The Dorset House Archive documents the history of Dorset House, the first School of Occupational Therapy in the UK. It also includes material relating to the wider history of Occupational Therapy education in Britain from 1930, and papers of the Casson family.
The Dorset House School of Occupational Therapy was opened on New Year's Day 1930, founded by Dr Elizabeth Casson. Over the years the School moved from its original base in Bristol to Bromsgrove and then to Oxford: firstly in Nissen Huts in the grounds of the Churchill Hospital, then to a London Road site in 1964, and eventually as part of Oxford Brookes University to its Marston Road site in 2004.
The collection includes some of the personal papers and books of Dr Casson and the Dorset House Principals. The real treasures of the Archive are the photographs, ciné films and scrap books which capture the true history of Dorset House. Copyright for items has been sourced as far as possible.
Key periods covered by the collection are:
Dorset House: the early years (1929 - 1939)
Dorset House, the first School of Occupational Therapy in the UK, was established by its visionary Medical Director, Dr Elizabeth Casson [1881 - 1954] pictured, aged 21, in the latter part of the 1920s. Funded with a loan of £1,000 from her actor brother, Sir Lewis Casson, she bought the first Dorset House in Clifton, Bristol and quickly went about making her dreams reality.
Dr Casson had been inspired by her own early psychiatric hospital experience, when she realised the therapeutic benefits enjoyed by patients who were presented with tasks and activities rather than mere convalescence:
"When I first qualified as a doctor …I found it very difficult to get used to the atmosphere of bored idleness in the day rooms of the hospital. Then, one Monday morning, when I arrived at the women's wards, I found the atmosphere had completely changed and realised that preparations for Christmas decorations had begun. The ward sisters had produced coloured tissue paper and bare branches, and all the patients were working happily in groups making flowers and leaves and using all their artistic talents with real interest and pleasure. I knew from that moment that such occupation was an integral part of treatment and must be provided."
Quoted in The story of Dorset House School of Occupational Therapy 1930 - 1986, [Oxford: Dorset House School of Occupational Therapy, 1987], p.1
This Road to Damascus experience was reinforced by Dr Casson's dealings with Dr David Henderson, who had established a small Occupational Therapy department at Gart Naval Hospital, Glasgow and visits to American hospitals -notably Bloomingdale Hospital, New York and the Boston School of Occupational Therapy - in the mid-1920s.
The aim of Dorset House, as expressed by Dr Casson, was:
"to form a community where every individual was encouraged to feel that she had a real object; for a patient the object was to get well and go out to a worth-while life; for a member of the staff it was to serve others with all the talents she possessed; for a student, to develop all her capacities for her life as an Occupational Therapist and to find the individual job that only she could do."
Quoted in The story of Dorset House School of Occupational Therapy 1930 - 1986, [Oxford: Dorset House School of Occupational Therapy, 1987], p.3
Dr Casson's dreams were finally realised with the appointment of Constance Tebbit as first Principal of the School in the summer of 1929. Miss Tebbitt had trained in Philadelphia and had developed a wide understanding of Occupational Therapy (OT) practice and education in the United States. She returned to England for Christmas 1929 and the School opened on New Year's Day 1930, with Dr Casson as Medical Director.
Dorset House as a School of Occupational Therapy began life as part of Dorset House, Bristol, a nursing home for the treatment of patients suffering from neurotic and psychotic disorders. Consequently, for the first three years the bulk of the clinical experience offered to the students was psychological. In many ways, this was quite appropriate as most demand for trained Occupational Therapists at this time was from Mental Hospitals, and -on a practical front- it was also far easier to provide facilities for this type of experience. Dr Casson, though, never lost sight of the physical aspects of OT and by 1939 she was able to open an Occupational Therapy Department at Bristol General Hospital, offering ward work and treatment for patients with cardiac conditions. For the students, clinical practice was obtained largely with Dr Casson's own patients. Therapy at this time would invariably cover such diverse activities as netball, country dancing (including the Margaret Morris dancing, usually led by the redoubtable Joy Blew Jones), theatre, gardening and picnics, alongside the more traditional crafts so often associated with OT.
The early 1930s witnessed a period of expansion for the School. Teaching grew from taking up part of one room to half a house. All early Dorset House students and staff have vivid memories of The Grange, the School's first residential quarters.
