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A little about the Trust

Before you scroll any further, why not watch our video where the trustees and operations team say a little about what we are doing and what we hope to achieve?

And now, how can we help you?

If you aren’t familiar with the Elizabeth Casson Trust, you may not know how we support the profession of occupational therapy and what we can do to support you. Watch this short 3 minute video to learn more.

A podcast: So, who was Elizabeth Casson?

If you prefer to listen to our podcast of the blog ‘So, who was Elizabeth Casson’, please enjoy listening to the voice of Penny Pocock (a great-niece of Elizabeth).

A blog: So, who was Elizabeth Casson?

Written by Prof Annie Turner

When we look at Elizabeth Casson’s family tree (see below), we could be forgiven for being confused about who she really was.

On the one hand we see a family of education, success and social connection. We see that:

One of her brothers, Randal Casson, lived a comfortable life as a divisional judge, ‘administering British justice’ in India in the late 19 century, while his wife, May, lived the ‘cosseted existence of a Colonial wife’. His children were ordered back to England at the start of World War I to live with their grandparents.

Her maternal uncle, Sir Herbert Isambard Owen [not shown in the family tree], (named after Isambard Kingdom Brunel, for whom his father was chief engineer) trained as a doctor at the University of Cambridge and became vice chancellor of the University of Bristol. He was described in the Westminster Gazette in 1894 as “Well dressed, well educated and well mannered…. one of London’s most celebrated physicians” and was executor to the Will of Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte, nephew of Emperor Napoleon 1.

Another of her brothers, Sir Lewis Casson, became a famous actor and director and married the equally famous actress, Dame Sybil Thorndike

Her nephew, Sir Hugh Casson, was a famous architect, notably as director of architecture for the Festival of Britain (1951), as designer of the London Zoo elephant house and for working with Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh on designing the interior of the Royal Yacht Britannia. The pinnacle of his career was being elected president of the Royal Academy.

While another nephew, Owen Reed, was director of the BBC West Region.


Below: Casson family tree

However, by contrast, Elizabeth’s early days were rather unsettled. We see that:

Her father, Thomas Casson, was described by his daughter in law’s family (the Mans) as ‘no businessman’. While he initially went to work for the family bank founded by his uncle, he was asked to resign in 1892, when Elizabeth was about 11 years old, because he was spending too much time on his hobby, later to become his career, as an organ builder. Buying into the organ building business in which his brother Lewis worked, Thomas fell out with the organ builder, set up his own business, but the venture failed. His wife’s family saw that ‘money was always very short’ and for a period, the Casson girls, including Elizabeth, were withdrawn from school.

While Thomas was ultimately successful in establishing the Positive Organ Company with the help of his brother Randal in 1898, the early lives of Elizabeth and her siblings would not have been privileged nor financially stable.

Her brother, Will was killed in the First World War

Her sister Annie died aged 9, and that

Elizabeth took two years to pass the Latin exam needed to enter medical school.

In our quest to find out more about who Elizabeth was as a person, we recently had a good fortune to meet with three of her great nieces – Carola, Nicky and Penny – and heard directly from them about Elizabeth. Carola told us that “I think you may well be right about early life experiences influencing how she approached things in later life. Equally, living your dreams and being a risk-taker may also be something she took forward too – just in a more managed way” (than her father). So, it seems that these contrasting fortunes may well have helped shape Elizabeth. Research, and conversations with those who remember her, lead us to find a fascinating, larger than life figure and we have been able to draw a picture of a stalwart woman with the skills and personality to lead the development of our profession. When we examined the evidence, what did we find?

We knew that Dr Elizabeth Casson was born in Denbigh, Wales, on April 14th 1881, the sixth child of seven, and the third daughter of Thomas Casson, the ultimately successful organ builder. His wife, Laura Ann Thomas-Holland, who had been born in Valparaiso, Chile, was the daughter of a merchant navy sea captain who traded along the west coast of Central and South America. Facts are, of course, important in understanding this Victorian lady, but what was she like as an individual?

