Mary Dendy, Moss Side Military Hospital Chairman

Mary Dendy, Moss Side Military Hospital Chairman

When I opened the earliest Minute Book for Moss Side Military Hospital, now held at Liverpool Records Office, the first name I saw was that of a woman – Mary Dendy – who was to be the “Chairman” of the newly opened military hospital. It intrigued me that at this time – 1915 – a woman was given perhaps the most important role in the running of the hospital. She oversaw a lot of the administration and practical matters of the hospital, reporting once a month.

I was interested to find out more about this woman, whose views and decisions on non-medical matters such as staffing, pay rises, provision of furniture, food and all manner of items feature heavily in the Minute Books.

Mary Dendy was born in Wales in 1855, the daughter of a Unitarian Minister, John Dendy and his wife Sarah Beard, whose sister was a social reformer and brother was a biologist. For reasons that I could not discover, Mary was particularly interested in the care of “feeble minded” children and sat on The Manchester School Board from 1898 (Emmeline Pankhurst also sat on this Board at the same time) where she persuaded the Board to open special day schools (which she later referred to as “colonies”). She was a eugenicist (she joined the Eugenics Society in 1900) who believed that, because of alcohol and poverty, these conditions were inherited by future generations and therefore it should be legally possible to confine such children so that their “problems” were not passed on. I have been unable to find what criteria she used to define children as “feeble minded”. Whilst views such as these may be questionable now, at the time the Eugenics movement had many adherents who might be seen as genuinely believing that they were helping society and the patients by providing such institutions for them.

Miss Dendy worked tirelessly towards passing an Act that made it legally possible to confine such children and in 1913 the Mental Deficiency Act was passed. She reported in her evidence to the commission that the mentally subnormal and the mentally ill should be recognised as separate problems, requiring different approaches, and hence the mentally subnormal required separate facilities and institutions distinct from the traditional lunatic asylums. She was offered and accepted the role of a Commissioner of the Board of Control, to help oversee the Act – the first female to be offered such a role in the public sphere.

Mary had several roles in the North West that used her experience of, and interest in, mental health issues. As well as being a paid Commissioner, she had honorary roles in societies such as the Lancashire Society for the Permanent Care of the Feeble Minded. She also founded several homes and hospitals for the “mentally subnormal” and became the President and Chairman of the Governing body of these homes – all renamed “Mary Dendy Homes” after her death in 1933.

Perhaps it is not surprising therefore, that an enthusiastic, committed and practical person such as Mary, would be considered able to manage the day-to-day running of such a large institution. Whilst as far as I am aware she was not involved with the clinical side of running the hospital, she certainly had relevant experience of running such institutions. She was exceptionally efficient and practical and clearly believed that life should be made as comfortable as possible. For example, she was involved in obtaining a piano and other musical instruments for the patients at Moss Side to use and had a lot of input in such things as extra food for the patients – believing leisure time and comfort was part of the process of healing those who had suffered terrible mental trauma. These views on rehabilitation were very helpful and perhaps forward thinking at a time when soldiers and people on the Home Front were encouraged to simply “carry on”.

Miss Dendy’s practicality and involvement in all kinds of issues surrounding the hospital is demonstrated in almost every page of the Committee books – which are now a permanent testimony to her fortitude, sincerity and contribution to the rehabilitation of the patients at Moss Side Military Hospital.

Written by Debbie Cameron
Edited by Amy Walling, Manchester Metropolitan University

Posted on 3 July 2018 under Moss Side Military Hospital

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