Margaret Huxley was the niece of the famous T.H.Huxley, the man who coined the term ‘agnostic’ and who was otherwise known as Darwin’s Bulldog for his spirited defence of Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution. Margaret had numerous accomplished cousins in the fields of science and literature including the author Aldous Huxley. But Margaret, or Miss Margaret Huxley as she was usually known, was to achieve international recognition in her own right for her pioneering work on behalf of nurses and nursing standards.
Born in London in 1856, Miss Huxley commenced her long and distinguished career at St Bartholomew’s in London before coming to Dublin in 1883 to take up the post of ‘Lady Superintendent’ (Matron) at the Eye and Ear Hospital which was then in Molesworth Street. Her abilities were soon recognised and within a year she was appointed as Matron of that great old Dublin institution ‘Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital’. The author of the history of this hospital writes in the chapter ‘Nursing Arrangements’ that, ‘within a very short time of Miss Huxley’s arrival, a new era of hospital nursing began’. As part of her pioneering work she established Sir Patrick Dun’s School of Nursing as the leading Nursing School in Ireland. Through this school and in cooperation with other training schools she continually strove to raise the educational standards of nurses and by extension the status of nursing in Ireland and abroad.
When she retired from her role as Matron at the hospital in 1902 her colleagues subscribed money with the intention of making a presentation to her. However she refused to accept the money for herself and instead it was used to establish a ‘Margaret Huxley Memorial Medal’ which for many years was awarded to the nurse who attained highest place for conduct in her examinations.
On her retirement from Sir Patrick Dun’s she set up St Elpis Nursing home in Mount Street. (Elpis being the Greek for hope), which she continued to manage for many years after and also continued her unstinting work on behalf of her profession. During her lifetime, Miss Huxley held many representative positions within the Irish Nurses Association and the Irish Matrons Association. She was also a founding member of the International Council of Nursing and attended many international conferences, even risking the hazards of travel during the Great War, to advance the cause of nurses and nursing. Her contribution to the nursing profession was recognised when in 1928 Trinity College conferred on her an Honorary MA in recognition of her work for ‘Scientific Nursing in Ireland’.
In the census of 1911 she returned her religion as Church of Ireland but soon after that date she became a member of our Congregation on St Stephens Green and it was as a member of the Unitarian Church that she was to leave a small but significant legacy to the people of Dublin.
Miss Huxley took a deep interest in the social questions of the day and in particular in the then burning issue of Dublin’s notorious housing problem. Prior to the great slum clearance projects of the 1930’s onwards which saw the building of Marino, Cabra, Crumlin and Drimnagh etc, the provision of public housing was extremely limited. Apart from the noble efforts of the Iveagh Trust and the Dublin Artisan Dwelling Company, the provision of housing was almost totally in the control of the tenement owners who ensured that Dublin retained its long held dreadful reputation for overcrowded disease ridden slums. Some members of our Congregation felt that there was an onus on them to make some contribution to the housing of the poor and so set up a Utility Housing Society. Although the state made some grants to such societies the bulk of the funds raised came from within the Congregation and in particular from a substantial donation from Miss Huxley. Apart from the raising of funds, the society had to take on the task of securing a site and bringing the building project to a conclusion. By 1927 the Society had identified some sites for building houses including a site in York Street but, after some setbacks, settled on a site in Cork Street. It was originally intended to call the housing ‘Unity Buildings’ but, in recognition of her efforts, the society was re-named the Margaret Huxley Utility Housing Society and the small road on which the housing was built was named ‘Huxley Crescent’ . Miss Huxley laid the foundation stone 1927, the houses were completed in 1929. These houses were my own first introduction to Unitarianism as for many years when I travelled on top of the bus from Crumlin into town I noted the plaques on the gables of both end houses which are inscribed ‘Built by members of the Unitarian Church St Stephens Green’. Although some of the houses have been modified and the shared green area has been sacrificed to the insatiable demands of car parking, the small crescent is still a dignified and living memorial to this great woman and practical proof that her virtues were indeed ‘Courage’, ‘Efficiency’ and ‘Kindness’.
Miss Huxley died on the 10th January 1940, aged 86 years, at her Memorial Service in our Church Rev.E.Savill Hicks said; “She leaves with all who knew her intimately the memory of a very wonderful personality. A brilliant organiser, a grimly determined fighter of abuses, the most generous of friends, the kindliest and most dignified of teachers, she belonged to the best type the Victorian age produced in its golden prime. Above all, those of us who knew her best will always associate the memory of a personality of quite exceptional sweetness and understanding, one who was incapable of an unjust or ungenerous act, one whose word was her bond and one, above all, whose simplest and quietest expressions of judgement or opinion seemed in some way to carry with them the whole weight of her tremendously forceful character”