Overton Park Surgery’s history begins with the remarkable Dr Grace Harwood Stewart Billings, the first woman to set up a medical practice in Gloucestershire.
In 1927, Dr Billings was joined by a partner for the first time, Dr Gwendolen Brown. Dr Billings retired in 1936, but did considerable work for St John’s Ambulance during the Second World War. In 1951, the practice moved to better premises at 123 The Promenade, just a few doors down.
The practice moved to 33 St George’s Road in 1968. In June 1991, Drs Benney, Healy, Nelson and Dutoit moved from 33 St George’s Road to ‘Overton Park Surgery’ on Overton Park Road.
In 1993, in response to an advertisement for a new partner, Dr Wandless and Dr Bugaighis approached the practice to suggest a merger. This was partly due to a need for new premises for the practice at 21 Imperial Square. In October of the same year, the two practices became one.
Dr Grace Harwood Stewart Billings
Grace Harwood Stewart was born in 1872 in Portishead, Somerset.
As a young girl Grace and her brothers and sisters lived with her parents at her father’s chemist’s shop in Bristol. By 1887, the Stewarts had moved to Cheltenham, where they lived at Ariel Lodge, Hewlett Road. Ariel was the middle name of Grace’s mother Louisa and also of her sister Mary. The house no longer exists, but its name remains as the street name for a development of modern houses.
Grace attended Clifton High School for Girls in Bristol, which had opened in 1878 as part of a new wave of independent day schools for girls. It was one of the first to offer chemistry for girls, giving them the opportunity to follow careers in medicine. In Cheltenham Grace attended another new, progressive school – the Public Day School for Girls at 3 Bays Hill Villas.
The school opened in 1885 to provide “at a moderate cost, the best education procurable for the daughters of the Middle Classes” whose parents’ social status would “preclude their admission into the Ladies’ College.” It was run by Miss Mary Louisa Bostock, a former pupil and teacher at the Ladies’ College, and was often known simply as “Miss Bostock’s”.
Grace undertook her medical training at the London School of Medicine for Women. She sat exams for the 5-year “Triple Qualification” at the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh. She attended the College of Medicine of the University of Durham, located at Newcastle-on-Tyne, where she graduated with an MB and BSurg in 1898. Her sister Mary was also a medical student at around the same time, and received her medical degree from London.
The following year, Grace married Frederick Billings, a local builder who lived in Albert Place. Frederick’s wedding present to his new bride was a bicycle; her father bought her a set of medical instruments.
“Great local interest was taken in the marriage, at Charlton Kings, on Saturday, of Mr. Frederick Billings, a builder, and Miss Grace Harwood Stewart, who possesses the double degree of Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery. One of her sisters, who were her bridesmaids, is also a lady doctor, and many other lady members of the medical profession were among the guests.” – Gloucester Citizen, 31 July 1899
At the end of the nineteenth century, there was considerable hostility towards women studying medicine. In 1870, The Saturday Review wrote that “lady aspirants to medicine and surgery desire to rid themselves speedily and effectually of that modesty which nature planted in them”.
In the year of her marriage, Dr Grace Billings set up her practice at 3 Pittville Parade (now 6 Evesham Road) and only accepted women patients. Grace saw her patients in the high-ceiling, ornately corniced front room and replaced its windows to let in more daylight.
Her new practice furthered the growing right for women to work in traditionally male occupations, and for women to be examined by a doctor of their own gender. Until the outbreak of the First World War, the majority of women doctors treated only women and children.
“When she first came to the town there were already forty doctors there; she was the forty-first, and the first woman. She has related how she called on them all, as was the excellent custom of those days, and how she was received quite kindly, but, in some cases, obviously not seriously.” – (Obituary in BMJ 13 July, 1957, p.108)
In 1903 Grace, Frederick and their young son moved to Sussex Lodge, near Pittville Gates – close to the old park gates at the bottom of Pittville Lawn. Her daughter, Brenda, was born in 1911. In 1912 the practice moved to Gloucester Lodge, Cambridge Villas on The Promenade. Grace gradually made a name for herself in the medical establishment. She gave lectures, ran training sessions, and took on public duties. She regularly attended the meetings of the Gloucester branch of the British Medical Association.
“For some time she was the only woman present at B.M.A. meetings. It needed some courage to go to the dinners after the meetings, when women were in the extreme minority, but this never seemed to worry Dr. Grace. It was amusing to watch her light her after-dinner cigar in complete unconcern at the surprised glances of newly arrived doctors to the area.” – (Obituary in BMJ 13 July, 1957, p. 108)
When the First World War broke out she was in her early forties. Her son, Stewart, joined the Royal Navy in 1914 at the age of 14. During the War, eight Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) hospitals were set up in Cheltenham to receive sick and wounded soldiers brought back from the battlefields. Women played a major role in the running of these hospitals – not only as nurses but as Commandants, Superintendents, Quartermasters, Treasurers and Secretaries.
The medical officers were almost exclusively men, but Grace became medical superintendent at St Martin’s Hospital, which was based in a Cheltenham Ladies’ College boarding house. She was one of the first officers of the Cheltenham Infant Wellfare Association, and held a clinic from 1917 until her retirement. She was also one of ten doctors giving their services free of charge to keep the displaced Belgian refugees healthy.
A few months before the end of the war, St Martin’s Hospital moved to Lisle House in Clarence Square, Pittville. It was subsequently used as a hospital for paralysed soldiers. One family story is that Grace was the first woman in Cheltenham to own a motor car. After she had completed her morning rounds, she would lend her car for wounded soldiers to be taken out for drives. Lisle House still exists (next door to the Clarence Court Hotel) but is now converted to residential flats. The row of houses beside it is called St. Martin’s Terrace in reference to the hospital.
Grace retained her practice in the Promenade and was joined there by a partner, Dr Gwendolen Brown, in 1927. She retired in 1936 and was widowed in 1937, but came out of retirement to work with St John Ambulance during WW2.
Her daughter, Brenda, became a GP in Cheltenham and then School Medical Officer for Gloucestershire County Council. Her son, Stewart, had a distinguished naval career, becoming a Rear Admiral. He was awarded the CBE in 1953.
In 1949, Grace moved to a house in Evesham Road, overlooking Pittville Park and a few hundred yards from the handsome Georgian house where she had opened her first practice fifty years earlier. She died in 1957.
On 25th March 2015, a blue plaque was unveiled by Cllr. Simon Wheeler (Mayor of Cheltenham) at 6 Evesham Road to commemorate the establishment of Grace’s surgery there in 1899. A number of Dr Billings’s descendants attended the ceremony.
“She was an eccentric and determined lady — the house acts as evidence,” said Kim Furrokh, the house’s current owner.
Compiled from Pittville History Words , The Sunday Times and Neela Mann’s ‘Cheltenham in the Great War’ (The History Press: 2016).