Octavia Wilberforce

Octavia Wilberforce

Octavia Wilberforce, the daughter of Reginald and Anna Wilberforce, was born in East Lavington House, Petworth on 8th January 1888. Octavia was the granddaughter of Samuel Wilberforce (1805-1873), Bishop of Winchester, the son of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), the leader of the campaign against the slave trade.

According to her biographer, Pat Jalland: "Although Octavia was the least welcome of her parents' children, she recalled her childhood as happy, because she was allowed to run wild. Her education consisted primarily of sporadic lessons in music, history, and literature, from occasional tutors, with only one year of formal education at the age of sixteen."

In July 1909, Octavia met Elizabeth Robins, the campaigner for women's rights. Octavia later recalled: "It was a turning point in my life… I had always read omnivorously and longed to write myself, and to meet so distinguished an author in the flesh was a terrific adventure. It was a small family luncheon at Phyllis Buxton's house. Elizabeth Robins was dressed in a blue suit, the colour of speedwell, which matched her beautiful deep-set eyes. I was introduced as Phyllis's friend who lives near Henfield... Elizabeth Robins.... with a charming grace and in an unforgettable voice asked me if I would come to tea one day and she would show me her modest little garden."

In 1910 Octavia was worried about the health of her housemaid. It was suggested that she took her housemaid to see Louisa Martindale, one of the new doctors at Brighton County Hospital. Octavia became friends with Louisa and after a while decided that she would also like to be a doctor. However, her parents were totally opposed to the idea and refused to fund her studies.

Reginald Wilberforce had arranged for Octavia to marry Charles Buxton, the eldest son of Lord Buxton, a wealthy businessman and prominent politician. Octavia refused to marry Charles and insisted that she wanted a career in medicine. Her father was so angry at her decision that he cut Octavia out of his will.

When Elizabeth Robins heard of Octavia's problems, she offered to help fund her studies. Octavia went to live with Robins her 15th century farmhouse at Backsettown, near Henfield. When the British government introduced the Cat and Mouse Act in 1913, Robins used her house as a retreat for suffragettes recovering from hunger strike. It was also rumoured that the house was used as a hiding place for suffragettes on the run from the police.

In 1913 Octavia Wilberforce was able to start her course at the London School of Medicine for Women. She later recalled she was met by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson "who was white-haired and gracious, and who said something tactful about William Wilberforce's great work for the slaves." She added: "Most of the girls were younger than I was and of varied types. Some of them by doing Medicine were following in a parent's footstep; some had a definite urge, like myself, to be of the use to the community. These were subdivided into those who wished to be medical missionaries and those who had worked in the Suffrage movement."

As her biographer, Pat Jalland, has pointed out: "Only 3 per cent of qualified doctors were female in 1913 and prejudice persisted against women in private practice." During the First World War the student Octavia Wilberforce, gained valuable experience treating British casualties at St. Mary's Hospital in Paddington.

Octavia Wilberforce qualified as a doctor in 1920. After working as a clinical clerk to Dr Wilfred Harris, an outstanding neurologist, and after qualifying became his house physician in 1921 she established her own general medical practice at 24 Montpelier Crescent in 1923. Octavia joined Elizabeth Robins and Louisa Martindale in their campaign for a new fifty-bed, women's hospital in Brighton. After the New Sussex Hospital for Women in Brighton opened, Octavia became one of the three visiting doctors. Later she was appointed as the hospital's head physician.

In 1927 Octavia Wilberforce helped Elizabeth Robins and Marjorie Hubert set up a convalescent home at Backsettown, for overworked professional women. Wilberforce used the convalescent home as a means of exploring the best way of helping people to become fit and healthy. Patients were instructed not to talk about illness. Octavia believed diet was very important and patients were fed on locally produced fresh food. Whenever possible, patients were encouraged to eat their meals in the garden.

During the Second World War Octavia's long-tern companion, Elizabeth Robins went back to the United States. Octavia remained in Brighton and in 1941 treated Virginia Woolf. Her husband, Leonard Woolf, later recalled: "She (Octavia Wilberforce) had, to all intents and purposes become Virginia's doctor, and so the moment I became uneasy about Virginia's psychological health in the beginning of 1941 I told Octavia and consulted her professionally. The desperate difficulty which always presented itself when Virginia began to be threatened with a breakdown - a difficulty which occurs, I think, again and again in mental illness - was to decided how far it was safe to go in urging her to take steps - drastic steps - to ward off the attack."

At the age of eighty-eight, she returned to live with Octavia at her house in Montpelier Crescent in Brighton. One of her regular visitors was Leonard Woolf. He recalled in his autobiography, The Journey Not the Arrival Matters (1969): "Elizabeth was, I think, devoted to Octavia, but she was also devoted to Elizabeth Robins; when we first knew her, she was already a elderly woman and a dedicated egoist, but she was still a fascinating as well as an exasperating egoist."

