Luck in the Lockdown! Researching early women doctors in Manchester: Blog 1. Dr. Elsie Brown Hey b 1883. d. c. 1978

Luck in the Lockdown! Researching early women doctors in Manchester:

Blog 1. Dr. Elsie Brown Hey b 1883. d. c. 1978

By Ali Ronan

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Figure 1. Final Year students at Manchester University Medical School, 1904. Miss Corbett (left) and Miss Chisholm (right). (Permission: University of Manchester, Museum of Medicine & Health).

Today, locked down with my computer, I have had a productive time finding out about long-dead women. I thought that I would write a piece about my rather idiosyncratic research methods and explore what I have discovered about three women doctors who were involved in the Manchester Babies’ Hospital in or after 1914 and how I worked through what appears to be quite random information. A group of local volunteers – including me – have decided to work on a project about early women doctors in Manchester in order to create a small exhibition for the Didsbury Heritage Festival in the Autumn 2020: an exhibition supported in part by MCPH. We had ‘divvied’ out some names and initially I was working on Dr. Florence Robinson and Dr. Lily Stopford nee Allan, but I have been waylaid by three other women doctors that caught my eye (I might blog about Florence and Lily at a later time).

As a starting point for all this research, I had decided to look at the archive of the Manchester Babies’ Hospital (MMC/9/17/1/1) in order to get a ‘feel’ of what was going on a hundred years ago. The archive is held at the University of Manchester and includes the Manchester Medical/Biographical Collection which hinted at a great, almost magical, cache of information but many of the dusty folders brought out of the archive, contained only the tiniest amount of material. But all information, even the smallest piece, is worth recording and gives the researcher a breadth of names with which to start building a network of potential friends and colleagues among these early medical women. This seems to me to be vital so that the researcher can spot names in potentially unlikely places – in newspapers, minutes and so on.

The Annual reports of the Manchester Babies’ Hospital from 1914 -1921 are quite extraordinary in their detail and I could just blog about those. However, I was using them quite specifically at this stage, to look for names, to allow me to build up a picture of the network of medical women who were in Manchester at that time. The important thing for me was to begin to know names, so that I could use census information if possible: the 1881/1891/1901 and 1911 census give evidence about addresses and siblings, and sometimes it might be possible to trace neighbours or near neighbours. The census can also give information about the class background of the women. Of course, many of the women doctors just used their surnames which means tracing them is almost impossible, so it is important to watch closely for first names and possible change of name if the women got married. Some of the new sites let you look at the 1939 register which I have found useful for date of birth and to see how the women might describe themselves.

A few days before the lockdown started in earnest, the medical archives at Manchester University closed. I had ordered material to look at with a volunteer researcher. Although I prefer ‘handling’ material and in doing so, finding, almost serendipitously, small pieces of evidence that may otherwise go unnoticed, I decided that during the lockdown I would work through online information. I think that some of the success of research is about luck, but it is also about being prepared to see links and associations. For instance, I also never just use the first page of a Google search but keep going through the pages and sometimes things will crop up on page 8 or so!

I also began to see the wider networks of the women doctors that were in Manchester in the early twentieth century. For instance I discovered that both Florence Robinson (1873-1937) and Catherine Chisholm (1878-1952) worked at the women-run Clapham Maternity Hospital and even though I don’t know if they overlapped, they will have known of each other before working together in Manchester. This might be another avenue of research as many women medical graduates gravitated towards London in order to find work.

There was such a network of women involved in welfare responses in the city at that time that I can track various suffrage women as well, like the Hon Sec of the Babies’ Hospital Edith Eckhard, (1886-1952) whose middle class German family donated to the co-operative garden village housing experiment in Burnage in 1908. Edith herself went to the progressive St Leonards schools in St Andrews, Fife and was recorded as ‘a student’ in the 1911 census. She became the first health visitor for the Babies’ Hospital and she also kept accurate medical records for the local School for Mothers. By 1919 Edith had left Manchester and was appointed Assistant Lecturer, subsequently Senior Tutor, and then Deputy Head of the Social Science Department at the London School of Economics. Another network emerges!

So how did I begin? I had been in touch with Dr Peter Mohr who is an expert on early women doctors in Manchester, using his 1995 thesis as a reference point. His work concentrated on Dr Catherine Chisholm and the Babies’ Hospital. He was very helpful and sent a list of all the medical women who were associated with the hospital: I went through the list marking off the pre-1920 names.  Three women ‘jumped’ out for me – I chose them as women who were on the list and who were involved in the early committees of the MBH. I choose them at random and decided to see what I could discover about Elsie Brown Hey, Sheila Ross and Dora Bunting.

  1. Elsie Brown Hey:

Firstly, because I had looked already at the Manchester Babies’ Hospital archive held at the University (MMC/9/17/1/1), I knew that Dr Elsie Brown had married a Hey. I saw that her name changed in 2nd Annual Report 1916-1917 and I knew that might affect how I researched her life. Sadly (for me!), Brown is a very common name and Elsie was a popular name in the late nineteenth century. Then, I looked at the Medical Biographical Collection held at the University of Manchester. This can be accessed online. There was nothing about Elsie Brown Hey but there was a Wilson Harold Hey, so I looked him up on the census, noting briefly that he was born in Colne in Lancashire in 1883 and married an Elsie Brown in 1916 in Bolton.  Once I knew about the Bolton connection, it made searching the census easier. In the 1891 census I found Elsie Brown, born in 1884, in Ashbourne House, Tonge with Haulgh, Bolton whose father Thomas was a cotton waste merchant. There were over 240 cotton mills in Bolton at this time. The family was clearly middle class, and large, Elsie was the second child of seven, and in 1891 her youngest brother, Harry had just been born. There was a professional nurse, Annie Henshall staying with the family. There was also a cook, housemaid and another nurse employed by the family.

