Elizabeth Gould Bell – A Forgotten Heroine

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Dr. Elizabeth Gould Bell, Ulster Medical Journal (from Wikimedia Commons)
Dr. Elizabeth Gould Bell, Ulster Medical Journal (from Wikimedia Commons)

Who was Elizabeth Gould Bell?

Elizabeth Gould Bell was one of the very first women in Ireland to qualify as a doctor. Her life is one of dedication to the medical profession and a passionate avowal of feminist ideals.

Family Background

Elizabeth was born on Christmas Eve 1862 at Spring Hill House in Newry in County Armagh. Her father was Joseph Bell. Her mother was Margaret Smith, a farmer’s daughter from the near-by townland of Carnegat, Killeavy. Joseph, a widower, and Margaret had married on 1st June 1858 at the United Church of England and Ireland in the town. The couple had 5 children, 2 boys and 3 girls.

Joseph Bell was the Clerk of the Newry Poor Law Union. This meant he saw to the administration of the poor law union, including recording data and statistics regarding recipients, communication with poor-law inspectors, managing work house staff and all financial accounting.

Newry Workhouse
Newry Workhouse

Newry Workhouse was designed by union architect George Wilkinson to accommodate 1,000 inmates. Including fittings, it cost £8,727. The workhouse opened its doors on 16th December 1841.

“It is quite possible that Dr Bell and her sister were inspired by the plight of the destitute inmates of the workhouse to devote their lives to the service of others”

Shelagh-Mary Rea Ulster Medical Journal 2017
Queens University Belfast
Queens University Belfast

Elizabeth Gould Bell Medical Studies

In 1882 Queen’s College Belfast (now Queen’s University) allowed women to attend the college for the first time. For the first few years they were only allowed to study Arts subjects. However, in 1889 the Medical School was opened to female students.

In 1889-1890, only 5 women entered the Faculty of Medicine. Elizabeth and her younger sister Margaret were among them. They had both completed a year-long Arts course in the College.

Only 2 of these women, Elizabeth Gould Bell and Henrietta Rose Neill, went on to study for the university degree after achieving their licensing diplomas.

Queens University Conversations - News Letter 19 Dec 1894
Queens University Conversations – News Letter 19 Dec 1894

As well as lectures, practicals and tutorials the students worked in the Belfast Royal Hospital in Frederick Street.This later became the Royal Victoria Hospital on the junction of Grosvenor Rd and the Falls Road. They also worked in the Belfast Union Hospital linked to Belfast Workhouse on the Lisburn Road. This was to become the Belfast City Hospital.

Family Life of Elizabeth Gould Bell

On 2nd March 1896 Dr Elizabeth Bell married Dr Hugh Fisher at Fitzroy Presbyterian Church on University Street. At the time they were both living in Great Victoria Street – Hugh at No 75 and Elizabeth at No 41. (Today little remains of the historic Great Victoria Street – a once celebrated street now sacrificed to ‘progress’)

Great Victoria Street Houses
Great Victoria Street Houses

Hugh was born on 9th April 1870 at 19 Eglington Street in Belfast. His parents were Hugh Cumming Fisher, a bank clerk and Jane Eliza Wilson. After graduating from Queen’s College in 1893, Hugh became a general practitioner, with his surgery at 75 Great Victoria Street.

On 26th April 1898, the couple had their first child, he was named Hugh Bell Fisher. In 1901 the family were living at 21 Great Victoria Street with their baby boy. Sadly, before the year was out, Elizabeth’s husband Hugh, died of typhoid fever. He passed away on 18th October 1901. He is buried in Belfast City Cemetery.

Hugh Fisher Funeral Notice
Hugh Fisher Funeral Notice

Dr Bell

Elizabeth, known by her maiden name as Dr Bell, continued the practice. She was one of very few women doctors practicing in the city.

Elizabeth was very concerned with improving medical facilities for women and young children, especially those in poor areas who often could not afford to see a medical professional. As well as her GP practice, she was honorary physician at the Women’s Maternity Home in the town. She also worked at the Belfast Babies Home and Training School at the Grove.

Support for Homeless Women and Unwed Mothers

In spite of this heavy workload, Elizabeth was also the medical officer of the Malone Place Hospital. This had been established in 1860 by some charitable ‘Belfast ladies’ concerned about the plight of young homeless women.

Four houses on Malone Place were purchased and converted into a ‘Mission’.

Midnight Mission Rescue House - Belfast Street Directory 1877
Midnight Mission Rescue House – Belfast Street Directory 1877

At midnight the Belfast ladies would frequent local pubs and inns and offer the destitute women a place to stay. They provided meals, beds and training and helped these women and girls to find employment – breaking the cycle of poverty.

By 1900 Malone Place Hospital was also offering a place for unwed mothers to have their babies in safety. A midwife was employed and after-care provided, as well as adoption services.

Temperence and Child Welfare

Throughout her life Dr Bell was a practical and conscientious doctor, dedicated to helping those in need.

Address to the District Nursing Society - Ballymena Observer 31 Mar 1911
Address to the District Nursing Society – Ballymena Observer 31 Mar 1911

In 1919 Elizabeth was appointed Medical Officer at Riddell Hall. This establishment had been commissioned by Miss Eliza and Miss Isabella Riddell to provide housing for female students and teachers at Queen’s University (Protestant only at that time).

