Many who have visited Evesham Community Hospital will be aware of the William Astley ward that was named after a local GP, William Constantine Astley, M.B., ChB., D.R.C.O.G.
William Astley came to Evesham to work as a GP with Dr Goodwin in the mid 1940s. His roots, however, were not in the Vale of Evesham but in the Bolton area of Lancashire. Bill, as he was known, was born in 1919. His father was William Openshaw Astley, a mining engineer who married Nancy Bradshaw, the daughter of Constantine Bradshaw, in Bolton in 1916. William Openshaw Astley’s father was also named William and on the 1891 census he was living with his wife Alice (née Smedley) who had come to the marriage with a dowry, at Rishton Lane, Great Bolton and his occupation is described as brickmaker. He acquired his wealth through the invention of the Astley Brick that reduced smoke in industrial chimneys.
Bill was born with a twisted foot, known as a club foot, that left him with a slight limp for the rest of his life. However, without the intervention of his maternal grandmother, Nanny Bradshaw, it may have been worse. She treated it with a calliper and strapping and this was quite an advanced practice for the 1920’s. His foot developed more normally and for the rest of his life he only needed a sole pad in his shoes. Bill attended Chorley Old Road School and then Bolton School.
Medical training and practice
On leaving school, he trained as a carpenter, a skill that he used throughout his life. However, Bill’s paternal grandfather encouraged him to consider medicine as a career. Latin was required to enter medical school, a subject Bill had not studied at school, but in a matter of months he had learned enough to be successful in the Matriculation Examination. The cost of the training would have been prohibitive for the son of a mining engineer but thanks to his grandfather’s wealth he was able to achieve his ambition.
He did his training at Manchester University Medical School (then known as The Victoria University of Manchester) and qualified on 30th December 1944. His title was now Dr William Astley MB (Batchelor of Medicine) and ChB (Batchelor of Surgery).
On completing his training Bill’s ambition was to be a surgeon but this ambition eluded him when the post he applied for was offered to another candidate. In 1946 he decided to be a GP and, as this was before the National Health came into being in 1948, he joined the private practice of Dr Goodwin, the practice being run from Dr Goodwin’s house in Broadway Road, Evesham.
When the NHS was founded there were very favourable pension deals on offer to doctors as an incentive to become part of this new organisation and Dr Astley joined. On the inception of the NHS he was made Senior Hospital Medical Officer in obstetrics and gynaecology and helped to introduce a new maternity unit at what was then called Avonside Hospital. He obtained the Diploma of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, D.R.O.C.G. The diploma recognises a GP’s interest in this field. He was also at one time chairman of the Hereford and Worcester Local Medical Committee.
The practice he had joined in 1946 eventually moved to new premises in Church Street, Evesham and after Bill’s retirement (in 1985 following 39 years serving the community) the practice moved to a new larger building on the site of Evesham Community Hospital.
Bill Astley was very involved with what is now known as the Friends of Evesham Hospital and served as both its President and Chairman, helping to raise funds for much needed equipment required by the hospital, but not provided by the NHS, and also items to help make the life of the patients whilst in hospital more comfortable.
Bill met his future wife, Bessie Carr, when she was working as a senior nurse in obstetric. Bessie had started her nursing career when she was 17 years of age and worked in hospitals in Huddersfield, Manchester and London before returning to Manchester Royal Infirmary where she met Bill. According to her daughter Rachel ‘Bessie was quite taken with Bill’s lovely blue eyes that she could see over his surgical mask’.
They were married on 6th June 1946 and started married life in a property rented from the Lees-Milne family, Manor Cottage, Wickhamford. In October 1948 they moved to another cottage in the village, Corner Cottage until 1951 when they moved to Hillcrest, Broadway Road. In June 1956 they moved back to Wickhamford and purchased Brookfield Cottage, a lovely thatched cottage in the old part of the village, where they lived until failing health forced them to move to Stonebow House Care Home, Peopleton.
Bessie had suffered from rickets as a young girl and Bill feared that there may be problems with the birth of their first child as a result of this. So, Bessie was put in the care of a Birmingham obstetrician and two children were delivered safely. Rachel was born in 1948 and Nigel was born in 1951.
Rachel attended Prince Henry’s Grammar School and was made head girl of the school in 1966; in the autumn of 1967 she went on to study at Manchester University, her father’s Alma Mater. Before going to university Rachel played the organ at the Sunday morning services in Wickhamford Church. She married Paul Wood in 1969 and moved to New Zealand and Bill and Bessie made regular visits to see them and their children.
Bill and Bessie were very involved in Wickhamford village life particular with the Church and the Gardening Club. Both served on the Parochial Church Council and Bessie served as treasurer presenting her first accounts in 1972. Bessie was a founder member of Wickhamford Gardening Club and served as both its Chairman and President. She was twice president of Evesham Inner Wheel.
Bill Astley died at Worcester Royal Hospital on 1st December 2004 aged 85. He had served his patients well and many mothers are to this day grateful for his expertise in obstetrics and gynaecology that helped the safe delivery of their babies. Bessie Astley died on 1st October 2009.
Thanks to Rachel Wood (née Astley) for supplying most of the information for this article and also all the family photos. Thanks also to Francis Smith, Chairman of the Friends of Evesham Hospital, for allowing me access to the scrapbook of events that have taken place over the years and kept by the Friends of the Hospital.
Val Harman and Tom Locke