Coming Home and the Wilderness Years 1896 -1916


The Lomax-Smith family consisting of Montagu, Ethel, Guy aged 7, Amine aged 5, and Mary Cecile aged 1,  arrived back in the UK from New Zealand in September 1896. Almost the first thing Montagu did was to change his name by deed poll from Lomax-Smith to Lomax in October 1896. The motivation isn’t clear and I can only speculate that the Lomax-Smith years belonged to New Zealand and that he wanted a fresh start. He gave his address as Lancaster Gate in London at this point, but he didn’t stay in London. By February of 1897, Montagu had moved Leamington Spa to work at the Leamington Provident Dispensary. Quite why he went from London to Leamington Spa is a mystery. I can find no records to suggest that there was a family connection with the town. At any rate, the family started to settle into the local community and there are records in the local papers of both Ethel and Montagu being involved in the tennis and golf clubs Their eldest son, Guy was enrolled in the Leamington College preparatory school. Montagu continued to write with letters featuring in the British Medical Journal, one of which commented on ‘Hereditary’. He also wrote some fairly awful poems, one of which, ‘A Medical Tribute to Baden Powell’ was published  in the August 1900 New Zealand Star, with the comment ‘Dr Lomax will be remembered in Christchurch where he practiced a few years ago as Dr Lomax-Smith’. I assume that he sent the poem to the Star himself, ever the self-publicist.

The Leamington Provident dispensary was essentially a clinic where working-class citizens could get health care in return for a small weekly subscription. There were many different types of these so called ‘Club Practices’ in the 19th century, with the most common being the friendly societies which dominated 19th century medical practice.  Whilst the different clubs had different regulations , they were unified by the aim of allowing poor citizens to have access to a doctor. Doctors were employed on a contractual basis which was usually time limited. Doctor’s pay was poor, they worked long ours and with onerous responsibilities. Some clubs allowed doctors to supplement their income with private practice, but some did not.  In most clubs, and certainly in the Leamington Provident Dispensary, the doctors were not autonomous but answerable to a lay governing committee which contained wealthy subscribers and local dignitaries. The medical profession loathed club practice (also known as contract practice) because of the poor pay and conditions, lack of private practice and lack of medical control. The problem was that there was an oversupply of GPs, and some were so desperate for any form of income, that if a doctor chose to walk out in protest, another would take his place immediately. The emerging British Medical Association campaigned for improved pay and conditions for twenty years  in the ‘Battle of the Clubs’, reported through the British Medical Journal (BMJ)but had little success. It wasn’t until Lloyd George’s National Insurance Act of 1911 that the club system was replaced by the panel system which gave GPs more autonomy to run their own panels and control their own income. 

Most of the information I have on Montagu’s work at the Provident Dispensary is from the the committee minute books kept at the Warwick archive. Early in 1897, the committee received several complaints about the amount of time patients were kept waiting to see a medical man. This was deemed to be serious since servants, shop staff and labourers had to return to their work, so the committee decided to appoint two more medical officers. They advertised on 5th February 1897 and Montagu was appointed to the Provident Dispensary on the 25th February. He agreed to work on Tuesdays and Fridays, and after a six week probationary period he was elected as a medical officer in ordinary on a three year contract, to replace Dr Douglas who was ‘leaving the town’. Dr Douglas was a free mason, as was Montagu, and agreed to let his house to the Lomax family.  So the Lomax family found themselves living in beautiful Georgian villa at Dalkeith House, 7 Clarendon Place. Montagu would have seen his private patients from the drawing room at home. From newspaper adverts, he kept a groom, presumably to look after his carriage and horses. He also had a cook, because he was sued for three weeks wages after a new cook walked out after a week in the job. The cook lost the case, because her wages had been retained by Ethel Lomax in lieu of notice and the judge commented that ‘Ladies should defend themselves against this sort of treatment’.

So Montagu found himself working for the Leamington Provident Dispensary right in the middle of the so called ‘Battle of the Clubs’. It is likely that his income and certainly his autonomy was much reduced in comparison to his experiences in New Zealand. In many respects, Leamington was a major step down the ladder after the New Zealand sojourn. However, the Leamington Provident Dispensary was perhaps a little more progressive than many of the club practices of the time, since the medical officers were at least invited to attend the committee meetings. Montagu did so several times to read the medical officers report to the committee. The committee were strict on record keeping, and a telling letter to the committee dated July 1897 noted that many of the midwifery cards, ‘Dr Lomax’s excepted’ had not been completed. This suggests that he was a conscientious record keeper. A complaint about a Dr Mason and his persistent lateness was received by the committee in September 1898. This lead to a special meeting of the committee and a letter was sent toto the medical staff regarding their professional duties to the Dispensary. The medical officers had to agree to abide by the following:

  1. To attend the Dispensary at the agreed times.
  2. To keep good records and enter the time of arrival and leaving the dispensary in the records ( my note: this would have been perceived as equivalent to the working mans requirement to clock on and clock off, and insulting to a professional man)
  3. To prescribe in accordance with the rules
  4. To visit patients at home if required and with proper notice
  5. To arrange their own medical cover if unable to attend the Dispensary.

