Object of the Month · Our Collection

Object of the Month: October

LDSCL: ACC.39/23 Photograph of Dr George Rice, BA, MB, C-M Edin, with nursing staff outside Belmont Workhouse. c.1908.

George Rice 39_23 no biro

In honour of Black History Month, October’s object of the month display focuses on a photograph and associated group of archive material relating to Dr. George Rice (1848 – 1935), a celebrated and much respected African-American physician, who worked in Sutton from the 1880s.

Although he practised medicine in Sutton for over fifty years, George Rice was actually born in Troy, New York.  He graduated from Dartmouth College Medical School, New Hampshire, in 1869 and then moved to Europe to continue his medical education. Firstly he was based in Paris, but the start of the Franco-Prussian war in 1871 caused Rice to relocate to Edinburgh University, where he graduated in medicine, surgery and obstetrics in 1874. He then went onto work at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, under the renowned pioneer of antiseptic treatment in surgery, Joseph Lister.

Sutton Archives holds a certificate of commendation for Dr. Rice’s work under Lister (Acc 39/10) , a facsimile of which forms part of the display at Cheam. In beautiful calligraphic script, the document comments on the ‘exceedingly efficient manner’ and ‘indefatigable zeal’  in which Rice went about his professional duties and (rightly) states that Rice will go on to secure ‘a very high place in the profession’. The fact that Rice went onto give his first born son George, who was christened at St. Nicholas Church, Sutton in September 1885, the middle name Lister, implies the formative importance that the period studying alongside Lister held for him.

After leaving Edinburgh, Dr. Rice worked in Manchester, firstly at the Royal Infirmary as house physician and then at Chorlton Infirmary, which was his first introduction to working within the Poor Law System. In 1878, Rice moved to London to work at the Woolwich Infirmary in Plumstead. Here, George Rice met his wife Florence Mary Cook (1849-1933), daughter of John Cook, a landowner of over 420 acres. They married in October 1881 at St Margaret’s Church, Plumstead.

Florence and George moved to Sutton in 1884, so George could take up the position of Resident Medical Officer at the South Metropolitan District School, (SMDS) which was situated on Brighton Road.  A house was built for Rice and his family in the grounds of the school, surely a sign of the confidence in which George Rice’s professional work was held. Census records show the house was named ‘Sagamore’, also an area in Rice’s native New York.

The SMDS, which had operated since 1853, provided industrial training for poor and orphaned children from inner London, in practical subjects such as carpentry, shoemaking and bricklaying, with the aim of setting attendees up with a professional trade for working life. In 1882, the Schools acquired a site on Banstead Road from the Sutton Lodge estate and a separate girls’ institution, Down’s School, was established there. Photographs of both institutions form part of the Cheam Library display. Dr. Rice was paid a generous annual salary of £100 per year for working at the ‘new’ school and £350 for the ‘old’ school.  

In 1908 the buildings were transferred to management of the Fulham Poor Law Union and the site became Belmont Workhouse. Poor Law Unions, which were run by an elected ‘Board of Guardians’, were an early form of Local Government, administering poor relief and overseeing the running of workhouses, for the area served by the union.  Rice remained working at the Brighton Road institution as a Medical Officer. The infirmary had a ward that specialised in treatment for male epileptics, with a capacity for 120 patients, one of biggest in the country at the time. It was this condition that Rice became particularly renowned and respected for treating.

The photograph that forms the central part of the display shows a distinguished looking Dr Rice centrally positioned amongst the nursing staff of Belmont Workhouse’s Infirmary who are  all seated against the backdrop of the building’s brick facade. The print was produced by the South London photographic business Wayland, set up by David Wayland in 1893, who ran the studio from 71 Streatham High Road. Professional success meant the business expanded to studios in Blackheath and Sutton and in 1905, David’s brother, Henry Robert Douglas Wayland, joined over the business.

Aside from his medical expertise, Dr Rice was a keen music and drama lover.  He was a member of Sutton Musical Society and a committed and long standing member of the choir at Christ Church, which was situated not far from the Workhouse on Christchurch Park.

George Rice held a position at Belmont Workhouse until 1917, when the building became used as a hospital for German prisoners of war during World War One.  George, Florence and daughter Lucinda moved to 50 Egmont Road in 1917 and he then worked as District Medical Officer for Sutton and Cheam, until close to his death, aged 86 in 1935. His daughter Lucinda ran a preparatory school from the house in Egmont Road from 1938

To view the display up close and learn more about the fascinating life of Dr Rice, do visit Cheam Library, where the documents will be on show throughout October.  Further information the Heritage Service’s holdings on George Rice can be found through contacting Sutton Archives at local.studies@sutton.gov.uk. We would also like to thank Ann Morton whose recent research was an invaluable resource for putting together this blog post.


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