THEY LIVED IN LEEDS
Jane Elizabeth Brown (1847-1921)
Founder of the Victoria Home, Headingley
How best to provide for the elderly and infirm remains as vital a topic today as it ever was. Money has always been an issue, but in the late nineteenth century social position came into the mix too. When Jane Brown was looking for a cause to devote her energies and her considerable fortune to in the 1880s she was very conscious of the vulnerability of single women of her own class. She saw the need for a sanctuary for the sick and disabled without money or family, whose only recourse otherwise would be the workhouse. So she set about founding a home ‘for invalid ladies’ to provide security and care. The institution she founded was to survive over 120 years.
Jane Brown was born in Roundhay in 1847, the only daughter of Eliza and William Brown, both Unitarians active in good works. Her father was a wealthy textile merchant, partner in a thriving business in Bradford. In 1860 in an upmarket move he bought land at Weetwood, leafy and exclusive, and had a handsome stone house built there for the family: Bardon Grange – Cuthbert Brodrick of Town Hall fame was probably the architect. Across Weetwood Lane he had a second mansion, ‘the Hollies’, built around 1871 for his son George William. (Both houses are still there)
Jane lived in Bardon Grange with her parents until their deaths and then stayed on, never marrying. In 1882 she inherited money from her father and began planning her ‘Ladies’ Home’ project. Her dream was realised when she opened the first Victoria Home in a rented house in Grosvenor Road in 1885, with five residents. It was dedicated to her parents. When the waiting list for admission grew she bought larger premises in Broomfield Crescent, and finally in 1901 a spacious detached house in Kirkstall Lane: called ‘The Limes’, set in gardens. She undertook a major extension to take 20 residents and vested the property in trustees. A body of loyal subscribers helped to fund and maintain the Home.
She was a formidable figure, acting first as Secretary then as President of the Home, trotting down regularly from Weetwood in her pony trap. She set firm rules. All residents were expected to contribute, usually 10 shillings to £1 a week, in return for board and lodgings, nursing and medical care. Applicants had to provide evidence of their medical condition, ability to pay – and their social position! There were no religious barriers. The aim was to provide a comfortable, permanent home for chronically sick or disabled women of education and status who had no means of support (no state benefits then).
In 1903 the Home in Kirkstall Lane was formally opened by Lady Lucy Cavendish, who praised the cheerful home-like rooms, the exceptional care, and the moderate charges. A 1909 newspaper article on the Home commented that here gentlewomen could enjoy the niceties of life – no ‘thick-cut bread and butter’ or ‘ready-made tea mixed with milk and sugar’ which might suit the multitude but would be nothing short of a nightmare for ladies of refined tastes! More importantly it provided life-long security and dedicated care.
Jane Brown continued to devote time and money to the Home. There was a financial deficit each year but she and her supporters managed to keep it afloat through fund-raising bazaars, donations and volunteers – the two doctors attending gave their time free of charge. Treats and outings were organised when possible, as in 1908 when borrowed carriages took the ladies down to see the decorations for the Royal visit. Improvements like a lift (worked initially by ropes) were introduced when cash allowed.
In the First World War the ladies knitted assiduously for the forces and army horses occupied the stables. Jane Brown like many others had her personal tragedy: the death of her nephew, Major Harold Brown, in 1918. Her brother George William later donated his mansion ‘The Hollies’ and its magical park to the city, in his son’s memory.
Jane herself died in 1921, aged 73, but left a generous bequest to the Home. A strong character, motivated by faith and duty, she had inspired great affection (and awe), and was long remembered on ‘Founder’s Day’. Old-fashioned as she was in her ways and dress, her ideas had been ahead of their time.
Over the years the Victoria Home continued to offer care and refuge but struggled to modernise. Money remained tight, in spite of a YEP appeal on the centenary in 1985. In the end it could not survive and closed in 2007, its 20 residents, some over 100, dispersed. Its assets were transferred to MHA to provide care facilities for the elderly, and a modern assisted-living complex, Victoria Court, now occupies the site.