Elizabeth was a strong supporter of the Temperance Movement. She was a member of the Belfast Women’s Temperance Association and Christian Workers Union founded in 1874 by Margaret Byers and Isabella Tod.

In the 1920’s, Dr Bell was associated with Belfast Corporation Child Welfare Scheme. This provided milk at reduced prices for impoverished mothers to feed their babies and young children. This was known as the Baby Club.

Elizabeth Gould Bell – War-Time Work

In May 1916, Dr Louisa Aldrich-Blake from London, contacted all the women on the official medical register, to ask if they would consider enrolling in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Elizabeth Bell was one of the first to enlist.

She was contracted to work for one year as a Civilian Surgeon at 24 shillings a day.

On 2nd August 1916, Dr Bell sailed to Malta where she worked in St Andrew’s Barracks Hospital. Thousands of wounded soldiers were sent to the island to be treated for the horrendous injuries received during the First World War. Other lady doctors practicing there included Elizabeth Taylor Gilchrist and Eleanor Amelia Gorrie. Elizabeth completed her service and left Malta on 27th July 1917.

Personal Tragedy

On 23rd November 1917, Elizabeth suffered a devasting blow. Her only child, Hugh known as Hugo, died from wounds suffered at the Battle of Passchendaele. He passed away in a German field hospital in Beveren.

Lieutenant Hugo Bell Fisher, Ulster Medical Journal (source Wikimedia Commons)
Lieutenant Hugo Bell Fisher, Ulster Medical Journal (source Wikimedia Commons)

The 19-year-old medical student Hugo had enlisted with the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers. Hugo is buried at Harlebeke New British Cemetery in Belgium.

Hugh Bell Fisher - Death Notice - Jouney of Rembering
Hugh Bell Fisher – Death Notice – Jouney of Rembering

Votes for Women Campaign

The Women’s Suffrage Movement

Before the war, Elizabeth had been involved in the women’s suffrage movement in Ireland. Bell was friends with Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Sylvia, Christabel and Adela at the forefront of the campaign to gain women the right to vote.

Elizabeth was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the more militant branch of the suffrage movement. Indeed, during a demonstration in London on 21st November 1911, Elizabeth, and others were arrested for stone-throwing. She was detained in Holloway Prison.

Dr Bell was also a close friend and ally of Lady Frances Balfour. Balfour was on the executive committee of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.

Elizabeth Bell support for a Militant Policy - Northern Whig 31 Jan 1913
Elizabeth Bell support for a Militant Policy – Northern Whig 31 Jan 1913

Bell also acted as prison doctor for the suffragette prisoners in Crumlin Road Gaol, especially those on hunger-strike or suffering the ill-effects of the violent force-feeding regime.

Crumlin Road Jailhouse
Crumlin Road Jailhouse

Escalation of Suffrage Action

The first recorded act of violence in Belfast occurred in 1912 when members of the Irish women’s Suffrage Society broke the windows of the General Post Office in Belfast city centre.

The following year saw suffragettes trying to disrupt communications by cutting wires in telephone boxes and setting fire to post boxes.

Targets of the suffragettes included Abbeylands House at Whiteabbey, Fortwilliam and Knock golf clubs, Wallace castle, Ballylesson Church in Lisburn and the Teahouse at Bellevue Zoo.

Convicted women were held in ‘A’ wing of the Crumlin Road jail.

“To Elizabeth Bell,

On behalf of all women who will win freedom by the bondage which you have endured for their sake, and dignity by the humiliation which you have gladly suffered for the uplifting of our sex, We, the members of the Women’s Social and Political Union, herewith express our deep sense of admiration for your courage in enduring a long period of privation and solitary confinement in prison for the Votes for Women Cause, also our thanks to you for the great service that you have thereby rendered to the Woman’s Movement. Inspired by your passion for freedom and right may we and the women who come after us be ever ready to follow your example of self-forgetfulness and self-conquest, ever ready to obey the call of duty and to answer to the appeal of the oppressed.

Signed on behalf of the Women’s Social and Political Union,

E. Pankhurst E. Pethick Lawrence”.

Later Years

In 1925 Elizabeth Bell moved to 4 College Gardens, where she resided for the rest of her life.

College Gardens Today
College Gardens Today

She continued working until a debilitating illness forced her retirement. Dr Bell died on 4th July 1934, at her home. She was 71 years old.

“She was well-known in many circles in Belfast and will be sadly missed not only for her work in alleviation of sickness and pain, but also for her striking personality and intellect, which gained her many friends”

Belfast Newsletter 10th July 1984

Elizabeth Gould Bell – Pioneering woman doctor, suffragette and advocate for the poor

On 11th October 2016, a Blue Plaque, recognising the achievements and the work of Elizabeth Gould Bell was unveiled at Daisy Hill Hospital, on the site of the old Newry Workhouse which closed in 1948.

Dr Bell deserves to be recognised and honoured for her life of service and sacrifice for the poor and sick and also for her commitment to the ‘votes for women’ campaign.

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