Conditions were very primitive, as one student at the time, Margaret Hancock, recalled:
"The Occupational Therapists lived over the garages. Their ancient lavatory was a nightmare, which Doctor [Casson] eventually inspected. Among other defects they complained that when seated their feet dangled, so Doctor, ever sympathetic, asked the carpenter to build a platform round the pedestal, thus ensuring 'enthronement'!"
Quoted in The story of Dorset House School of Occupational Therapy 1930 - 1986, [Oxford: Dorset House School of Occupational Therapy, 1987], p. 53
Staffing was -at first- limited. Dr Casson gave lectures on anatomy, physiology and medical subjects, whilst Miss Tebbitt taught the theory and practice of OT, ran the department and supervised the students' work. As the School grew so did the staffing, with Miss Goscombe joining as Senior Assistant to the Principal, and Miss Becky Lummis and Miss Albons bringing practical experience from America and Sweden (respectively) to the Team.
1933 marked the end of the first phase in the development of Dorset House with the departure of Miss Tebbitt. In April of that year she was appointed Occupational Therapist to the County Mental Hospital, Chester and became Director of Mental Hospital Practice. Although this was a great loss to the School, it did provide a new avenue of opportunity for the students who could gain hospital practice in a wider field. Miss Goscombe took charge of the School, assisted by Becky Lummis. When Miss Lummis returned to America some months later, the event was celebrated by a pantomime, written by some of the patients in tribute. The Archives of Dorset House are filled with such memories, such as the performance of Pride and Prejudice in 1934, when Dr Casson played Mr Collins.
In 1934 Miss Goscombe married Owen Reed, Dr Casson's nephew, so a new Principal had to be sought. Another alumnus of the School of Occupational Therapy at Philadelphia, Martha Jackson, now joined to become Head of the Dorset House Occupational Therapy Department and School. This was a time of further expansion and building, including a much needed upgrading of the students' living quarters. Despite valiant efforts, Bristol's accommodation could scarcely keep up with increasing numbers. More wholesale expanding -or moving- would need to be considered.
In September 1934 there was an intake of eight new students, including one Mary Macdonald. Miss Macdonald quickly became active as a member of the newly formed Association of Occupational Therapists and was soon taking the opportunity to travel to the United States and Canada (after being awarded grants from the Pilgrim and York Trusts) to study developments in OT education. All this stood her in good stead, for in August 1938 Miss Jackson left the School for America and "Mac" -as she became affectionately known- took over as Principal. By this point, this role included supervision of the patients' occupational treatment in Dorset House itself and several surrounding hospitals, plus the administration and planning of the School, now with 18 students. On top of this was a new duty: the establishment of the Allendale Curative Workshop for out-patients suffering from a variety of physical disabilities. The first 40 cases at the Workshop were given free treatment and their progress recorded in full and illustrated reports, some of which can be found in the Dorset House Archive. This project formed the basis of a paper later published in The Lancet (Casson, E. Forty cases treated at the Allendale Curative Workshop, The Lancet, 1 November 1941, p.516).
The War years (1939 - 1945)
A time of opportunity and knocks
Then came the War. Always one to look for the positive, Dr Casson felt that, just as the Great War had precipitated the establishment of Occupational Therapy in Canada and the United States, this war might raise the importance of OT in Britain. She was right. Representatives of the Services and the Ministry of Health became regular visitors to Dorset House and the Allendale Curative Workshop, all showing particular interest in woodworking exercises, gardening and heavy basketry. Service men and women likewise came to dominate the Wartime patient list, as the promotional promotional ciné film for the School and OT (housed in the Archive) shows.
Dr Casson was suddenly asked if Dorset House could train large numbers of Occupational Therapists to help staff hospitals all over Britain and on the Front itself. Although the spirit was willing, the body of Dorset House was weak. Bristol became the target for German bombers and the School was forced literally to go underground, with classes moving into the cellars. Finally, it became impossible for the School to carry on in its present location. Patients were dispersed and the ten remaining students were sent home and taught by correspondence whilst new premises were sought. Finances were at their lowest ebb -everything had been invested in expansion- and the School was on the verge of closing. At the eleventh hour, a temporary loan plus a generous gift from the Lord Mayor's Air Raid Distress Fund -coupled with the offer of new premises from the Ministry of Health- saved the day. The School was off to Bromsgrove.
