Olive Claydon: Pioneer Doctor for Women in Manchester

By Dorothy Bintley

Being born and brought up in Oldham I was familiar with the name of Olive Claydon. There was a house in her name on Belgrave Road which supported disadvantaged children and their families, not far from the Congregational Church I attended. Every Christmas we collected toys and other treats to take there. In my memory in the 1950s and 1960s it was not residential and I don’t know when it closed, unfortunately in the current climate I can’t go to Oldham Archives to try to find out exactly how it functioned. 

But who was Olive Claydon? I never asked. In fact she was a pioneer woman doctor, the first female GP in Oldham, she supported women’s suffrage and worked to improve the lot of impoverished mothers and their babies. 

The registers of Manchester High School for Girls (MHSG) show that Olive was born on February 24th 1876 and entered the Lower School in January 1888. From the 1881 census we can see the family were living in Wigan and that five year old Olive (mistranscribed as Alice by the census enumerator) was born in Hove, Sussex to George Spark Claydon, a solicitor, and Sarah Maria Claydon. The family must have moved to Wigan when she was three years old because the same census shows her younger brother Eric was born there. A further move brought them to Oldham where her father joined a firm of solicitors, which became known as Wrigley Claydon and still exists in the town. When eleven year old Olive started at MHSG the family were living at 26 Marlborough Street, Oldham and they were still there at the 1891 census.

MHSG has an extensive archive and very helpful archivists. On January 27th 1892 the Governors’ Minutes show that they agreed to pay fees to Owens College, Manchester so sixteen year old Olive could have higher science lessons there.  They also awarded her a scholarship on July 6th 1892 and a leaving exhibition on July 3rd 1895. A report in the Manchester Guardian July 20th 1895 about the school’s annual meeting at the Free Trade Hall lists the six girls who were awarded leaving exhibitions. All were for three years; two girls received £27, one got £30, two more were given £35 and Olive was awarded £40 for three years.

Olive’s success at school must have involved hard work and she also had to travel into Manchester each day. Her home in Marlborough Street was a short walk from Oldham’s Central Railway Station (closed many years ago) and from there she would have been able to catch a train into Manchester Victoria and probably a bus to complete her journey to school. However, she had another talent which required a lot of her time.

Oldham Local Studies and Archives holds bound copies of programmes of the Oldham Orchestral Society. Each year they gave a concert in Oldham Town Hall for the benefit of Oldham Infirmary and on January 11th 1893 sixteen year old Olive Claydon was solo pianist, she performed Concerto in G Minor by Mendelssohn on a concert grand piano loaned for the occasion. The following year on April 27th 1894 she performed Andante and Presto Agitato by Mendelssohn. Quite something for a teenager!

Oldham Orchestral Society Programme, January 1893, Oldham Town Hall Concert to raise money for the Oldham Infirmary
Oldham Orchestral Society Programme, April 1894, Oldham Town Hall Concert to raise money for the Oldham Infirmary

After leaving school Olive moved on to the London University School of Medicine for Women, she specialised in obstetrics and gained a BSc degree. She then continued to gain experience in a series of brief appointments which are listed in the MHSG archives. She started as a Clinical Assistant at Northumberland County Asylum in 1901, then moved to be Resident Medical Officer at the Edinburgh Hospital for Women and Children from April to October 1902. Next she went to Canning Town Medical Mission where she became Assistant Medical Officer until April 1903. She moved nearer home to be House Surgeon at Chorlton on Medlock Dispensary for thirteen months until May 1904. The last post listed in the archives is Resident Medical Officer, Maternity Department, New Hospital for Women, Euston Road, London from July to December 1904.

In December 1905 Olive graduated with an MD from the London Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine for Women and moved back to Oldham to become the town’s first female GP. The 1911 census shows that she was living with her parents at 29 Belgrave Road and was described as a Medical Practitioner. The census also says that the house had eleven rooms and she was working at home so her surgery must have been in the house, which was common for GPs until modern medical practices were built.

My research after this point moved to the online British Newspaper Archive. Putting Olive’s name into the search turns up no fewer than eleven mentions in The Common Cause, a weekly paper published by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and it’s clear that she played a prominent part in the local branch and in surrounding areas.

In November 1910 Dame Sarah Lees became the first female Mayor of Oldham and only the second in the country at that time. She came from a wealthy mill owning family who were great philanthropists in the town and had a daughter Marjory Lees who was just two years younger than Olive. The family lived in a large house in Werneth Park which was often the venue for meetings for causes supported by Dame Sarah and Marjory.

The first time Olive’s name appeared in The Common Cause was on November 17th 1910.

Excerpt from The Common Cause, 17 November 1910

The Common Cause next reported on The Oldham Debate or what the Oldham Chronicle described as The Great Debate held in February 1911 when a large audience – as many men as women – gathered to hear Olive challenged by Mr Beaumont, an anti suffragist from Manchester. Both papers reported that his challenge was demolished and new recruits signed up to the campaign.

The reports show that Olive continued to campaign in Oldham and surrounding areas for women’s rights and particularly on the health needs of them and their children. She supported the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in Serbia and France, she addressed meetings on maternity and child welfare, she was invited to speak in Rochdale on the need for maternity centres and health visitors and she urged local authorities to support the Notification of Births Act. 

Sadly, while the earlier references in The Common Cause had been of Olive’s activities, by 1915 there are reports of donations she made but not of rallies or meetings. While she was a medical student she had been diagnosed with mitral stenosis, a serious heart condition for which there was no effective treatment in her lifetime. Olive fell ill in March 1916 and died at home on October 5th 1916 aged only 40 years and it is from obituaries that we learn of her medical achievements.

The British Medical Journal described her medical politics. She represented the Society of Medical Women on the Insurance Acts Committee of the BMA which involved visits to London. She was a member of the Oldham Panel Committee and of the Oldham Insurance Committee, Medical Benefits Subcommittee, Medical Service Subcommittee and of the Lancashire Insurance Committee. She was invited to London to give evidence before the Commission on Excessive Sickness Claims, this took two days and she answered over 1500 questions. Olive strongly believed that people should not be deterred from seeking medical advice because of fear of being denied sickness benefit.

An obituary in The Common Cause quoted a letter from “one of the highest Government officials” which she received shortly before her death: “What I am trying to do is to rejoice that you have had the great joy of fighting in a great cause and of practically winning it … to bring about more just, more humane consideration for those in need of it.”

The Maternity and Child Welfare Act was passed in 1918 and contained much for which Olive worked so hard. It promoted public health and placed responsibility on city, town and county councils to provide welfare clinics and health workers.

Olive was cremated in Manchester and her remains were taken by her family to Long Melford in Suffolk to the vault where her relatives were buried. At noon on Monday October 9th 1916 simultaneous services were held in Suffolk and at Hope Congregational Church, Oldham to celebrate the life of Olive Claydon. The Oldham Chronicle reported that the church was packed and there were people standing outside. The service was attended by the Mayor, Councillors and many doctors.

In memory of his daughter, George Spark Claydon gave the family home 29 Belgrave Road to the Oldham Guardians to be converted into a nursery and place for convalescent children. There was a ceremony on August 13th 1918 where the keys were handed over and the building was named Olive Claydon House, this was also reported in the Oldham Chronicle.

As I said at the beginning, Olive’s name was known to me and my friends in the 1950s. We had no idea what a full but short life she lived. 

Photograph courtesy of Oldham Local Studies and Archives

Sources:      Archives of Manchester High School for Girls

                     British Newspaper Archive (online via Find My Past)

                     Oldham Chronicle (not online, microfilms at Oldham Local Studies and Archives)

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