Elizabeth, the person



A tour de force

It’s very clear, from what we’ve learned, that Elizabeth, always known in her family as Elsie, was quite a tour de force and was seen as a ‘character’. Penny, her great niece, remembered meeting her great aunt Elsie several times and during our conversations we heard that she was a determined, pioneering and forceful figure. In her written reflections of meeting her great aunt Elsie as a child, Janet, another great niece, remembers how Elsie would frequently come to tea on Sundays. She remembers her “upright posture and piercing blue eyes” and that she arrived “regally, sitting bolt upright, (wearing a) shapeless linen coat and straw hat in summer”.  Janet remembered her as intimidating to her great nieces and nephews, who were sent off to play as Elsie “found it hard to converse with them.”

However, despite her rather intimidating manner, we learned much of how Elsie was admired within the family. Janet described her as having a matriarchal role within the family whose advice was sought “on just about everything and her judgment valued.” In later years her nephew Owen referred to her “typically direct fashion”.

A canny woman

Another thread running through our conversations and research has been her financial probity. Carola talked of her “financial acumen and foresight, something” she mused “that she didn’t inherit from her father!” Elsie worked for Octavia Hill, the social reformer and became a housing manager, which would have given her insight into financial management and this she put to good use in later years. Borrowing money from her older brother, Lewis, Elsie bought a large country house in Bristol which later became Dorset House, the home of the first school of occupational therapy in the UK. Later, having ultimately moved the school to Oxford via Bromsgrove, because of the bombing in Bristol, the school’s needs outgrew its Nissen hut accommodation and, in 1961, The Trust bought a large house on London Road, Headington for £25,000. This was renamed Dorset House and Carolyn Rutland, past chair of the Elizabeth Casson Trust, told us that the money to purchase this large house was raised from donations from past students, local industry and fundraising events. As a ‘canny’ businesswoman Elsie had formed the Elizabeth Casson Trust in 1948 to manage and protect all aspects of the school and so, when Dorset House was purchased to accommodate its growing needs, the building belonged to the Trust. When the school merged with the (then) Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University), the proceeds of the sale of Dorset House belonged to the Trust, along with the subsequent overage, and it’s these substantial proceeds that allows the Trust to function in a non-fundraising manner today to “Further the profession of occupational therapy.” A canny woman indeed. Elsie’s financial probity also left her, on her death, a homeowner and relatively wealthy woman.

Determined and hardworking

Nicky also saw Elsie as “incredibly hard working” and this, too, is a clearly featured thread in this remarkable woman’s life. Born into a Victorian world where the role of women was adjunctive to that of men, Elsie, along with other women whose potential menfolk were killed in the First World War, saw the possibility of life beyond hearth and home. Nicky, Carola and Penny all confirmed the family’s social conscience and talked of works it had championed to support those less well off. Elsie, too, had first hand experience of financial difficulties as a child. Later, when housing manager for Octavia Hill, her work with people in poverty clearly fed into this family trait, for she decided that, like her uncle Isambard, she wanted to be a doctor; specifically, someone who helped those with psychological needs. Talking to a group of Soroptimists in Bristol in 1936 Elsie explained that it was her 5 years spent working with Octavia Hill that had taught her how to get in touch with and talk to all kinds of people, especially the sick, and this experience had made her determined to train as a doctor. She told how Octavia Hill had recognised that the only people who could really get to know poorer people were those who visited their houses regularly to collect rent. It was through this Octavia Hill training method that Elsie learned to understand and communicate with people who lived in slum properties, and recognised that “the tenants, as well as the tenements, needed repair.”

To gain a place at medical school in Bristol, where her uncle Sir (Herbert) Isambard was Vice Chancellor, Elsie had to pass all elements of her matriculation exam. No real problem for our bright, determined scholar you’d think? – except that she struggled to pass Latin. It took her two years, and she did it, according to her nephew Owen Reed, by the skin of her teeth. And she was off!!

