Victorian philanthropist Mary Jane Brabazon, Countess of Meath, (1847-1918) founded the ‘Home of Comfort for Epileptic Women and Girls’ at Godalming, now known as 'The Meath’, in 1892.
Born Mary Jane Maitland, only surviving daughter of Thomas 11th Earl of Lauderdale, she married Reginald Brabazon, 12th Earl of Meath, Ireland, in 1868. Aware of the plight of British women with epilepsy struggling to cope without any facilities at all to help them she went on a fact-finding mission to Germany where a colony for people with epilepsy had been founded at Bielefield. The brainchild of Pastor von Bodelshwingh it aimed to be a refuge where people with epilepsy could lead a sheltered and useful life.
Just before she and her husband went on a voyage round the world, and wanting to start a home for 60 girls and women from 2-35, the Earl and Countess of Meath bought and equipped Westbrook, a large country house in 1891. An endowment was not provided and this meant that at least £500 needed to be raised by public subscription. Many distinguished patrons and local residents worked in different ways to raise money and to form organising committees. She launched a public appeal by writing to the editor of The Times, and ten years later in 1902 another public appeal was placed in The Times.
Queen Victoria’s daughter-in-law, HRH The Duchess of Albany, came to Westbrook for the dedication ceremony on the 4th August 1892. Hundreds of guests came even though there were not yet any residents. The first, 12 year-old Jemina Lemon, arrived just two months later. The Countess donated funds to build two large extensions, and to convert a barn into a chapel.
In 1920 it was stated that there was accommodation for 87 patients. A Lady Superintendent led day-to-day management. A working committee made policy and financial decisions. An early entry records the Countess of Meath’s approach towards caring for people with epilepsy: “Lady Meath reported as to the character of the institution, which she said would be worked on the lines of the Home, and not of a hospital … and to her wish that it should be a Home of Comfort, all being made as bright and cheerful as possible.”
The house has now been divided into several self-contained units where residents live in groups, and each is supported by its own team of staff. Little Meath was built in 1992 to mark the home’s centenary and the improvement’s project was completed in July 1994.
The Countess of Meath wrote diaries, which her husband edited and published in two volumes, The Diaries of Mary Countess of Meath. They can be seen in Godalming Museum Local Studies Library, and show her philanthropic involvements, and her travels, between 1874-1900.