Queen Victoria and Hull – Elizabeth Bielby

Posted: 30th January 2023

Humber Museums Partnership - Queen Victoria and Hull – Elizabeth Bielby

As part of the Ferens Art Gallery winter exhibition, Queen Victoria and Hull, Hull and District History Research Group have been researching Victorian Hull. This blog is the latest in a series revealing the hidden stories from Victorians from Hull.

Elizabeth Bielby met with Queen Victoria, was connected to Rudyard Kipling’s family, and championed healthcare for women in India. Read more in her biography researched by Maureen Fox.

Born in Beverley in 1849 to Robert and Aley Bielby.  She had four sisters and two brothers.

As a young woman she went out to India as a medical missionary and established a small hospital, but as she was aware of her own shortcomings she returned to Europe and studied to become a fully qualified doctor.

Elizabeth decided to focus on women’s health, knowing that the rule of privacy, applying to Hindu and Muslim women meant they could only be seen by close male relatives.

Since all the Indian doctors were men, she lectured and trained Indian nurses, believing as she did, that the high mortality rate for women and children in India was affected by the lack of medical training of female ‘Dais’ (midwives) who traditionally attended births.

Dr Bielby, whose energy and excellent work made her name famous throughout India, she worked at the Lady Aitchison Hospital in Lahore for 15 years before going into private practice, looking after both Indian and English families. One of which was Rudyard Kipling’s family.

In 1881 she treated the Maharani of Puna in India who insisted that Dr Bielby on her return to England should take a message to Queen Victoria telling her of the suffering of women in India, which she placed in a large silver locket around Dr Bielby’s neck.

It is reported that Queen Victoria displayed much interest in Dr Bielby’s work, and with Lady Dufferin, set up a fund in 1885 to provide scholarships to give medical training to Indian women.

Dr Bielby believing that missionaries did not have enough knowledge and that the superstitions of Indian midwives cost hundreds of lives she thought it was essential to give medical training to Indian women.

In 1884 her graduation thesis from Berne University was on the treatment of chest diseases in childhood. After her graduation she also trained in Dubai in medicine, in Dublin midwifery, and ran a Dispensary for Women and Children in Edinburgh.

In June 1911 she returned home to Beverley after 32 years in India, where she spent 6 years in Lucknow and then 6 years in Lahore, where she was in charge of the Lady Aitchison Hospital for 15 years.

Elizabeth retired in 1927 and died in 1929.

Our ‘from the stores’ object to accompany the story of Elizabeth Bielby is an engraving with the title, ‘A Sketch of The Mountains of India and its Borders’. The geographer was Trelawny Saunders from the India Office, London, 1870. It depicts the mountains of India above it are sections of the Himalaya Mountains and Tibet longitude at 79, 80 and 85 degrees. It is engraved and published by order of the H.M. Secretary of State for India in Council. The paper is placed on canvas and stretched on a wooden frame. From the Wilberforce House Museum Collection.

You can view objects from the Ferens, Wilberforce House Museum, Hands on History, Guildhall and Hull Archive collections in the Queen Victoria and Hull exhibition from 20 October 2022 until 19 February 2023.