The centenary of International Women’s Day falls on the 8th of March. The theme for this year’s event is Equal access to education, training and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women.
With this in mind, we take a look at the Lewes Road Dispensary celebrated for its entirely female staff.
Brighton History Centre holds this 1905 Annual Report for the pioneering Lewes Road Hospital & Dispensary for Women and Children. The opening page of the report states its aim:
‘To afford to poor women of Brighton and the neighbourhood, the opportunity of free consultation with Doctors of their own sex’.
Dispensaries were a widespread means of offering free or low-cost medical treatment to members of society who couldn’t afford doctors fees. The Lewes Road Dispensary was radical in that it had an entirely female staff, at a time when women had only recently been permitted to work as doctors.
Even more revolutionary was the Lewes Road Hospital (later renamed the ‘Lady Chichester’) which ran alongside the dispensary. The annual report states:
‘the patients are chiefly women and girls who are suffering from serious nervous breakdown … it is the only institution of the kind in the kingdom where expert treatment can be obtained by those who cannot afford large payments’.
In a pamphlet held at Brighton History Centre Dr Helen Boyle says the hospital provided an environment away from the effects of ‘bad air, bad food, noise, and worry’. She describes a treatment regime beyond bed rest that included music, massage, sea-bathing, walks on the Downs and even trips to concerts at the Dome.
Both the dispensary and hospital were extremely successful – running until 1948 when they came under NHS control. However, as the annual reports show, funding was always a pressing issue. As well as listing names of subscribers (with sums donated), the 1905 report details gifts given by benefactors which include ‘loan of a piano’, ‘a bicycle from Miss Cohen’, and bed-linen ‘beautifully marked with monograms’ by one volunteer.
The report also lists the number of patients treated, income and expenditure, and gives names of staff including the dispensary founders Helen Boyle and Mabel Jones, and notable Brighton physician Louisa Martindale. It tells us that the dispensary and hospital Vice-President is the eminent Elizabeth Garrett-Anderson – the first British woman doctor.
The report offers us a fascinating glimpse of the work of pioneering women in Brighton and of conditions for their women patients before a free health service. Brighton History Centre also holds a 1910 annual report and further pamphlets about the hospital.
Anna Kisby, Brighton History Centre
Read more about pioneering Brighton women in our post Found! Suffragettes hiding in the Brighton Dome.