Maria Dickin- Founder of ‘The Animal NHS’
Maria Elisabeth Dickin, 22 September 1870- 1 March 1951 founded The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals. The 1901 census records Maria and her husband Henry, an accountant, and one servant living at 12 Mount Nod Road, Streatham. The couple had no children and owned a pet dog.
Maria was a practising spiritualist and became active in the revived movement for religious healing. She began visiting the poor in the East End, where the plight of some of the animals 'made me indescribably miserable'. At about this time she went through the 'heartrending' experience of nursing her sick dog, which eventually had to be put down. She was horrified by the terrible poverty she witnessed and the sick and injured pets in desperate need of veterinary care. Dogs and cats scavenged from the gutters, many raw with mange and dragging broken limbs because their owners simply couldn’t afford to pay for treatment.
Maria borrowed a 13ft-square basement in Whitechapel to open her first dispensary and recruited an experienced animal practitioner who had attended the pets of Royalty. On Saturday 17 November 1917, she opened The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals of the Poor, providing a free service for pets in need. The day's patients included a cat with mange, a dog with a broken leg and a limping donkey. Today the PDSA operates 48 hospitals providing treatment to nearly 500,000 pets a year.
In 1943 Maria established the Dicken Medal for any animal "displaying conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty whilst serving with the British Commonwealth Armed Forces or civil emergency services". The first recipient of the bronze medal, inscribed with the words "For Gallantry" and "We Also Serve", was a pigeon called White Vision which had battled bad weather over 60 miles to deliver a message that led to the rescue of a ditched aircrew. To date the "Victoria Cross for animals" has been awarded 68 times to 32 pigeons, 31 dogs, four horses and a cat.
Streatham has a recipient of the Dickin Medal. On the 3 July 1944, Olga, a police horse, was on patrol in Besley Street with PC J E Thwaites when a bomb exploded 300 feet in front of them. The explosion destroyed 4 houses, killing 4 people and caused a plate glass window to fall directly in front of Olga. PC Thwaites, mounted on Olga, administered help to the survivors and diverted sightseers away from the devastation.
Maria Dickin died 1 March 1951 aged 80. However, for many years her role in promoting animal welfare was largely forgotten until in 2015 a campaign to honour her work led to the unveiling of a commemorative blue plaque by English Heritage on the house where she was born in Hackney.
(Source Brian Harrison and the PDSA)
Mark Bery, Streatham Society