Dr Priscilla Noble-Mathews, a West Sussex Hero

Dr Priscilla N-M,

Lock-down, semi lock-down, are-we-are-aren’t-we-in-lock-down, holidays cancelled, special occasions called off, queuing for shops, remembering your mask, furlough-furlough-furlough, the last few months have been challenging and we are having to quickly make up and adopt new etiquettes, manners and norms to negotiate this uncertain new world.

Having written 60 profiles of pioneering women with Sussex connections for the Brighton Museum website to accompany the incredible exhibition 100 First Women by Anita Corbin, I’ve found myself wondering how some of the women I wrote about – for the main, doughty characters who were good at taking things in their stride and decimating obstacles – would be going about present times.  Doctors who, virtually single-handedly, set up women’s hospitals in the face of an unbelieving medical establishment; social campaigners who, through sheer hard work and self-belief, pushed marginalised ideas into the mainstream, artists who wrestled with poverty and hardship to share their unique and beautiful visions, suffragettes and suffragists who stood up to jeers, heckles and violence to fight for our right to vote, sportswomen who put in the effort to fly the flag for their countries and women in sport. I’m sure many of them would have had wise things to say right now.

No more so than Dr Priscilla Noble-Mathews from Trotton, West Sussex.

Dr Noble-Mathews isn’t well-known (except, perhaps, for some parts of West Sussex, where she’s often been referred to as ‘a modern day saint’), she’s not a historical figure. I found out her story when my husband, a pharmacist who used to work in Midhurst, started a conversation with ‘an amazing woman came into the shop today….’

Here is Dr Noble-Mathews’ story lifted from my post on the Brighton Museum blog of  24th March, 2020:

By the way, if you don’t want to read all of it, just take this thought, in Dr Noble-Mathews’s words, describing one of the spurs to her becoming a first response paramedic….’….because I was afraid of it, it was something that I had got to do and get over.  If there’s something you’re afraid of the best way to conquer it is to go down into the fear.’  

Dr Priscilla Noble-Mathews, Doctor, Emergency First Response Paramedic, Founding Member of South East Coast Immediate Care Scheme. 

Dr priscilla N-M receiving her Humane Society award - we have permission to use this but must thank SIMCAS

Dr Priscilla Noble-Mathews, who died aged ninety in 2017 after a lifetime of service and dedication to her patients and local community, was a popular and much loved figure around Trotton, Midhurst, West Sussex, and further afield.  As a founding member of the South East Coast Immediate Care Scheme (SIMCAS) from when it began in the late 1980s, the Trotton resident carried a flashing blue light in her car and was known to drop everything and race off whenever she heard of a local accident, often being the first on the scene at car crashes, motorbike accidents and other serious incidents.  Affectionately referred to by locals as a ‘modern day saint’,  Dr Noble-Mathews kept a racing-driver type boiler suit hanging up and ready to go behind her door, and – even in her late eighties – was ready to set off in any weather, at any time of the day or night, sometimes in a helicopter, to dispense the all-important first-on-the-scene care.  As remembered in her obituary in The Times ‘Noble-Mathews thought nothing of scrambling into the wreckage of vehicles to tend to the injured and dying.’

In 2000, Dr Noble-Mathews, who had worked as a GP in Steyning and at the King Edward Hospital in Midhurst, as well as in hospice and palliative care, received a Royal Humane Award alongside the crew of a Sussex Police Helicopter for the heroic rescue of a young girl who had slipped on rocks and had been sighted drifting in the sea 50 yards off the beach in blustery weather at Littlehampton.  As the SIMCAS website recounts: ‘On arrival, the victim was lying motionless in the water and prompt action was needed. It was agreed that although highly dangerous they would take the risk and hover the aircraft on the water so that the paramedic could grab the child from the waves. Having done this, both medical personnel worked to resuscitate her whilst en route to the local hospital. Happily in spite of her ordeal, the young girl has made a full recovery.’  Dr Noble-Mathews later told the BBC that it was the first day in service of the brand new police helicopter and that, as it was designed for land operations, getting it close enough to pluck the girl out of the water by her coat was not an easy – or particularly safe – manoeuvre.

Dr Priscilla N-M, receiving her award with the helicopter and paramedic crew - we can use this image but must thank SIMCAS

Above – Dr Noble-Mathews receiving a Royal Human Award, 2000

For Dr Noble-Mathews, saving lives may have been all in a day’s work, but she only turned to medicine relatively late in her life.  She had already worked as a barrister and at the War Office before deciding, in her thirties, to train as a doctor. With most universities refusing to accept her on the grounds of age, she was eventually taken on by the University of Southampton.  The journey was far from straightforward, however, as she first had to pass the relevant ‘O’ and ‘A’ Levels in Science, which she cheerfully went off to Crawley Tech to study for.  Just shy of fifty, at a time when many people are thinking about winding their careers down, Dr Noble-Mathews graduated and embarked on her medical career in 1976.