Dr Shepherd of Barnsley Hall Hospital, Bromsgrove, Worcestershire welcomed Dorset House students and staff to join his hospital, which had been created as part of the Wartime Emergency Medical Service (EMS). For a time, Dorset House was the only surviving School of Occupational Therapy in the UK and staff were aware that they played an important role promoting OT to a string of visitors and would-be champions.
One major development at this time was the establishment of Auxiliary courses. The Ministry of Health was keen that the School should run training courses to ensure a rapid supply of workers for other hospitals. Some training was offered to established professionals (nurses, teachers, physiotherapists). Other candidates without qualifications were offered brief courses to enable them to act as Auxiliaries to better-qualified colleagues. Students entered every quarter for a six month programme. The programme was widely marketed (the Archive contains the text of a promotional piece from a 1943Woman's Own!) and over 200 candidates were trained in this way, with nearly 80 students (known as "up-graders") subsequently returning to complete the Diploma. Meanwhile, the full 30-month course continued in the background, and by 1945 over 200 long-term candidates had successfully completed the diploma.
One of the highlights of the Bromsgrove years was the visit of the Princess Royal, who met with Dr Shepherd and the students. With the end of the War, so came the end of Dorset House at Bromsgrove. The EMS Hospital was to close and the expanded School had outgrown its old Bristol premises. Once again, Dorset House was on the move.
The Churchill Hospital years (1946 - 1964)
At first, the search for a new home for Dorset House seemed never-ending, but eventually a location was found and Miss Macdonald successfully negotiated a tenancy.
In 1946 Dorset House moved into hutted premises in the grounds of the Churchill Hospital, Oxford. Oxford proved the ideal location for the School, providing a more central location than Bristol and the opportunity for forging local partnerships both in the field of health (a wealth of hospitals for student placements) and the field of academia (with access to University lecturers, libraries and museums). Oxford was also a good selling point when it came to potential students.
The one perennial problem with Oxford is, of course, student accommodation. Here Dorset House proved most fortunate as the School managed to acquire Harberton House in Headington as a hostel for the younger students. This building, with it beautiful gardens, orchard and tennis courts proved especially attractive to parents, anxious about their daughters' welfare. Miss Christer, a formidable character, was Warden from 1948 until her death in 1973, and was particularly supportive to generations of students.
The move to the Churchill site was far from easy. With the War only recently ended there was no labour available to carry out the necessary refurbishment of the huts, which had until recently been used to house Italian Prisoners of War. Removing pin-ups and graffiti was all part of the moving process! Matters were made even worse by the fact that the winter of 1946-47 was one of the coldest on record. The snow started to fall in early January and did not disappear until the end of March.
As archive plans show, the School consisted of 18 Nissen huts, each with a floor area of 18 feet by 40, plus six brick-built huts of the same size. The curved roofs limited the space available for shelving, cupboards or notice boards. Windows were (in most cases) situated at each end, making artificial lighting a must, even during daylight hours. Although weaving and basket-weaving took place within the huts, as soon as the good weather arrived activities moved outdoors, where space and light was less of a problem (as promotional footage of the time shows). The huts' greatest asset was the coke burners which gave out prodigious heat. Not only did they make life in the huts bearable, they also provided a focus for socialising and the opportunity for (the forbidden) heating of food. This was, for most students, the story of the School on the Churchill site. Jill Freston's reminiscences of the time are typical:
"Memories of training at Dorset House in the late fifties are of Nissen huts, coke-burning stoves and scuttling from hut to hut trying not to get too wet. In winter everyone wore as many clothes as possible under their uniforms, and nothing was allowed to show at the neck, hem or wrist, making the students look rather bulgy like 'Michelin Tyre Men' advertisements."
Quoted in The story of Dorset House School of Occupational Therapy 1930 - 1986, [Oxford: Dorset House School of Occupational Therapy, 1987], p. 60
With the School safely -if not warmly- settled in its new premises, Dr Casson felt it was time to give it a more secure identity. In 1948, with 180 students now on the books, a non-profit making limited company was formed to take the School over until in 1949, the Casson Trust was established to promote the interests of the School and the education of Occupational Therapy.