Octavia Wilberforce retired from the New Sussex Hospital for Women in 1954, but she continued to work at Backsettown until her death on 3rd January 1963.

Primary Sources

(1) Octavia Wilberforce described attitudes towards the education of girls in her book, Octavia Wilberforce: The Autobiography of a Pioneer Woman Doctor.

In my youth education for girls in England was not generally accepted as essential to their background. In the middle classes the main object was for parents to bring up their daughters to be sufficiently attractive to gain a suitable husband, to produce large families and be accomplished in the art of managing servants and the entertainment of guests.

(2) Octavia Wilberforce was the youngest of seven children. Whereas her four brothers were educated at expensive private schools, Octavia did not receive any formal education until she was sixteen. She described how this happened in her autobiography, Octavia Wilberforce: The Autobiography of a Pioneer Woman Doctor.

Miss Lucy Phillimore, my mother's greatest friend, arrived to stay, and strongly disapproved of my spending my time fishing. I was sixteen years old, must really have some education, and was bundled off to St. Hilda's School as a day girl… I was put in a class of girls of similar age and on the very first day in a thoroughly encouraging way the mistress of the scripture lesson said, "Well, you Octavia, as niece of the Bishop of Chichester, will know the answer to this question." I was introduced to Arithmetic, and moved into a class of little girls who were all superior to me in this horrible subject. It was not till we played hockey that I gained even a modicum of respect from my school associates.

(3) In March 1911, Charles Buxton, the eldest son of Lord Buxton, a wealthy businessman and Postmaster General in Herbert Asquith's Cabinet, asked Octavia Wilberforce to marry him. Although under extreme pressure from her parents, Octavia refused. She explained her thoughts on receiving Charles Buxton's proposal, in a letter she wrote to her friend, Elizabeth Robins.

When I was eighteen I would have married anything that might have asked me if I thought it would have been advantageous and conducive to fun. Didn't believe in any silly rot like love and I might have been the most amenable daughter alive.

When Charles Buxton's letter came I was most awfully sorry and wished I had never seen the boy. I was perfectly miserable and from trying to imagine how he felt I almost felt I was a criminal. When he came and I walked along the lane with him I felt I was a beast and quite dreadfully sorry. But when he spoke of it… I suddenly felt so revolted at what it all meant from my point of view.

Some people are cut out for marriage; they are made for it and would be most happy in it.

Perhaps people are made differently, but I am not cut out for it. Everybody I know would be shocked and horrified at that statement and at this: the very thought of it makes me shudder and it revolts me.

(4) Octavia Wilberforce described her first meeting with Elizabeth Robins in her autobiography, Octavia Wilberforce: An Autobiography of a Pioneer Woman Doctor.

In the early summer of 1909, when I was twenty-one, I met Elizabeth Robins. It was a turning point in my life… I had always read omnivorously and longed to write myself, and to meet so distinguished an author in the flesh was a terrific adventure. It was a small family luncheon at Phyllis Buxton's house. Elizabeth Robins was dressed in a blue suit, the colour of speedwell, which matched her beautiful deep-set eyes. I was introduced as Phyllis's friend who lives near Henfield. "A neighbour then?" Said Elizabeth Robins, and with a charming grace and in an unforgettable voice asked me if I would come to tea one day and she would show me her modest little garden.

(5) In 1911 Octavia Wilberforce met Dr. Louisa Martindale for the first time when she took Janet, her housemaid, to be X-rayed at Brighton County Hospital. She wrote about this experience her book, Octavia Wilberforce: Autobiography of a Pioneer Woman Doctor.

Three or four doctors in surrounding villages had seen Janet at my request and they each assured me that her cough was nothing serious. They said it was magnified in her own mind by the fact that her mother had died of consumption. They were wrong. Janet herself accepted the cough as more or less normal and thought I was being unduly fussy.

I insisted on her seeing a woman doctor, Dr. Louisa Martindale, a friend of Elizabeth Robins. The X-ray confirmed that she had tuberculosis. I was enraged by the delay in not catching the trouble at an earlier stage. I took her to Brompton Hospital. "Too advanced for admission". I boiled over with fury; after all, if I with only my eyes and no stethoscope had been able to diagnose all those months ago I could be a better doctor myself.

In a mood of complete despondency I grumbled to Elizabeth Robins. In my abysmal ignorance of what medical training involved, I told her that my observations and common sense had proved me right in diagnosis. "Why couldn't I become qualified and be a doctor". She turned and looked at me with flashing eyes and an expression I'd never seen in them before and burst out: "Now that would be a worthwhile life. My father wanted me, urged me, to be a doctor," and with passionate enthusiasm, "It's the greatest profession in the world."