On 30th November 1898, Montagu wrote to the committee to request leave of absence and giving the name of a locum doctor who had agreed to cover his duties. This must have been difficult since Montagu would be paying for the locum from his own salary. The original reason for requesting leave of absence was not given, but a letter from Ethel Lomax to the committee in January 1899 commented that her husband  had had the ‘misfortune to break his collar bone’. He did not return to work until the beginning of March 1899, having taken three months leave. Whatever the problem was, Montagu clearly struggled because he submitted a letter of resignation to the committee in November 1899 where he stated that he had ‘continuous ill health’ and his private practice was growing. The chairman accepted his resignation ‘with an expression of sympathy in his unfortunate and tedious illness and a hope of an early and complete recovery’. The committee hoped that he would be able to cover his duties until a successor was appointed. Montagu wrote again to the committee on 28th December 1899 to enquire whether any arrangements had been made for a successor since he was anxious to be relieved by the New Year. Then bizarrely, he appeared to change his mind and wrote again asking for his resignation to be suspended for three months and agreed to provide a locum to cover his leave of absence in this time. The committee were clearly annoyed with this dithering and on January 11th 1900, they  wrote asking Montagu to ‘favour the committee with an early decision’. Montagu replied saying that he thought that in the circumstances he should resign. He added that should a vacancy arise later, he might be able to reapply to the dispensary. The Committee said that ‘in the event of a vacancy, they would be pleased to consider an application from him. This would seem to confirm that he was well thought of and a conscientious  doctor.

Even more bizarrely, Montagu then placed an advert in the Leamington Spa Courier on January 13th 1900 which read:

A Denial. Dr Montagu Lomax writes: As I am constantly hearing reports to the effect that I am seriously ill and contemplate leaving the town, I should be much obliged if you would give me the opportunity, through your columns of stating that I am in excellent health and neither have, nor had the remotest intention of giving up my practice or leaving Leamington.’

Perhaps he placed this advert to protect his private practice. So Montagu struggled with chronic ill health. TB would be unlikely because he survived another 33 years. Asthma might be a possibility, but again unlikely given that he was a competitive tennis player. His brother Percival had chronic ill-health? Did he choose to go to Leamington because it was a spa town?

The Provident Dispensary listed a couple of vacancies over the course of 1900 but Montagu did not reapply. His health had recovered sufficiently by July of 1900 to compete in a number of tennis tournaments and he was still in Leamington in September of 1900, as confirmed by a letter to the BMJ. The 1901 census took place on 31st March 1901, and by this stage the family had relocated to Sheringham in Norfolk.They rented a large house close to the sea, and employed a cook, housemaid and a kitchenmaid. Guy and Mary Cecile were living here with their parents, but Armine aged 9, was now living in the care of Dr Fletcher Beach, at Winchester House in Coombes, Surrey.    It is impossible to be sure when exactly Armine was taken in by Fletcher Beach, but the youngest child placed there as a patient in 1901 census was only 7 years old. It is possible that Armine was sent away from his family around the time of his 7th birthday in August 1898. Montagu’s health began to fail in November 1898. Could he perhaps have suffered from depression, missing his son, a nervous breakdown?. Mental illness, perhaps manic depression, not uncommon in clever people with a sensitive, poetic side. Certainly this might explain the peculiar dithering about his employment at the Provident Dispensary.

In April 1901, Guy sat the scholarship examination for Gresham’s public school in Norfolk and passed so that half his fees were paid by the scholarship and the other half met by a legacy from his paternal aunt Mary Smith. It did occur to me that the move to Norfolk was specifically to get Guy into public school with a scholarship which was only awarded to residents of Norfolk. Certainly, the Lomax family, didn’t stay very long, and by September 1903, Montagu was working as a GP  in Minchinghampton, Gloucestershire. He played with some success at Minchinghampton golf club, and continued to write poetry. In 1903, he published a series of sonnets on the ‘Macedonian question’ in the Daily Chronicle of September 26th. This paper had an enormous, nationwide circulation at that stage, much larger than The Times. The British Medical Journal picked up on the poem (or was sent a cutting by ML?) and commented “Dr Lomax may encourage the cynic to approve the political wisdom of Plato in banishing poets from his republic’. Montagu remained undeterred by public criticism and and published his first book of poetry Frondes Caducae’ in 1903. The book was reviewed by the Leamington Spa Courier in 1904 who described the author as ‘our townsman’, so I am assuming he had sent them a copy. He was a great self publicist – I have found him advertising the Encyclopaedia Brittanica and medical treatments for hydatid disease during his New Zealand sojourn, and cigars and the Encyclopaedia Britannica in the UK newspapers across the early part of the 20th century.