1950s: a decade of mixed emotions
Because OT had more than proved its worth during the War, the need for therapists continued to grow and young ladies began to see this as a more attractive career opportunity than before. By 1950 there were seven Occupational Therapy courses in England and one in Scotland, but demand still out-stripped supply so the School restructured its courses to allow for two intakes (of 45 students) per year (in February and September). This scheme operated until 1969.
July 1951 saw Dorset House come of age, so an Open Day was arranged to celebrate its 21st birthday, with Mac welcoming the guests. Given the confines of the huts this was not easy, so a marquee was erected between the two rows of huts to house the formal opening speeches. By happy coincidence, Dr Casson had been awarded the OBE in the Birthday Honours List that year, so the Open Day acted as a double celebration.
Three years later, at the age of 73, Elizabeth Casson (pictured with her faithful dog Bran) died. The following July a Thanksgiving Service for the life and work of Dr Casson took place at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford. It was attended by the Governors, staff (past and present) and students of the School, along with representatives from the Association of Occupational Therapy and other professional bodies with whom Dr Casson had been involved, as well as, of course, her many relatives and friends. The service was followed by the now annual Open Day. This was the last to be celebrated under this name as it was decided that in future years it should be known, in honour of the Dr Casson herself, as Founder's Day.
Some years later in 1971, the Casson Trust, at Miss Macdonald's suggestion, offered the Association of Occupational Therapists a sum of money to organise a prestigious lecture at its Annual General Meeting. The Casson Memorial Lecture still runs to this day and is regularly published in the British Journal of Occupational Therapy.
In the meantime, further changes were taking place in the curriculum. It had become apparent that the division of the Diploma into physical and psychiatric specialities was far from satisfactory. In real life both elements are often required in clinical practice at the same time and -as a consequence- most of the students were completing the dual qualification by the mid-fifties. Further fuel came with the Report of the Cope Committee (of which Miss Macdonald was a member) in 1951 which recommended a fundamental review of training programmes. The Report led to the Professions Supplementary to Medicine Act (1960) and the formation of the Council for Professions Supplementary to Medicine (CPSM). This was responsible for the Professional Register and the promotion of high standards of professional education and conduct. In line with these moves, the Association of Occupational Therapists embarked on a revision of the syllabus to provide a new combined qualification which was launched in 1954. Coinciding with this launch was the arrival of Betty Collins as Vice Principal. Miss Collins had been an Auxiliary student at the School during the War and had subsequently "up-graded". She had since practiced in England and Australia before rejoining Dorset House on what was initially a two-year contract. It is perhaps a testament to the place that she remained for 23 years: 17 as Vice Principal and six as Principal herself!
In August 1954 another notable event took place. The first Council Meeting of the World Federation of Occupational Therapists (WFOT) was held in Edinburgh. The WFOT was established two years earlier, highlighting just how Occupational Therapy had spread across the world. As one would expect, Dorset House played a lead role on this world stage. In 1946, at the request of the Greek Red Cross, Roula Gregoriades was given a scholarship to study at Dorset House to enable her to establish a rehabilitation service in Greece. In the years that followed, students and staff came from Africa, Europe, North and South America, Asia and Australasia to study at Dorset House and envoys have left Oxford to visit -and inspire- colleagues around the globe (for example, Mac and her team make a great impact in Argentina, 1959-60).
Time to move …again
By the end of the 'fifties it was obvious that the School could not continue with its current accommodation. Cracks were appearing in the (temporary) huts and weather-proofing was starting to prove impossible. With several building programmes going on in other schools of Occupational Therapy in the UK, it seemed likely that -despite Dorset House's reputation- potential students might prefer to go elsewhere rather than study in such primitive conditions. Furthermore, the Churchill Hospital had its own plans for the site so it became apparent that it was time for Dorset House to move, again.
From 1956 onwards, "Future Plans" regularly appeared as an agenda item for Trust and Governors' meetings. It was felt that the School should remain in Oxford, for all the benefits the staff and students had come to enjoy. Miss Macdonald and Miss Collins spent many hours visiting possible properties. Despite much searching, nothing appropriate seemed to come available and in 1959 it was decided to make use of the grounds attached to the hostel and build a new school there.