(6) In October 1912 Octavia Wilberforce approached her parents about the possibility of studying at the London School of Medicine for Women. Their response was described in her book, Octavia Wilberforce: Autobiography of a Pioneer Woman Doctor.

I told my parents I wanted to study Medicine. They refused me to do this. Among other things it was "unsexing". They said they thought I had not the brains to pass the examinations, nor the physical stamina for the hard work involved in the seven years study.

One evening my mother came into my room to talk to me. "If you are still thinking of being a doctor, you'd better give it up at once. The whole thing is not practical. For one thing you're too old. The profession is already overcrowded and hundreds of girls are going into it. Besides, you would have to live in London. You are too young to live in London".

"Just now you said I was too old, and now I'm too young," I remarked. I said that Dr. Louisa Martindale had told me the supply didn't meet the demand and all the woman doctors she knew were doing well. "Women are so inaccurate, I don't believe her", said my mother. "But as regards the living in London and training, I tell you at once, I couldn't afford it, so that's the end of it. I spend everything I have on making your father's remaining years happy."

I was hating the whole conversation, but keeping very calm and cool, my mother continued. "Also it wants great physical strength and you aren't at all strong. You would be wasting the best years of your youth and happiness - you would lose all your friends… You would be mixing with girls of a lower class. The majority would be much beneath you. You couldn't possibly do anything socially, and you would ruin your chance of a woman's only real happiness - being a mother."

'I feel sure you will regret it later. You would only be able to attend women… It would be a very dull life. Dorothy (Octavia's married sister) has a most interesting life. And she has the satisfaction of knowing that she is making one man perfectly happy', Then she went off into a lecture on the happiness to be obtained from a marriage for money.

(7) In 1913 Lord Buxton and Elizabeth Robins offered to pay for Octavia Wilberforce's training at the London School of Medicine for Women. She recorded her first impressions of her training in her book Autobiography of a Pioneer Woman Doctor.

We shook hands with Mrs Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who was white-haired and gracious, and who said something tactful about William Wilberforce's great work for the slaves. Most of the girls were younger than I was and of varied types. Some of them by doing Medicine were following in a parent's footstep; some had a definite urge, like myself, to be of the use to the community. These were subdivided into those who wished to be medical missionaries and those who had worked in the Suffrage movement.

(8) In January, 1941, Leonard Woolf, became concerned about the health of Virginia Woolf. He decided to ask the advice of their friend, Octavia Wilberforce.

Octavia Wilberforce practised as a doctor in Montpelier Crescent, Brighton, and lived there with Elizabeth Robins. Octavia was a remarkable character. Her ancestors were the famous Wilberforce of the anti-slavery movement; their portraits hung on her walls and she had inherited their beautiful furniture and their fine library of eighteenth-century books. Octavia had been born and bred in a large house in Sussex, a young lady in a typical country gentleman's house. But though she was always very much an English lady of the upper middle class, she was never a typical young lady.

She was already a young lady when she decided that she must become a doctor. It was a strange, disquieting decision, for in a Sussex country houses in those days young ladies did not become a doctors; they played tennis and went to dances in order to marry and breed more young ladies in still more country houses. Octavia's idea was not thought to be a good one by her family, and she received no encouragement there. Another difficulty was that her education as a young lady was not the kind which made it easy for her to pass the necessary examinations to qualify as a doctor. But her quiet determination, the oak and triple brass enabled her to overcome all difficulties. She became a first-class doctor in Brighton.

She had, to all intents and purposes become Virginia's doctor, and so the moment I became uneasy about Virginia's psychological health in the beginning of 1941 I told Octavia and consulted her professionally. The desperate difficulty which always presented itself when Virginia began to be threatened with a breakdown - a difficulty which occurs, I think, again and again in mental illness - was to decided how far it was safe to go in urging her to take steps - drastic steps - to ward off the attack. Drastic steps meant going to bed, complete rest, plenty of food and milk.

On Wednesday, March 26, I became convinced that Virginia's mental condition was more serious than it had ever been since those terrible days in August 1913 which led to her complete breakdown and attempt to kill herself. I suggested to Virginia that she should go and see Octavia and consult her as a doctor as well as a friend. She had a long talk with Octavia by herself and then Octavia came into the front room in Montpelier Crescent and she and I discussed what we should do.

We felt that it was not safe to do anything more at the moment. And it was the moment at which the risk had to be taken, for if one did not force the issue - which would have meant perpetual surveillance of trained nurses - one would only have made it impossible and intolerable to her if one attempted the same kind of perpetual surveillance by one self. The decision was wrong and led to the disaster.