Dr Humphrey England and his wife, Polly
Early health workers in Amersham by Alison Bailey
Inspired by the amazing carers and NHS workers keeping our community going today I thought we should look back at two of our early health workers and their contribution to our town. In 1910, Doctor Humphrey England and his wife Mary, who was known as Polly and was a trained hospital nurse, moved from Kensington to Amersham. They recognised the opportunity to establish a new doctor’s practice to serve the expanding community of Amersham-on-the-Hill following the arrival of the railway.
Polly was a close friend of Lady Beatrice Constance Cavendish, Lady Chesham, of nearby Latimer House and it was probably Lady Chesham who encouraged the family to move out to the area. Mary Douglas England (nee Stephenson) was a farmer’s daughter from Duns in Scotland. She moved to London to train at Charing Cross Hospital and became a Sister in the Army Nursing Service during the second Boer War. This was the first major conflict in which nurses in any numbers had been deployed and they were real pioneers. She was one of 2000 nurses shipped to South Africa in 1900 and served at the Imperial Yeomanry Hospital in Deelfontein, in the Northern Cape. Here she cared for wounded and dying soldiers and risked typhoid and other diseases.
Whilst nursing at the Imperial Yeomanry, Polly met Lady Chesham whose husband, Charles Compton William Cavendish, 3rd Baron Chesham, was inspector general at the hospital. Lady Chesham was decorated with the Royal Red Cross for her services during the Boer War. Sadly, age 52 she died unexpectedly in 1911, just after the Englands had moved to Amersham.
After the Boer War Polly returned to Charing Cross Hospital where she met and married Doctor Humphrey England. Humphrey England was born in Winchester, the youngest son of a prosperous surgeon and was living at 22 West Kensington Mansions. Like his father and elder brother, Fuller, he studied medicine. After Cambridge University he qualified as a surgeon at St Thomas’s Hospital and practiced at the Birmingham and Midland Ear and Throat Hospital, the Tiverton Infirmary and Gravesend Hospital. Their daughter, Jean, was born in 1905 when Mary was 40 and five year later, they were living in Myrtle Villas opposite the Chesham Bois shops in Bois Lane. Their neighbours, and soon close family friends, were Ramsey and Margaret MacDonald. Like Margaret, Mary was a committed suffragist and joined the Mid-Bucks Suffragist Society.
The Englands soon established themselves in the local community becoming members of the newly formed Chesham Bois and District Association. In 1911, Dr England was the auditor and member of the Bucks National Sweet Pea Society! Fellow members included Arthur Lasenby Liberty and Lionel de Rothschild. In June 1912, Dr and Mrs England were invited to open the Amersham and Chesham Bois Bowling Club where a new green and pavilion had been built between Sycamore Road and Parkfield Avenue, behind the Dial House. Dr England’s surgery soon prospered, with Mary working as the practice nurse, and they were able to move to a larger house, Four Winds, at the start of Copperkins Lane.
When WWI broke out Dr England joined up and spent most of the war on the hospital ships sailing between England and Egypt. With her husband away, Polly England had to keep her husband’s medical practice going as well as raising her young daughter. From her home she established a branch of the Red Cross, Chesham Bois Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) Work Depot 1151, to provide nursing training and organise medical supplies.
Sometime after the war, Dr England was appointed Medical Officer for Health to Amersham Rural District Council with responsibility for the health of the town and district. He continued as the Medical Officer throughout WWII, working until nearly 80. His grandson, Pat Filsell, later recalled seeing Rudolph Hess when he accompanied his grandfather to an army camp near Amersham. After WWII Humphrey and Polly enjoyed a happy retirement in Devon with Jean and her husband Arthur Filsell.
As Medical Officer he had to work with the sanitary inspector to check whether houses were fit for habitation and test the cleanliness of the local milk and water supply. The provision of a proper sewage system was often the cause of great consternation with overflowing cesspits and the consequent river pollution regularly reported. In his report for 1932 Dr England stated that “The only parts of the district which at present have a main drainage system are Amersham and a part of Chesham Bois. The remainder of the District depends upon cesspool drainage and pail closets where often the soil is so sewage sick that it can take no more”. Infectious diseases were also a cause of great concern to the Medical Officer. Many of the diseases he reported on such as diphtheria, tuberculosis and scarlet fever, are no longer dangerous due to medical advances and vaccinations. Back then tracing the cause of the infection and isolating anyone infected were the most important methods of tackling such diseases. Most patients were isolated at home with Aylesbury Isolation Hospital the last resource. Remember the Persian saying, “this too shall pass” and keep safe.