Then, in 1961, a property called Hillstow, owned by Headington School and hence equipped for educational use, came on to the market. The size and location on the London Road (close to shops, transport links and hospitals) made it ideal. The School bid for the property at auction and eventually purchased it for £25,000. The money for this (plus alteration and extension work to provide lecture rooms and workshops) was raised by an appeal which saw donations from past students, local industry and the local public, who flocked to fund-raising events such as the poetry reading by Sir Lewis and Lady Casson (Dame Sybill Thorndike) at Oxford High School.
In autumn 1964, after considerable upgrading of the 1899 house, the School evacuated the Nissen Huts and relocated to its first permanent home. Within hours of moving out the Churchill brought in the bulldozers, so the Vice Principal, returning the same day to look for something left behind, found only a heap of rubble where her office had been!
The official opening of the new Dorset House was delayed until the summer of 1965, to allow for as many alterations as possible. It was hoped that HRH Princess Mary, the Princess Royal, might be invited as she already had associations with the School, dating back to its Bromsgrove days. Sadly, she had recently died so HRH The Princess Marina, the Duchess of Kent, graciously accepted. The event took place on Founder's Day, 9 July 1965, with the Princess arriving by helicopter in the grounds of the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre. After a welcoming speech by Sir Hugh Casson (who was then Chair of the Govenors), the Princess paid tribute to the work of OTs and declared the building open. She was then escorted by Sir Hugh and Miss Macdonald on a tour of Dorset House, during which she unveiled a plaque for the new extension, the Casson Wing.
A permanent home (1964 onwards)
Onwards and upwards
With the teaching accommodation sorted out, attention could be turned to the curriculum. For some time there had been dissatisfaction with the Association of Occupational Therapists' syllabus dealing with practical activities. The development of "Activities of Daily Living" was essential but progress was limited by the rigid requirements of the examination system. The School made representations to the Board of Studies and, partly as a result of this, this section of the AOT syllabus was revised in 1968. Now the Peto Rehabilitation Unit (named after Sir Geoffrey Peto, one of the Elizabeth Casson Trust's original Trustees, and known as "the cottage") came into its own, allowing the students to really experience the problems of living with a disability. Dorset House students, trying out wheelchairs and crutches, also became a regular feature in the shops of Headington and even appeared in the local press.
One area of accommodation that did need further review, though, was student accommodation. The very nature and location of the existing hostel (at the end of a private, wooded road) meant that it had had to be run on somewhat institutional lines, with students being checked in at night. With changes in society (the age of majority was finally reduced from 21 to 18 in 1970) it was clear that a more liberal, less nannied approach was needed. It was also clear that Harberton House might not provide the best environment for this. Hence, in 1969 the decision was made to sell off Harberton and build a new hostel. When 1 Latimer Road and 60 London Road (both immediately adjacent to Dorset House) came onto the market they were purchased to provide lodgings for 18 students. Garden space provided the opportunity for further building and in September 1971 (after some difficulties at the design stage) Mary Macdonald House was opened, housing approximately thirty further students.
Another change at this time came with the academic calendar. For some time the arrangement of having two intakes of students per year had provided problems for staff (with time-tabling and workloads) and students (especially for the February intake who felt out of step with colleagues following the traditional academic year). In 1969, therefore, it was decided to revert to one combined entry per year in September. The School's two main lecture rooms were extended to accommodate this larger group.
Bye bye, Mac
1971 witnessed another milestone in Dorset House's history with the retirement of Miss Macdonald after 33 years as Principal. During this time she had nurtured Dorset House, taking it from a limited student-base with limited academic coverage to a School offering a more broad-based education to over 80 students per annum. Mac could be tough, but that was exactly what was required to see the institution through the uncertainties of War and to establish it as a well-respected place of education in Oxford. But as well as being a formidable administrator and teacher, she was also an accomplished academic in her own right. She wrote and edited two books on Occupational Therapy (including Therapy and rehabilitation, the first OT textbook in the UK, and World wide conquest of disabilities, based on her BLitt research), was active in committee work and was a pioneer on the international stage of OT education.
