Profile: Dame Georgina Buller

The statue of Dame Georgiana's father Redvers, at the junction of Hele Road and New North Road, Exet

The statue of Dame Georgiana's father Redvers, at the junction of Hele Road and New North Road, Exeter - Credit: Archant

In the latest of his series for Devon Life on Great Devonians, IAN L. HANDFORD profiles Dame Georgiana Buller, a tireless volunteer worker behind numerous institutions which still exist today. Pictures by Matt Austin.

Daughter of the famous Sir Redvers Henry and Lady Buller, Audrey Charlotte Georgiana was born at Downes, Crediton, on August 4, 1883. As an only child Georgiana was much influenced by her father’s exemplary Army record as a soldiers’ soldier. Having inherited many leadership qualities, she was both headstrong and determined.

In 1907 she attended the Phonetic Institute in Bath and gained a Pitman’s Certificate then joined the Voluntary Aid Organisation (VAO) where she became Deputy County Director for Devon. Later the VAO would be renamed the British Red Cross Association.

Georgiana had many hobbies and, like her father, loved to ride. Yet sadly just before the outbreak of the First World War she fell and badly injured her spine, an incident that became the trigger for her new lifelong career. While convalescing, the VAO asked her to assist them to find extra hospital beds for Exeter due to the expected influx of casualties of war. Their estimate of 160 extra beds a year later had exceeded 1,400. Georgiana immediately rose to the challenge, left her bed and became a voluntary worker at what was named the Red Cross Voluntary Aided Hospital.

The War Office was given authority over all military hospitals and the name again changed to the Central Military Hospital Exeter. The Army recognised that Georgiana would make a superb Chief Administrator and she became the first ever woman to hold such a major role.

Now, like her father, her commitment, high standards and strong discipline was to be felt by everyone. Some staff saw Georgiana’s expectations unreasonable, yet it was said; “What was expected of them, she expected of herself.”

Another name emerged - Exeter War Hospital – and the new hospital group dealt with 35,000 during the war, most staying as inpatients for 25 days. But with the war over, Georgiana, like everyone else, was demobbed and physically and mentally drained. It took until 1920 before the British Red Cross Society awarded her the Royal Red Cross (First Class) and then on 24 December she became a Dame of the British Empire.

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Having returned to good health, two leading clinicians now approached her to help create an orthopaedic hospital for the county. Having discovered there was an acute need as children were being treated at home, she remained unfazed at the enormity of the task, including raising the finance. Six years later in 1927 the doors of Princess Elizabeth Orthopaedic Hospital, Exeter, opened.

With her project complete, Georgiana went on to establish a Central Council for the Care of Cripples and became Chairman of the Devon Association for Cripples Aid. As a Justice of the Peace for 20 years she supported the Girl Guide, Boy Scout and St John Ambulance Brigade movements.

Her voluntary and visionary work saw her establish training colleges for the disabled - being convinced that physically disabled people needed ultimately to return to their rightful status in the community.

The first college was St Loye’s Residential College of Training and Rehabilitation of the Disabled Exeter, which she opened in 1935.

With much opposition to the idea of such colleges Georgiana was forced to enlist the support of Labour Minister Ernest Bevin who eventually endorsed her idea that disabled people ought to have the opportunity to return to the workplace. A second college emerged, the Queen Elizabeth Training College at Leatherhead, while at St Loye’s, Chairman Georgiana founded a British Council for Rehabilitation.

By 1947 training establishments were established for anyone facing long stays in hospital which saw a rival group emerge, The Portland College at Nottingham, with a mission statement similar to that of St Loye’s, which was by then the adopted model training institution for all colleges.

Dame Georgiana Buller, DBE, who never married, was a committed volunteer in helping, especially disabled people. She died at her home Bellair on Topsham Road, Exeter, from carcinoma on 22 June, 1953, and today lies at Holy Cross Church, Crediton, in her beloved East Devon. n

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