Although she didn’t complete her training until she was nearly 40, she was the first woman to do so from Bristol medical school – quite an achievement. Not only that, but our tireless founder gained her Diploma in Psychological Medicine three years later (1922) and, having had her epiphany about the healing power of occupation while working as medical officer in the Royal Holloway Sanitorium, Virginia Water, travelled to the USA in 1925 to explore the new profession of occupational therapy. Nothing daunted, Elsie was awarded the prestigious Gaskell Medal in 1927 by the Medico- Psychological Association (now the Royal College of Psychiatrists), only the second woman to have done so.

In 1929, back in Bristol, she established her residential clinic, Dorset House, for women with mental health problems and in 1930 the first school of occupational therapy emerged on these premises. To broadcast her ideas she spoke widely, to Rotary clubs, Soroptimists, at schools, to the Guardianship Society (whose objective was “the care and supervision of mentally and physically defective”) and others, causing one Bristol Rotarian chair to declare that occupational therapy was a “miracle” – and quite right too!

So, in less than 20 years, our indefatigable founder went from mature medical student, who’d struggled to gain entry to her course, to founding a new profession within the clinic she ran. Hard working? Certainly. Visionary? Without doubt. Risk taker and boundary breaker? Absolutely. What a woman!

These threads of her character have not gone unrecognised. In her obituary in the Occupational Therapy journal, 1955, she is remembered for:

… her faith in our healing work that enlivened and enlightened medical opinion regarding occupational therapy, it was her courage and foresight that first established professional training, and it was her determination and perseverance that carried it forward in the face of opposition and indifference.” (Occupational Therapy 1955)

In its work, the Trust carries forward Elsie’s unique achievements. Through its values and strategic intentions the Trust continues her work in building the knowledge and skills of occupational therapists, mainly, but not exclusively in the UK. If you would like to be the beneficiary of Elizabeth Casson’s determination and vision, look here for how you can access funds arising from the foresight of this canny businesswoman.

And finally…

So, this is the image we have of Elizabeth Casson – a woman who was intelligent, determined, visionary, trailblazing.

We have always, as a profession, accompanied this image with this sketch of Elizabeth. But wait! What else did we learn from her great nieces? That this image (left), confirmed by their cousin Janet, who holds the original sketch, isn’t Elsie at all!! It’s of another, older relative! For all these years we have seen Elsie as this rather gentle, elderly lady, but no! The photograph (right) is our Dr Elizabeth Casson.

Side by side

For sources and references, please see below

Keep Reading +


Census Of England & Wales 1921 | (Elizabeth Casson)

Clevedon Mercury Saturday 9th June 1951 OBE for medical pioneer pg 1

College of Occupational Therapists (2004) Elizabeth Casson OBE MD DPM 1881-1954 College of Occupational Therapists Ltd., London

England, Wales & Scotland Census 1901 / (Elizabeth Casson)

Express and Echo (Exeter) Wednesday April 26th 1939 Keeping patients’ minds off their disability pg 4 (Sir Herbert Isambard Owen) › leading-women-1868-2018/ (Elizabeth Garrett Anderson)

https:// › wiki › Positive_Organ_Company (Thomas Casson)

Ritchie, Janet (date not known) Recollections of Elsie The Dr Elizabeth Casson Memorial Lectures Recollections,College of Occupational Therapists pg 223-224

Reed, Owen (date not known) Letter to Lorna Brierley The Dr Elizabeth Casson Memorial Lectures Recollections, College of Occupational Therapists pg ??? – ???