After writing to the BBC to respond to a debate on Radio Four about the ordination of women priests in 2010, Dr Noble-Mathews was considered an interesting subject for a radio programme in her own right, and was invited to chat to Eddie Mair and Jennifer Tracey on Radio Four’s ‘iPM’ show broadcast on Christmas Day that year. In a fascinating half hour in which she described being a homesick evacuee during the war, being a badly behaved teenager and her Catholic faith, Dr Noble-Mathews claimed that one of her motivations for joining SIMCAS had been fear.  She’d seen so many crashes as she’d driven around West Sussex for work ‘Most doctors, I think I’m right in saying, certainly in those days, would rather do anything than go to a crash. It’s a completely different environment, you feel really quite impotent if you haven’t got the wherewithal and the know how with what to do.  I think there’s a certain amount of fear as a result of that.  And so I decided that because I was afraid of it, it was something that I had got to do and get over.  If there’s something you’re afraid of the best way to conquer it is to go down into the fear.’ 

As a member of SIMCAS Dr Noble-Mathews went on to train ambulance crews, volunteer to run courses training paramedics in Romania, and teach immediate care providers on Pre Hospital Emergency Care courses.

Dr Noble-Mathews, an inspiration for so many, was inspired herself by her Catholic faith and was briefly a nun.  While working as a doctor, she managed to study for degrees in Theology gaining a Bth (Hons) in 2007 at St John’s Seminary, Wonersh, and an MA in Theology at the University of Wales in 2010.

A friend of Dr Noble-Mathews,  Afifah Hamilton, a Consulting Nutritionist, Medical Herbalist, and owner of Rosemary Cottage Clinic in Bognor Regis no doubt spoke for many when she wrote in ‘My Obituary for a Saint’ on her blog in October 2017  ‘Priscilla reminds us of how much one person can achieve in a lifetime. Her example is both inspiring and humbling, for this gentle, reverent lady never sought praise for her accomplishments but was just happy to truly serve.’

SIMCAS is a charity which provides specially trained and equipped doctors and nurses, giving their time voluntarily, to serious collisions and major incidents in the South East, and is part of the British Association for Immediate Care (BASICS). Volunteers work with the emergency services but aren’t funded by the NHS, with all equipment provided by donations:  http://www.simcas.org.uk

With many grateful thanks to Dr Rowley Cottingham, Chairman of SIMCAS, and to Afifah Hamilton, Rosemary Cottage Clinic, Bognor Regis www.rosemarycottageclinic.co.uk





Warrior Women This Afternoon!

hannah snell

Very short notice but I’m doing a talk this afternoon at 3pm in the Duke of York’s cinema, Preston Circus on some of the women in the past who disguised themselves as men to get round the ban on women serving in the military.  Above  is Hannah Snell (1723 – 1792l), soldier and pub landlady, who served in the Battle of Pondicherry, and at one point, ended up removing a bullet from her own groin in secret rather than ask for medical attention and reveal that she was a woman.  I’ll also be talking about fearless, Irish-born Margaret Bulkley, aka Dr James Barry, who managed, in disguise, to storm two male bastions in one go, qualifying as a doctor at the University of Edinburgh, and then getting a job as an army surgeon.  Dr Barry had a successful career all over the world.  In South Africa she performed the world’s first successful caesarean that didn’t end up with the death of mother or baby.  She was one of the first doctors to use anaesthetics, stood up for slaves, was vegetarian, managed an outbreak of cholera in Malta, managed to annoy Florence Nightingale, was thanked by the Duke of Wellington and successfully kept her disguise until she died.  I’ll be talking about these and other daring, sometimes sad, but always swashbuckling stories of other women soldiers (including local heroine, Phoebe Hessel) this afternoon.

Dr Barry is on the left.  She’s accompanied by her friend, John, whom she met in Jamaica.

Part of the @AgeingWellFestival in Brighton for 50+. Tickets 01273 322940.


The First of Brighton’s Pioneering Women Doctors

women docs talk

(Photo credit – Brighton and Sussex NHS Library and Knowledge Service) Yesterday I was invited to talk about the Pioneering Women Doctors of Brighton and Hove at the Royal Sussex Hospital.  Incredibly moving for me, as the childhood home of Dr Sophia Jex-Blake, only the 3rd registered  female doctor in Britain is in Sussex Square, only around 100 yards away from the very spot where I’m standing above.  Sophia Jex-Blake, perhaps more than anyone else, opened doors for women to practise medicine.  Following her turbulent time at the University of Edinburgh attempting to qualify as a doctor and eventually being refused her degree because she was a woman, she militated, agitated, wrote letters, argued, campaigned (getting Charles Darwin on her side in the process), whipped up publicity,  and generally refused to let things lie until the 1876 Enabling Bill (brought by Russell Gurney, MP, then MP for Southampton), permitting medical institutions to license qualified people to become doctors regardless of their gender was passed.


