Sarah Maria Whitcombe (Mother, Business Women and Good Samaritan), 1841-1922

Sarah Maria Whitcombe married Dr. Philip Whitcombe in 1858 and had five sons. Despite many challenges with a broken marriage, she ran her own dress making business, and was Honorary Secretary and Treasurer of the Gravesend Hospital Samaritan Society.

Born in the Scilly Islands, off the Cornish coast in southwest England, Sarah Maria (nee Gowlland) was simply known as Trot. Her marriage wasn’t a happy one and despite living in the same house in Gravesend they apparently didn’t talk for forty odd years.

She was no doubt busy bringing up her four children (one died in infancy): Philip Percival, Robert Henry, William and Arthur. All of them went on to study at Epsom Collage.

It was Queen Victoria’s reign (1837 to 1901) and the UK was changing rapdily in religion, politics, arts, culture, and society. Significant innovation was also taking place in the medical world, away from the more traditional almost mysticism form of medicine to a more modern science-based understanding of germ theory.

Philip and William followed in their father’s footsteps becoming medical practitioners; Robert Henry trained as a barrister but later became school master at Wellington College and then Eton College, and eventually Bishop of Colchester; Arthur was an underwriter at Lloyds of London.

Victorian London at the time was the largest city in the world and a thriving metropolis of trading activity. Sarah took full advantage and nurtured her entrepreneurial skills, becoming a business women and employing female assistants from local London boroughs to help run her dress making business.

Sarah was a wonderfully caring person and devoted twenty five years supporting her local Samaritans in Gravesend.

Mrs. Whitcombe’s long and energetic work for the Society is well known and she will be sorely missed by countless numbers of the sick poor, not only in the borough but around the whole countryside. Through the Society Mrs. Whitcombe was able to provide clothing for destitute patients who from long illness had been reduced to poverty and whose circumstances justified such assistance and nourishment and other pressing requirements were also supplied in cases of need; whilst hundred of patients have benefited by being sent away to the sea for convalescence. It was perhaps in this particular branch of the work that Mrs. Whitcombe was best known to the poor, for every year between 70 and 80 debilitated patients were sent to various convalescent homes. So large hearted was Mrs. Whitcombe that it did not matter where the patients hailed from: in fact quite half the patients came from Northfleet and Perry Street and the surrounding villages on both sides of the river. Mrs. Whitcombe was particularly interested in the maternity side of the work and many mothers have been thankful to her for boxes of clothes lent and for kindly help at a time of great need. A glance at the 20th Annual Report of the Samaritan Society shows that considerably over ₤150 was expended during 1914 on the alleviation of distress and in helping the sick during that year, compared to ₤8 expended in 1889, the first year that Mrs. Whitcombe took over the work.’

The Gravesend Reporter, February 1915. Credit: Gowlland Family website, in memory of Geoffrey Price Gowlland (1908-1974)

After Dr. Philip’s death in 1914, Sarah moved to Holland Park where she apparently spent her twilights years enjoying visits from family and friends, serving tea with great ceremony and treating grandchildren to pocket money of shillings or even half crowns.