The Stage and Television Today (1969) The Cassons The Stage and Television Today August 28 1969 pg 13

The Westminster Gasette 19th April 1894 Here, There and Everywhere/Dr Herbert Isambard Owen pg 8

Western Daily Press and Bristol Mirror November 14th 1936 Barbara’s Budget  pg 11

Western Daily Press and Bristol Mirror November 8th 1938 Occupation as an aid to recovery pg 7

Western Mail and South Wales news January 1st 1955 Welsh Medical pioneer (obituary)

General Records Office UK – Births, Marriages and Deaths.

Parish Registers – Baptisms, Marriages and Burials.

England and Wales Censuses 1841 – 1911.

England and Wales Register 1939.

England and Wales National Probate Calendars (Wills and Probate) 1858 – 1995.

UK City and County Directories 1600s – 1900s.

UK British Army WW1 Service Records 1914 – 1920.

UK Soldiers Died in the Great War Records 1914 – 1919.

UK British Army Medal Rolls Index Cards 1914 – 1920.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (various editions).

Knights of the Realm and Commonwealth Index.

University of London Student Records 1836 – 1945.

Oxford and Cambridge Universities Alumni (various editions).

British Medical Journal dated 1 Jan 1955.

Wikipedia (various pages).

Man Family Bibliography 1956 (Casson Family Section).

Positive Organ Company Limited Sep 2020.

UK and Ireland Find a Grave (only containing images or verified biographies).

British Newspapers (various editions).


With thanks for conversations with and confirmations by:

Pam Anderson, Executive Officer, Elizabeth Casson Trust

Dinah Casson (great niece)

Dee Christie, Chair, the Elizabeth Casson Trust

Nicky Hessenberg (great niece)

Penny Pocock (great niece)

Janet Ritchie (great niece)

Carolyn Rutland, past Chair, the Elizabeth Casson Trust

Beryl Steeden, formerly a the College of Occupational Therapists

Carola Zogolovitch (great niece)

With thanks for family history searches from:

Malcolm and Suzanne Rowlands

Peter Turner

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Our Values and Commitments

As a Trust, our charitable purpose is to support and advance the profession of Occupational Therapy. We do this by commissioning special projects and research, and funding professional development awards for individuals and teams.

Our values form the foundation for all we do and our commitments articulate the actions we take to demonstrate our living by our values. These are as follows:

  1. We are intentionally inclusive. Inclusivity runs through all of our business structure, developmental and funding intentions.
    1. We are intentionally aware of the need for greater diversity and representation across our work.
    2. We value integrity, openness and transparency.
  2. We embody a pioneering spirit. The unique spirit of Elizabeth Casson is visible and relevant in how we work and engage with others.
    1. We are focussed on sharing the spirit of Elizabeth Casson to create greater visibility, be more courageous and take appropriate risks across our relationships.
    2. We value tenacity, courage and innovation.
  3. A fabric of fairness runs through us. We are fair, balanced and considered in all of our interactions with others.
    1. We are open, honest and considered in how we do business.
    2. We value generosity, sharing and meaningful learning.

Read our 2020-2025 strategic intentions and operational framework.

Application Key Dates

Application Launch
International Scholarships
1st 01 November 2023
2nd 01 November 2024
Conference Award
1st 01 January 2024
2nd 01 September 2024
Masters Level Studies
1st 01 March 2024
2nd 01 August 2024
Doctoral Studies
1st 01 February 2024
2nd 01 July 2024
Courses and Design Own Learning
Open year round
Open year round
Pump-primer Research Award
Open year round
Application Closing
International Scholarships
1st 31 January 2024
2nd 31 January 2025
Conference Award
1st 31 March 2024
2nd 30 November 2024
Masters Level study
1st 31 May 2024
2nd 31 October 2024
Doctoral Studies
1st 30 April 2024
2nd 30 September 2024
Application Outcome
International Scholarships
1st 14 March 2024
2nd 14 March 2025
Conference Awards
1st 15 May 2024
2nd 15 January 2025
Master Level study
1st 14 July 2024
2nd 14 December 2024
Doctoral Studies
1st 14 June 2024
2nd 14 November 2024

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