by Sally Hendry

image of old hospital

Ever mapped out a journey only to find yourself distracted by a road less travelled, an interesting ruin or simply an enticing pub? Losing your way can be both frustrating and fascinating – and that is exactly the case with historical research. Whether you are searching online for your great great grandfather or ploughing through handwritten documents in the archives, distraction is your deadly enemy….but oh so interesting!

Take our museum’s latest exhibition on healthcare and hospitals for instance. Researching the town’s first hospital which was in Westbourne Road led us to investigate how it was funded and ended up with us marvelling at the tenacity and generosity of local people. Plans for the hospital were first mooted in 1897 as a way of marking Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. But funds were amazingly raised within just one year with the newly built hospital opening in April 1898.

several people dressed as nurses etc on a carnival float

hospital fundraising

The cash to support the hospital came from a wide variety of sources from carnivals to collections, competitions to concerts, swimming galas and sports days. Westbury people certainly seemed to enjoy their fundraising!

One funding stream came from generous donations given in memory of friends or family, and these were often immortalised in brass plaques on display at the hospital.  Lord Ludlow who owned the Heywood estate was one such donor who gave £400 in memory of his first wife Blanche who died in 1911.

Distraction strikes our researchers! Who was Blanche we wonder – and off we go down a diverging path only to strike lucky. For Blanche, who married Lord Ludlow in 1903 turns out to be a well-known and much photographed society beauty with a fascinating history. Her first marriage to Baron Howard de Walden had ended in 1893 in a stormy and much publicised divorce case which occupied the pages of national newspapers and which was dubbed “an extraordinary story of cruelty and debauchery.

The court was packed daily by the great and the good desperate to hear the salacious details of the marriage with evidence against him including drunkenness, miserliness, setting fire to his wife’s bedroom, and locking her out of the house, as well as shooting guns up the chimney.

black and white image of Lady Blanche Ludlow in her wedding dressEvidently the publicity did Blanche no harm and she was renowned as a beauty whose image appears in many photographs held at the National Gallery. When she married Lord Ludlow in 1903 in a huge society wedding, she wore lace that had belonged to tragic French queen Marie Antionette. Celebrated guests included Bloomsbury group member Ottoline Morrell.

So – a fascinating story that started out as research into a tiny cottage hospital on Westbury. Be warned: historical research sometimes needs blinkers and an iron will!

Our museum was lucky enough to purchase the original brass plaque that marks Ludlow’s bequest. This is on show as part of our health exhibition.

Come and see!