Records of Veterinary Practice

As part of a five-year project to catalogue the archive collections of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, I have been fortunate enough to work with some fascinating veterinary practice day books. The majority of the papers we take care of here relate to the activities of the College rather than practising vets, and so these are a rare insight into their everyday work. Our earliest ‘day book’ dates from 1807, but we have examples dating right up to the 1990s.  They typically include only a brief note on the animal treated, any medication prescribed, and the cost charged to the customer. But even these sparse details can add up to a broader picture, and illuminate practice of the past.

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Day book from the practice of Walter Burt, 1807-1808 © RCVS Knowledge

In September 2016 we were approached by Pam Boyde, the widow of Carl Boyde MRCVS, who offered us 60 day books covering over 40 years of his veterinary practice, based in and around Surrey and Middlesex. We were very pleased to accept them, as they cover such a broad period, and contain such consistent information about his work.

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Day books from Carl Boyde’s veterinary practice © RCVS Knowledge

The Willett Legacy

Carl Boyde began work as a veterinary surgeon with Rex Willett in 1951, but the Willett family first established a practice in 1837, when John Willett, a farrier, founded a forge on London Road, Staines, Middlesex. In 1948, Rex Willett, the fourth generation to work at the practice, opened the first branch of the surgery to specialise in companion animals rather than horses.

The client ledger was included in the collection donated to us by Pam Boyde. It would have been in use by the practice when her husband joined, but includes records from 1929 to 1962.

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The unassuming Willett Practice Ledger, with its brown corduroy cover © RCVS Knowledge

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A typical client record in the ledger. Personal information has been redacted from the image. © RCVS Knowledge

The ledger records all treatments and advice administered to a wide range of clients, from cows at local co-operatives and dairies, to pigs kept by Royal Holloway College and the Middlesex County Council Poor Law Institution. The coke and coal merchants, ‘Fear Brothers’, often purchased packets of shampoo from Willetts – presumably to wash their sooty horses. However, most of the companion animals recorded belong to individuals, such as married women, or people with military or civil titles. This suggests that during this period, veterinary care for pets was still a relative luxury that few could afford.

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The record for veterinary visits to Middlesex County Council Poor Law Institution. Formerly a workhouse, this later became Ashford Hospital © RCVS Knowledge

As these records were for the use of the practice, they are in a sort of ‘code’ of abbreviations, that needs deciphering before you can understand all the information. Thankfully, inserted was a note that provides some answers. ‘K & T’ means ‘keep and treat’, ‘V A’ means a home visit, and ‘D & C’ means ‘destroy and cremate’. Some of it still unclear, but with dedicated study by someone who is more familiar with veterinary practice, I’m sure more will make sense. However, the mentions of ‘mauve tablets’ and ‘blue tablets’ will probably always remain a mystery!

Filed under ‘King’

Occasionally an animal is named rather than just listed as ‘dog’, ‘cat’, or ‘sow’. For example, we have records of treatments for ‘Pongo’, ‘Paddy’ and ‘Cinders’.

But the most famous patients in the ledger are those listed under ‘K’ for ‘King’. From 1937 to 1955, the Willett practice served the Royal Lodge at Windsor, and the many animals kept there by the Royal Household.

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The first page of the record for the Royal Lodge at Windsor. ‘Jane’, ‘Dookie’ and ‘Carol’ are mentioned. © RCVS Knowledge

The records show the treatment of various dogs and cats, but the first pet named is ‘Dookie’, the first Royal Corgi, and the pet that started the future Queen Elizabeth’s (and the nation’s) obsession with the breed. Dookie doesn’t seem to require much attention from the vet, but the later addition of Jane, and her puppies Carol and Crackers (named because they were born on Christmas Eve) appear many times in the record. The royal dogs need the same sort of attention as any other pet, including worming, nail clipping, and teeth cleaning. However, there are some more extreme incidents, including the removal of a dead puppy from Jane in July 1939, and Carol put to sleep in April 1944.

Alongside the corgis, there are mentions of ‘Ching’ the Shih Tzu, and ‘Johnny’, Princess Margaret’s Sealyham Terrier. Other dogs are listed but sadly not named. Some of these must include Labradors which are another favourite breed of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

Even apart from the Royal records, this is an absorbing and charming addition to our collections. I would be fascinated to see what else researchers can glean from it, and how much more we can learn about the history of people and their pets.

Lorna Cahill Bannister, Archivist, Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons Trust.

Many thanks to Alison Skipper, and her mother, for the loan of ‘Royal Dogs’ by Macdonald Daly (1952) – an invaluable resource for sorting my Corgis from my Sealyhams.

For more information about this history of the Willett House Veterinary Practice, please visit their website here – http://www.willetthouse.co.uk/page.aspx?Page=59&clientId=20173

This blog was written by Lorna Cahill Bannister, Archivist for RCVS Knowledge (the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons Trust). RCVS Knowledge have launched the Vet History project to catalogue and digitise their unique library and archive collections. You can see material from the collections online at rcvsvethistory.org or follow @rcvsknowledge on Instagram and Twitter for behind-the-scenes snapshots.

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