It has been a hectic week for the RCOG Heritage Service. We’ve hosted celebrity guests, showcased some of the best our historic midwifery collections have to offer, and we’ve paid tribute to one of the most complicated figures in our College’s history.
To round off Explore Your Archive Week 2016 this weekend, we are highlighting two previously hidden treasures which are now part of our “Many Charming Letters” exhibit in the RCOG Library. Today’s post focuses on a very ‘lucky gift’: Blair-Bell’s lucky horseshoe.
This photograph shows the Duchess of York opening the College’s former headquarters at Queen Anne Street, London, with College President William Blair Bell (standing) and the Duke of York (seated) in December 1932. The Duchess became an Honorary Fellow of the College in 1949 and was followed by her daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, who became Honorary Fellows in 1951 and 1952 respectively.
On 5th December 1932 the Duke and Duchess of York, later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, opened the College’s first headquarters in Queen Anne Street, London. Since 1929 the College had operated out of William Fletcher Shaw’s own office in Manchester. But from the outset, the College had had its heart set on a London residence so it could join the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) in having a presence in the capital, close to the beating heart of British politics.
But royal recognition came at a cost. While the Duke and Duchess did agree to attend the ceremony, political tensions between the College and the already established RCP and RCS led to them refusing an Honorary Fellowship to the College. The Duchess would later accept an Honorary Fellowship in 1949.
With so many eyes on the ceremony, College President William Blair-Bell could not afford to fall short of expectations.
‘On the occasion of the opening of the College House by the Duke and Duchess of York,’ wrote Fletcher Shaw in the unpublished version of his history of the RCOG, ‘a difficult ceremony, and made more so for [Blair-Bell] by knowledge that many present were critics of his and would rejoice in any mistake, we stayed at the same hotel for a few days and shared a private sitting room.’
It was then that Nora Shaw, wife of Fletcher Shaw, gave Blair-Bell the gift of a lucky decorative horseshoe covered in white heather.
Blair-Bell’s lucky horseshoe, given to him by Nora Shaw
A close up of the note written to Blair-Bell by Nora Shaw, which accompanied the horseshoe.
Nora was a huge supporter of the College and an important source of advice for her husband and Blair-Bell during its foundation. She and Blair-Bell were introduced by Fletcher Shaw in 1924 when Fletcher Shaw invited Blair-Bell to stay at their country cottage.
‘I was then under the impression that [Blair-Bell] disliked women and had so warned my wife,’ Fletcher Shaw remembers, ‘Quite contrary to this she found him delightful as he did her and they struck up a great friendship which ended only with her death in 1934.’
Nora Shaw’s portrait, which hangs in the Fellow’s sitting room at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in London.
Blair-Bell insisted on having the horseshoe on the table in front of him during the opening ceremony and kept it on display in his home until his death. Shortly after the ceremony, Blair-Bell wrote to Nora to thank her for her gift. He wrote:
‘Your beautiful “lucky gift” is now in my “silver cupboard”. It was a charming thought, and I am sure it was responsible for any success there may have been in my terrible ordeal, or shall I say “orgy” at the opening ceremony.
I wonder if you know how much you contributed to the success of the functions. Always charming, ever cheerful and inspiring, and you made, at any rate your husband and me, go out to win.’
After Blair-Bell’s death in 1936, his will allowed his friends to choose and keep one item from his home in remembrance of him. Unfortunately, his and Fletcher Shaw’s friendship had suffered during the years before Blair-Bell’s death. Of this, Fletcher Shaw wrote:
‘… as I then felt that he had treated me badly and our friendship had lost something of its old sweetness, I preferred not to accept a valuable object, and chose again this old horseshoe, a gift from one he admired in the days of our old close friendship.’
The horseshoe was later donated to the College by Fletcher Shaw’s children. It and Blair-Bell’s letters to William and Nora are on display in the RCOG Library now.
Free Exhibit at the RCOG Library
Many Charming Letters
A selection of charming, amusing and illuminating letters exchanged between RCOG co-founders William Blair-Bell and William Fletcher Shaw during the early years of the College will be on display in the RCOG Library Reading Room from Monday 21st November.
Joining these letters will be artefacts from the College’s heritage collections including William Fletcher Shaw’s obstetric instruments, William Blair-Bell’s original designs for the College’s official seal, and the badge worn by the College’s Presidents at official ceremonies.
The “Many Charming Letters” exhibit at the RCOG Library.
Entry is free and commemorative postcards will be on sale in the Library and at the College reception desk.
Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologist
27 Sussex Place
London NW1 4RG
Explore Your Archive
Explore Your Archive is a campaign designed for archives of all kinds throughout the UK and Ireland. It is run by The National Archives and the Archives and Records Association. This year the main launch week will run from 19 to 27 November 2016.
Find out more at http://exploreyourarchive.org/