This incredible woman was born in Hastings in 1840 – a blue plaque in the Old Town shows the place.  The Jex-Blakes were a wealthy family and, as befitting of such in Victorian times, little attempt was made to provide an education to the womenfolk.  Learning was considered by many to be harmful to a girl, leading to hysteria, infertility, and – worst of all – becoming ‘unmarriageable’.  Unhappy with this situation and apparently not caring about any future husbands, the young Sophia managed, aged 18,  to persuade her father to allow her to attend Queens College in London for a year, albeit with a chaperone.

sussex sq.png

Above: Sussex Square, Brighton.  Sophia’s family lived at number 13 when she was eleven)

Much to the consternation and disbelief of Mr Jex-Blake, the young Sophia, after her year of education, decided she wanted to work as a Maths teacher.  Her father just about bore this strange decision as long as Sophia agreed to work without a salary, seeing as being a paid worker wasn’t acceptable to one of their class.   Interested in women’s education – or the lack of it – Sophia travelled to USA, far ahead of us in this respect, to visit schools. At a hospital in Boston she met pioneering American surgeon, Lucy Sewell, and there discovered her calling to be a doctor.  In 1869 she applied to the University of Edinburgh to study medicine but was promptly refused on the grounds that the university couldn’t be expected to make the necessary adjustments to educate ‘in the interest of one lady’.  These arrangements included organising separate lectures and facilities, the idea of men and women studying anatomy and looking at pictures of bodies together being beyond the pale.  Showing the resourcefulness and get up and go that were to characterise the rest of her career, Sophia simply placed adverts in national newspapers to see if any other ladies wanted to join her then the university wouldn’t have this problem.  Six women did, the university couldn’t back down and, in 1869, the ‘Edinburgh Seven’, the very first female students to study medicine – came into being.

… But the battle was far from being won.  The women faced a hard prospect. Not everyone saw their presence as a great leap forward.  Hostility came from both students and staff.   These women would never work as doctors, so the thinking went, so why were they wasting everyone’s time? Surely, this was just a frivolous hobby.   Besides, everyone knew that women didn’t have the stamina or intellectual rigour of men.  Tempers frayed in 1870 when one of the women, Edith Pechey, who would go on to work in a women’s hospital in Mumbai, took first place in exams.  Normally, this would qualify her for the Hope scholarship, which awarded the winner free use of the facilities of the chemistry labs.  Thinking that this would be unpopular  with the majority of male students, however, the university decided to hand the scholarship to a man who”d achieved lower scores.   The Hope scholarship wrangle attracted a lot of publicity and the women found much public sympathy.   But the challenges kept coming – doors were slammed in their faces, nameplates were vandalised, Sophia found a Catherine wheel attached to her door, filthy letters were sent, and Edith Pechey complained that male students had shouted ‘whore’ at her in the street.

surg hall.png

On November 18th 1870 tensions boiled over even more.  On the day of an important exam, the seven women turned up at the university’s Surgeon’s Hall (above), only to find their entrance barred by male students who pelted them with rubbish and shouted insults before slamming the door in their faces.  This shocking event, the ‘Surgeon’s Hall Riot’, as it came to be known,  was, again, widely publicised.  This time, Charles Darwin publicly supported them.  As a sign of the turning ide of public opinion, when Sophia wrote a letter to the press, naming and shaming members of staff she felt had incited the riot, and was consequently sued for libel by them, members of the public stumped up her almost £1000 fine.

Sadly, however, despite growing public support and the four years’ of hard work the women put in, the university decided at the last minute that it would be inappropriate to award degrees to the seven women, a decision supported by Court of Session of the Court of Scotland.  Five of the seven had no option but to qualify abroad.  Sophia went to Berne, Switzerland, in 1877, taking the same exams she’d already passed in Scotland but this time in German.

The coming of the Enabling Bill in 1876 was inspired by the actions of the Edinburgh Seven. Sophia had campaigned tirelessly for it to come into being.

Following a couple of years in London where she helped to set up the London School of Medicine for Women, Sophia returned to Edinburgh where she opened an outpatient clinic  offering poor women free and subsidised treatment.  In 1885 this became the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women and Children.  In 1887, she helped to set up the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, which operated until the University of Edinburgh started to admit women in 1892.

Retiring in 1899, Sophia Jex-Blake remembered her Sussex roots and came to live in Mark Cross, Rotherfield, with her partner, Dr Margaret Todd.   She died in 1912 and is buried in St Denys Churchyard, Rotherfield.  Dr Todd, a Scottish doctor, who was also a well known novelist,  published Sophia Jex-Blake’s life story.


(Photo courtesy BBC)  In July this year Edinburgh University decided to award the degrees to the Edinburgh Seven posthumously.  Third from the left is third year medical student, Simran Piya, who, receiving Sophia’s degree, said  “We are honoured to accept these degrees on behalf of our predecessors, who are an inspiration to us all.”

Dr Sophia Jex-Blake worked hard to smooth the way for future generations of women doctors and set the scene in Brighton and Hove as a place where, in the 1890s and 1900s, the pioneering Doctors Helen Boyle and Louisa Martindale, were going to come and create more medical history.