in his parish church; yet he by no means adopted all the opinions taught by the Mwethodists… It is stated by one of his friends, that 'He entirely differed from the Methodists respecting the doctrine of perfection, and by no means accorded with their sentiments relative to the wirness of the Spirit, and the necessity of instantaneous conversion. In the great essential truths of religion, as thaught by the Church of England, he was in unison with them, and did not therefore judge it expedient to leave their Society on account of small differences.'

Ibid, part 2 pp.17-18

'One of the principal Methodists in Leeds was William Hey, now in the forty-fifth year of his age, a medical man of great repute, and intimate friend and correspondent of Dr. Priestley, and who had been a Methodist for seven-and-twenty years. Mr. Hey intimated to Wesley his desire to address the Conference, and to offer some suggestions and advice; declaring, at the same time, that, if his proposals were rejected, he could no longer remain a member of the Methodist society. By Wesley's permission he began to read a paper, to the effect that Dissenting ideas had been, for many years, gradually growing among the Methodists. In proof of this, he held that the Methodists preached in places already supplied with pious ministers; that meetings in some instances were held in church hours; that the intervals of church service were so filled up with public and private assemblies, that there was no time for suitable refreshment, nor opportunity for instructing families; that many of the largest societies rarely went to church, and some never carried their children there; and that church ministers, who formed societies for private instruction, were looked upon with an envious eye. Such were the complaints which Mr. Hey intended to lay before the conference; but, as he proceeded, the marks of disapprobation were such that Wesley interposed, and said: "As there is much other business before us, brother Hey must defer reading the remainder of his paper to another time."

'Brother Hey forthwith left the society; a few months later he was elected alderman; and, more than once filled the office of chief magistrate in the town of Leeds. Of his ability and piety there can be no question; but Wesley was not prepared to allow him to be the dictator of the Methodists.'

Luke Tyerman, Life and Times of the Rev. John Wesley MA (4th edn., 1878), 3 pp.363-4

  • John Pearson, The Life of William Hey, Esq., FRS (1822; 2nd edn., 1823)
  • John Hey, The Biographia Leodensis, or biographical sketches of worthies of Leeds neighbourhood (1865)
  • B. Bell, 'The Life, Character and Writings of William Hey of Leeds', in Edinburgh Medical Journal, 12 (1866-67) pp. 1061-80
  • G.J. Stevenson, City Road Chapel, London and its Associations (1872) pp.487-8
  • S.T. Anning, The General Infirmary at Leeds, 2 vols, 1966.
  • S.T. Anning and W.K.J. Walls, A History of the Leeds School of Medicine (Leeds, 1982)
  • Frank Lloyd Southam, 'William Hey, Leeds Tory, church Methodist, and surgeon: methodism and medical science, in Wesley Historical Society (Yorkshire) Bulletin, no.102, Autumn 2012, pp.15-20
  • Oxford DNB