Continuing our blog series, 100 Pioneering Women of Sussex, it seemed appropriate that blog number two should follow on from trailblazing doctor, Sophia Jex-Blake, with Val Brown, author of ‘Women’s Hospitals in Brighton and Hove.’
History is not so much about the things that happen but how these things are recorded and, all too often, in the case of women’s history, whether they’re recorded at all.
A woman who has been ensuring that Brighton and Hove’s rich women’s history has the recognition it deserves is local author, Val Brown.
Brown came to Brighton from London in 2001 and, at a time when women’s history was nothing more than a niche interest, researched and published two extraordinary books which have become must-reads for anyone interested in the legacy of local women.
‘Women’s Hospitals in Brighton and Hove’ published in 2006 by Hastings Press and reissued in 2019 is a detail by detail account of how Drs Helen Boyle, Mabel Jones, Louisa Martindale and others came to Brighton from 1898 onwards and opened women’s hospitals which employed women doctors and, for the most part, offered healthcare to poor women for free or very reduced rates. The female doctor was a relatively new – and untrusted – species at the time, and the women had to fight prejudice, pig headedness, and lack of funds, giving their services voluntarily. The first hospital, really a drop-in centre, was the Lewes Road Dispensary for Women and Children on Islingward Road. It was novel, revolutionary and – quite literally for many women who couldn’t afford the high costs of healthcare in pre NHS Britain – a life saver. Referring to official reports and meeting minutes, Brown’s story arc takes in the restrictions and new possibilities for women in Edwardian England, the nation’s attitude towards health and hospitals, and the snail pace rate at which women doctors were grudgingly accepted by the male dominated medical establishment. Brown’s book, the first attempt to pull these threads into one narrative, has been a game changer in local history, cementing Brighton’s reputation as a major centre for women’s health in the early twentieth century. The buildings that served as some of the first women’s hospitals – not just in Brighton but in Britain – such as the erstwhile Lewes Road Dispensary for Women and Children stand unmarked and unheralded today, most of them converted into flats and commercial premises. Brown’s book brings them and their remarkable stories out of the shadows.
Brown’s second book, published in 2017, ‘Toupie Lowther Her Life’ tells the incredible story of the 1874 Lowther, a champion fencer and tennis player, lover of fast cars, motorbikes, weightlifting, and ju-jitsu, a one-time Pulborough resident, who organised and led and all female fleet of female ambulance drivers to assist the French army during the First World War. A friend of Radcliffe Hall and Una Troubridge, Lowther was starting to fade into obscurity and, thanks to Brown, has now been deservedly rescued.
Brown was a founder member of the Brighton and Hove Women’s History Group, who work to raise awareness of women’s contribution to local history. The group was set up in 2018 and has been active in campaigning and fundraising for blue plaques to commemorate local women.
Researched and written by social historian Louise Peskett