In order for ex-students to get the opportunity to pay tribute to her achievements, a Reunion was arranged in July 1971. Alumni were contacted by post. Such was the response that a cheque sufficient to enable Mac to go on a world tour was presented to her, along with a book containing the signatures of all those who had contributed. Mac was so overwhelmed by this gift that -for once- she was lost for words!
Miss Macdonald's successor was Miss Betty Collins who had been Vice Principal for 17 years, so the transition caused less upheaval than might have been the case. Miss Joan King, herself a graduate of Dorset House, joined to take over Miss Collins' previous post. Other changes came with the retirement of several long-serving members of School staff. Miss Hance, who had taught weaving and had become Head of the Craft Staff in the early 'sixties, retired in 1973. Mr Maggs, woodwork teacher since 1948, retired in the same year, to be followed by Mr Nott (metalwork and basketry instructor from 1949) the following year. Miss Christer sadly died in 1973, shortly before she was due to retire from her post as Warden.
Big changes came with the students as well as the staff at this time. As with other "female professions", Occupational Therapy was -by the 'seventies- starting to open its doors more widely to male entrants. Dorset House finally caught up with other Schools in 1976. Up until then, it had been thought of in some quarters as "the finishing school for doctors' daughters". 1976 saw the first three male students enrol, one of whom went on to be a tutor at the School.
Miss Collins' retirement in the summer of 1977 was marked by another Reunion. She was succeeded by Miss Jean Edwards, appointed as Principal Elect in the May and confirmed as Principal in the September. The following year Sir Hugh Casson decided to retire as Chair of the Governors. After a year during which Vice-Chairman George Bredin presided, John Casson formally took over the Chair in 1979, once again carrying forward the family interest.
A time to celebrate
1980 saw another cause for celebration as Dorset House reached its Golden Jubilee. At Reunion Day on 7 June over 100 people met to celebrate the occasion. As well as staff members and Governors, there were student representatives from each decade of the Dorset House's lifetime. Highlight of the day was a speech from Miss Macdonald reflecting on the history of the School. Sadly, this was her last talk as ill health prevented her from taking part in subsequent activities.
One form of celebration that had been lacking in the School was the formal presentation of Diplomas. Due to difficulties in timing, these had-rather unceremoniously- been merely posted out with a congratulatory letter. For many students this felt like an anti-climax, so in 1981 the annual Presentation of Diplomas Ceremony became established in the Autumn Term.
A new syllabus and a new library
The same year saw a major change in how the academic programme was delivered at Dorset House. Since the late 1970s, it was clear that -as more and more techniques were added- the syllabus for the Diploma was becoming overloaded. Qualifying examinations were still being conducted centrally by the College of Occupational Therapists (the professional section of the recently reconstituted British Association of Occupational Therapists) and the scope for flexibility at a local level was generally very limited.
In 1981, after several years of review at a national level, Diploma 81 was launched. Under this scheme, each OT school was given responsibility for devising its own curriculum and conducting its own examinations, subject to validation and moderation by the College of Occupational Therapists and the Council for Professions Supplementary to Medicine. Although this meant a huge increase in workload for the relevant Dorset House staff, the opportunity to develop programmes at a local level was warmly welcomed.
The planning for the new syllabus for Diploma 81 brought another need to the fore. Over the years, Dorset House had built up an impressive library of books and other resources. Somewhat less exceptional was the actual library space which was cramped and unattractive. More building work was the only real solution and in 1985 the developers moved in to start digging up the lawn behind the main school building. Work was completed the following year and the library was officially opened by Lady Williams, a long-time Trustee, on Founder's Day. The library was equipped thanks to the generous £3,000 bequest of Miss Christer. Stock was moved in and the library opened to the students at the start of the 1986-87 academic year.
1992 saw Dorset House School of Occupational Therapy become part of Oxford Polytechnic. Later in that year, the Polytechnic was conferred with university status.
2020 marked 90 years since the opening of Dorset House, our online exhibition explores key themes from the collection.
The Archive has been made accessible thanks to a generous grant from the Elizabeth Casson Trust, which has enabled book stock to be catalogued, the scrapbooks to be conserved and primary sources to be digitised.