By 1901, the Browns had moved to a larger property, Radbourne House further down the road. This is a large Victorian house now divided into flats.  I still couldn’t find out anything about her medical career. But then the FindmyPast material revealed Elsie Brown on the 1913 medical register.  I clicked on to ‘view image’ and there were exam results showing that Elsie Brown had graduated in Materia Medica and Pharmacy from the Victoria University of Manchester in 1907, graduating as a doctor in 1909. In her year were two other women, Elsie Royle and Julia White along with Frank Tylecote, who was to marry the Women’s International League activist educationalist and councillor, Mabel Pythian in the 1920s. More networks were emerging.  I am easily waylaid! I came across Elsie Royle again in the Archive Hub for the Rylands library where, after much scrolling, I discovered that she had worked for the City of London Infirmary, married a man (doctor?) called Thompson in 1915 and went onto work at the Cancer Hospital in Manchester. The 1913 medical register gave her address as Wigan so I was able to track her. Born in 1891, she was the eldest of three children, her father was an agent for a Canal company, her mother a costumier and sometime shopkeeper and  they were another middle class family with two servants. Although I have no record of Julia White being involved in the Babies’ Hospital, I googled her, and a register of graduates from the Manchester Victoria University in 1909 came up. From that I saw: White, Julia Crawford. Born April 15, 1873, at Glasgow. M.B., Ch.B., 1906. In general practice since 1906. 340, Oxford Road, Manchester. I then tracked her through the 1881 and 1891 census discovering that she was the daughter of a retired advocate living in Glasgow’s East End (Govan and then Calton) with her two sisters, brother and a servant. In 1891 she is recorded as being a student of literature. I couldn’t find her on the 1911 census but then discovered that a Julia Crawford White had married a Montague Fox in Chorlton in 1909. So far, no more luck in finding out what happened to her!

Back to Elsie – I googled Wilson Hey and discovered that he was born in Lancashire and his father was a wool waste merchant and a JP. Another middle-class family. Wilson Hey was educated at Burnley Grammar School and the University of Manchester, winning scholarships and prizes. He took his clinical training at the London Hospital, and qualified in 1905. At the Royal Infirmary, Manchester he served as house surgeon and resident surgical officer and it is here that he is recorded in the 1911 census. On the outbreak of war, he joined the RAMC and served as a surgical specialist in France. In all the articles and obituaries to this remarkable man, there is hardly a mention of Elsie although occasionally, they mention in passing that she was also a doctor.

However The Lancet in the summer of 1913 records that in 1912, Dr. Elsie Brown was one of the Medical Officers at the Dispensary at the Children’s Hospital in Pendlebury along with Dr. W. A. B. Young, and Mr. J. A. Dowling and she was also working in the X-ray department there. During 1912 there were 2958 in-patients. Wilson Hey was a consulting physician there so we might imagine that is where Elsie met Wilson!

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Figure 2: The Duchess of York Hospital for Babies, Burnage (By Peter Ward, CC BY-SA 2.0,

The Babies’ Hospital was established in 1914 after Dr Florence Robinson (1873-1937) and Dr Catherine Chisholm (1878-1952) called a meeting of all the medical women of the town to consider the question of starting a Babies’ Hospital. Catherine Chisholm remembered it in an article written for Margaret Ashton’s obituary for The Woman Citizen, in 1937: ‘The scheme originated in a midnight talk of suffrage and the readiness of the Suffragettes to die for their cause, of medical women and their difficulties in getting responsible and senior appointments and of infant mortality and the impossibility of getting hospital care for the dozens of sick babies in the time of the summer epidemic.’

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Figure 3: Virginia Roderick , ed. (June 4, 1921) The Woman’s Journal, 6 (Public domain ed.), Woman Citizen Corporation, p. 2 (from Wikimedia Commons)

This tells me that these medical women were suffrage sympathisers although I have yet to find that any of them were members of either the National Union of Suffrage Societies (Margaret Ashton was president of the NW NUWSS Federation) or the Women’s Social and Political Union. Dr Elsie Brown may very well have been part of this first meeting and she is certainly a member of the first committee of the Babies Hospital alongside Robinson and Chisholm. The first house for the Babies’ Hospital was in Clarendon Rd, Whalley range which housed twelve cots. Other committee members included Dr Sheila Ross. Edith Eckhard (1886-1952) was the Hon. Sec. and I know that she was also involved in the local branch of the National Union of Suffrage Society with local councillor Margaret Ashton. Ashton was one of the governors of the Manchester High School for Girls, where Catherine Chisholm was the medical officer and Edith Eckhard’s mother was also a governor – more networks!

The Browns were married in 1916, perhaps when Wilson was home from the Western Front and his work for the RAMC. In 1917 their first child, a girl named Dorothy, was born. Dorothy also became a doctor, qualifying from Manchester in 1942 and becoming the house surgeon at Crumpsall Hospital (she is a footnote to her husband Dr Norman Lewtas’ biography in the Manchester Medical Biographical files). The Browns had three other children, Mary born in 1920, Thomas born in late 1921 and Peter born in 1923. Despite probably having servants Edith will have been taken up with motherhood throughout the 1920s and into the 30s.

At some point the family moved to Whaley Bridge, although in the 1939 register they were still living in Manchester in 163, Wilmslow Rd. Nothing more is really known about Elsie Brown Hey apart from her constant subscriptions to the Babies’ Hospital recorded in each Annual Report. I think she died in Sheffield in 1978, surviving 22 years after the death of Wilson in 1956. I hope that she enjoyed her long and eventful life.

Next time: Dr. Sheila Ross