Florence Keen was the driving force behind the foundation of Manor Gardens. Newspaper reports refer to a ‘drawing room meeting’ on Friday 17th October 1913, of about 150 people, which marked the key turning point in mobilising supporters and raising sufficient funds. The centre opened its doors the following month in November, when 9 mothers attended on the first day.
Her husband, William Brock Keen, was a wealthy accountant and statistician. His expertise goes some way to explaining why our early records are so rich in statistical information. Florence Keen drew on the wide circle of academics, business families, aristocrats and doctors which her family’s wealth and living in Highgate allowed.
In 1913 there were about 100 centres in the UK, which broadly fitted under the umbrella of a ‘School for Mothers’ or ‘Infant Welfare Centres.’ The first centre was set up in St Pancras in 1907, inspired in particular by Alys Russell, the estranged first wife of philosopher Bertrand Russell. Nora Hobhouse, wife of pioneering sociology academic Leonard Hobhouse and friend of Alys, was a neighbour of Keen and is recorded as co-founding the centre. Prior to 1913 Keen had been discussing for some time with Dr Alfred Edwin Harris, longstanding Medical Officer of Health in Islington, about setting up the centre.
Keen quickly became the ‘CEO’ of the centre (her title ‘Hon. Secretary’), and was heavily involved in both the detail and strategy and day-to-day running. Lady Domini Crossfield’s appointment as Chairman in 1919 increased still further the centre’s ability to reach wealthy donors and make political connections. It also meant that Keen could concentrate on running the centre, and stay out of the limelight. She lost her two eldest sons in World War One, a tragedy which spurred her to even greater heights of commitment to the centre. She died in 1942, and by that time she is referred to as the ‘Founder’ in the singular. She had devoted much of her life to Manor Gardens, and had been the person most instrumental in its success.
Althea was Florence Keen’s daughter, and like her was intelligent and very capable. Perhaps due to the strength of both their personalities, she chose not to become involved with the centre on an active basis until 1948, and became Hon. Secretary in 1951.
Soon after she started working at the centre she was part of the group that met with Health Minister Aneurin Bevan, which ensured Manor Gardens retained its independence outside the NHS. Indeed, she ensured that that co-existence with the new nationalised structures worked successfully. The centre had to adapt as the reach of the NHS extended. Mothers and Baby clinics, the mainstay of work at the centre, declined by around 15% in the 1950’s and halved again in the 1960’s. However in 1950 the pioneering playgroup – now known was the pre-school – was founded. And in an early echo of the centre’s work in Well-being she notes as early as 1954
…it is clear that in the stress of modern life, in the often inadequate housing and increasing number of broken homes and emotional conflicts, it is these problems, much more than the old ones of poverty and ignorance, that should claim our attention.
Davis also oversaw the centre’s development as new ethnic groups came to live in London. By 1961, one-third of all visitors to the centre were from the Carribean, Africa or Cyprus. In 1966 it conducted a study into the needs of the immigrant populations, and it identified poor housing and lack of provision and access to play and education for 2-5 year olds, as the most urgent health and welfare needs of the day.
Althea clearly had a well-developed sense of humour, and trenchant views on many things ranging from the Queen Mother’s dress sense to the size of the nursery garden. She did much to ensure Manor Gardens retained a strong, independent voice and purpose. She reflected in the interview in 1988 that:
We had two Medical Officers of Health for London who were very inclined to tell us what to do. One used to come to see me and preach to me about what he would like us to do. I said “I am sure you would…but it wouldn’t do our job there…and we would run the wards as we want to run them.”
Althea’s son, Tim Davis, was then chair of the centre for around 10 years till 2001; and Tim’s son-in-law – Robert Warner – was a trustee for the centre until 2007. The Keen/Davis family therefore had a direct role in the running the centre for all but 6 years of its 100 year history.