Then from 1905 to 1914, there is no coherent pattern that I can see in Montagu’s life. This period has been the most frustrating, and  unsatisfying part of my research

It seems that he left the GP practice in the idyllic town of Minchinghampton, at some point between 1904 and 1906.  In January 1906, Armine was admitted to Earlswood Asylum and his father supplied the address ‘Vernon House, Berkhamstead’. Guy graduated from Gresham’s School in the summer of 1906, and he gave his father’s address as Ferndale, Fisherman Street, Sheringham in Norfolk.  Between 1905 and 1907, Montagu was a regular contributor to the Theosophical Review giving  his address as ‘London’ and later ‘Brussels’.  In January 1907, the BMJ listed him in the British Practitioners Abroad section as living at 39 Rue Adolphe, Avenue Louise, Brussels. It is highly unlikely that he was practicing as a doctor in Belgium. The BMJ reported that the difficulties for foreigners trying to get a licence to practice in Belgium pre war were prohibitive because of the stringent formalities of the medical board. I have been unable to find any record in the available sources of his activities in Belgium and there is  no mention of his name in the digitised Belgium newspapers currently available on line. He returned home for  his brother Percival’s funeral in 1909. 

Montagu was reported as visiting The Hotel Minerva in Florence by the Evening Standard of 30th November 1909. There was no mention of Mrs Lomax on this occasion, but quite few notable British dignitaries, so he still had money and was mixing with the great and good of Florence. In April 1910, Armine died in Earlswood and his father’s address is given on the death certificate as    2 Via Dei Vichietta, Florence, Italy. This address was confirmed by the 1910 British Medical Directory so he was presumably planning on staying in Italy for some time.  Neither Montagu nor Ethel feature on the 1911 census. Mary Cecile was in boarding school in Bedford in 1911, and Guy had gone out to Durban in 1909, so presumably Montagu and Ethel were still in Florence at the time of the 1911 UK census. There was an established British community in the city during the late Victorian/Edwardian era. The ancient villas on the hills surrounding the Florence, the history and architecture of the ancient city were irresistible to an eccentric colony of American and British ex-patriots. History, art and gardening were the main interests of the community which attracted a number of well known authors including the romance writer Ouida who died in Florence in 1908. Again, I can find no record of what Montagu was doing in Florence for two to three years between 1909 and 1912.

In February 1912, Ethel travelled first class on her own from Tilbury, London to Durban, south Africa presumably to see Guy, her mother, brothers and sister Mina. Montagu was back in London where newspapers in August 1912, reported that he attended to a child’s corpse in Golders Green. He was ‘staying in’ Hendon at the time.  The 1913 Medical Register (which would have been compiled in 1912) gives his parents address in Weston-Super-Mare. This suggests that he returned to the UK in 1912 and didn’t know where his permanent address was going to be at that point. Between 1914 and 1916, the trade and telephone  directories have him listed as a surgeon and living at 31 Coleville Road, Notting Hill, London.

It is hard to escape the suspicion that there was something very wrong in Montagu Lomax’s life in the Edwardian, pre war years. Why would he keep moving his job and his family from town to town and even country to country. He came from a wealthy background, he had inherited money and his brother in law was a director of De Beers so he would have been financially secure. He was able to afford to send his eldest son and daughter to boarding school and to board one son with one of the top alienists of the time. He always rented large, comfortable houses with plenty of servants wherever he lived. He seemed to have impressed the Leamington Provident Dispensary Committee suggesting that  that he was a careful and conscientious doctor. He was a good sportsman and always joined the local sports clubs, playing golf and tennis to a high standard wherever he was. Sport  and the fact that he was mason would have provided friendship. Yet he kept moving. 

My reading of his activities in New Zealand suggests that he had a sense of justice and wasn’t afraid to act as a whistleblower. These sort of people are not necessarily popular, and perhaps he wasn’t easy to work with. Then there is the possibility that he suffered from mental illness. We will never know the answer. 

Despite the large gaps in the narrative, some facts are clear. During the two decades after his return from New Zealand, Montagu developed his writing skills and was a regular contributor to the British Medical Journal, and also the Theosophical Review on diverse topics from Agnosticism to Maya. He wasn’t afraid to send  his poetry in the newspapers which was often topical in content. He published a book of poetry, and a book of his lectures on “Woman’.  He was also becoming deeply interested in theosophy and  spiritual healing. 

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