A uniform mystery from a century ago

Searching for answers I tracked down the origins of a literary classic

Bristol’s Glenside Hospital Museum in Fishponds frequently receives requests to help clear up mysteries about people and artefacts and that may, or may not, have something to do with the hospital.

Sometimes the solution is simple, but at other times the museum has to reach out to others in the hope that someone somewhere else can provide an answer.

One such case is that of the uniform worn by Elizabeth Turner way back in the 1920s. Her surviving children, now of pensionable age, are keen to piece together their mother’s life.

Conan Doyle in 1901

Elizabeth was born out of wedlock in the Hay-on-Wye workhouse on 5 December 1901. Her mother Rosa was in service in the nearby village of Clyro in Radnorshire, Wales.

Clyro Court was the home of the Baskerville family, and while Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was holidaying nearby he heard reports of farmers’ futile efforts to track down a big dog that was attacking sheep at night. This was to become the inspiration for one of Sherlock Holmes’ best known cases.

‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ was first published in The Strand magazine at the time of Elizabeth’s birth, but discreetly relocated to Dartmoor where .Conan Doyle had also holidayed.

Oblivious to such drama, Elizabeth was brought up by her widowed grandmother Sarah Ann Turner, and by the age of 10 Elizabeth was living in Wernddu high in the Black Mountains. She would ride a pony to school for the few years she spent in formal education.

A bright little girl she passed an entrance exam to attend grammar school in Abergavenny, an opportunity thwarted by lack of funds.

After the bitterly cold winter of 1917, she and her grandma moved from the isolation of the Brecon Beacons down to Wattsville in the valleys, not far from Crosskeys where her future husband lived.

Two of her children, Dale, 76, and Jessemine, now 95, have been trying to piece together what brought their mother to Bristol. Her anecdotes convinced them she must have been on the staff at Glenside Mental Hospital, north of the Avon.

But by 1924, when she married to Reginald Vivian Edwards on 5 September in Gwent, Elizabeth was already living at 15 Redcatch Road in Knowle, south Bristol, not far from what is now Callington Road Psychiatric Hospital.

She had spoken of working with the police in Fishponds rounding up ‘women of the night’ to get them tested for venereal diseases. One night she came across a woman dressed only in a fur coat and shoes.

They believe their mother had started her working life by training at the Monmouthshire Asylum in Abergavenny. It would change its name to Monmouthshire Mental Hospital and later still to Pen-Y-Val under the NHS. It made sense to them that she then worked at Glenside, but she had also mentioned Stapleton, Stoke Park and Frenchay.

Her dementia in later life prevented them from ascertainig her actual workplace, but this lovely photograph gave them hope they could discover more about her life in Bristol.

Unfortunately neither Glenside Museum, nor the Bristol Archives which hold staff records for the hospital, have been able to trace her either by name or uniform, and Frenchay Hospital staff records are still held under seal.

An archivist at the Royal College of Nursing says Elizabeth is wearing a standard outdoor nurse’s cape from the period, but nothing that would immediately identify where she was working.

One possibility is that she was on the staff at the Stoke Park Colony, a complex of buildings stretching back from the iconic yellow Dower House, now converted into flats above Purdown beside the M32. By the 1920s it had become one of the first and biggest National Institutions of Persons Requiring Care and Control.

Run by the Reverend Harold Burden and his new wife Rosa it was registered to cater for more than 1,500 residents. Known as the Stoke Park Colony, it had a 55-bed hospital where Elizabeth might well have been a nurse. It housed the ground-breaking Burden Neurological Institute. Originally set up to provide surgical treatment of the ‘mentally defective’ at the hospital, it was eventually transferred to the now closed Frenchay Hospital and thence to Southmead Hospital.

On marriage Elizabeth returned to Wales where Reginald had a burgeoning career with Dewhurst the butchers. It would take them to Prestatyn where twins Pauline and Jessamine were born, and thence to Colwyn Bay, where they were joined by brother Gordon.

The family moved to Chester and during the war years their father worked with the Ministry of Food on meat hygiene and distribution. In autumn 1945, now living in Southport, Elizabeth gave birth to Dale, before they settled in Charlton Kings, near Cheltenham.

Her ‘late blessing’ has been researching the family history. The mystery off Elizabeth’s uniform remained unsolved, until publication of the 1921 Census returns. They confirmed that she was working at Bristol’s Stoke Park Colony at the time. She was an ‘officer’, one of 54 staff members. Her picture must have been taken in her outdoor outfit.

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.

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