The Churchill Hospital years (1945 - 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.