One woman’s mission to treat suffering animals is PDSA’s legacy as pets’ welfare charity
- Credit: PDSA
The animal welfare charity that runs east London’s busy Bow Pets Hospital is marking the centenary of its founder Maria Dickin setting up her first dispensary for sick animals in Whitechapel.
She operated a temporary clinic in a borrowed basement in 1917, then moved to premises in Herford Road in 1918, where her People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals was established for the East End’s poor.
The sign on the door read: “Bring your sick animals. Do not let them suffer. All animals treated. All treatment free.”
The PDSA now runs 48 pet hospitals across Britain, supported by a chain of 130 charity shops and an army of volunteers.
The jewel in the crown is the purpose-built Bow Pet Hospital in Malemesbury Road opened in 1997—a mile from Maria’s original clinic—which provides more than 100,000 treatments every year, caring for 200 pets on an average day.
“It is a remarkable journey from such humble beginnings,” senior PDSA vet Rosamund Ford said.
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“What emerged from one woman’s attempts to alleviate animal suffering has blossomed into the UK’s leading vet charity, providing an astonishing 100 million treatments to 20 million pets over the last century.
“For many owners who come through our doors, their pet is their only companion.
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“We are there for them when times are hard and they can’t afford the care their pets need.”
It all began with humble beginnings in East London. Maria Dickin, one of eight children of a Wesleyan minister, was born in a terraced house at Cassland Road in South Hackney, which has been given an English Heritage Blue Plaque.
Maria went into social work in the 1890s and was appalled at the poverty she found. It was the suffering of the animals that was most heartbreaking—starving, skin raw with mange, often limping with fractured bones, goats and rabbits huddled together in backyards, sick, injured, and ignored.
Maria recalled in a book in 1940: “The suffering and misery of these poor, uncared-for creatures in our overcrowded areas was a revelation to me. I had no idea it existed.”
She recognised that an animal was essential to poor families, whose slum homes would be overrun with vermin if they didn’t keep a cat.
The charity’s director Jan McLoughlin said: “Maria’s passion for improving animals’ lives became the catalyst for change, one woman’s incredible journey to change the face of animal welfare. Her legacy lives on through our 51 pet hospitals.”
The clinic Maria opened in Mile End proved so popular that police were needed to control the crowds flocking for free treatment for their animals.
She later fitted out a horse-drawn mobile animal clinic from a converted gypsy caravan and soon had a fleet of mobile dispensaries which were common sights up and down the country.
The PDSA survived the Second World War with honours, according to History Month researchers.
Its rescue squads saved 250,000 pets during Blitz, which were often injured and buried by rubble in the air raids.
The idea of honouring the courage and devotion of animals fighting alongside British forces was born at this point. It instituted the PDSA Dickin medal, the “Victoria Cross for animals” associated with the Armed Forces or Civil Defence for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.
The roll of honour runs to 66 creatures—32 pigeons, 29 dogs, four horses and one cat. The most recent was awarded posthumously to the First World War cavalry horse Warrior, which led the charge at some of the bloodiest battles on the Western Front.
The first to be awarded the medal was a pigeon named White Vision which was released with an SOS message when an aircraft ditched in the North Sea in 1943 with the radio smashed. White Vision flew 60 miles against a strong headwind with the SOS. The plane was eventually found and all 11 crew were rescued after 18 hours in rough seas.
Only one cat, Simon, earned the medal. Simon was on board HMS Amethyst in the 1949 Yangtze River incident during the Chinese revolution when it was shelled by Communist shore batteries, killing 25 crew including the captain. The cat was hit by flying debris and knocked unconscious, its whiskers and eyebrows burned away, but it soon started prowling the ship again and caught at least one rat every day. A particularly large and ferocious rat wreaked havoc with the ship’s dwindling supplies. Simon, despite his injuries, came face to face with the rat, attacked first and killed it. The crew was so impressed they promoted Simon to ‘Able Seacat’ Simon.
Marie Dickin’s objective was treating sick animals whose owners were unable to pay, which is still at the core of the PDSA’s mission today, a century on, providing nearly three-million treatments every year throughout the UK.
The charity acquired a half-acre site at Malmesbury Road in Bow in 1993, close to its Mile End roots. Work soon began on a new purpose-built pets’ hospital with five consulting rooms, two operating theatres, canine and feline recovery kennels, X-ray and isolation facilities.
But it costs £1.7 million to run every year, without any government funding—relying entirely on public support.