Women's Museum of Ireland

The Overend Women

Independent women of the 1900s

(The Overend Archive. Airfield.ie)

Airfield is Dublin’s only working farm and covers 38 acres in Dundrum. It came into being in 1894 when the Overend family moved there from their house in Ely Place. Trevor Overend was a successful Dublin solicitor and with his wife, Lily Butler had two daughters, Letitia born in 1880 and Constance, born in 1894. Unfortunately, not long after the move, baby Constance Overend died of meningitis just before her first birthday. Naomi’s birth must have come as a happy surprise in 1900.

Letitia and Naomi, grew up as part of a large loving extended family of Butler and Overend relatives. Airfield acted as a central point for both families and it was here that many family gatherings and celebrations took place.

Lily was the driving force behind the farm at Airfield, building up the famous Dromartin Jersey Herd and supplying produce to local creameries and traders. It was Lily who instilled in her daughters a sense of duty and altruism, encouraging them from an early age to raise money for children less fortunate than themselves. In 1909 Lily helped found a special branch of the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) called The Children’s League of Pity in Dundrum. Naomi was encouraged to contribute to this cause when at age eight she hosted her first garden party – a fancy dress event where children paid to attend and take part in the various activities.

Charitable work

Lily remained active in charities supporting better health for women and children all her life, perhaps as result of having experienced the grief of losing her own baby daughter. In 1908 the Women’s National Health Association set up Dublin’s first pasteurised milk depot. Naomi was encouraged to join in the work by her mother, taking over as president of the Dundrum and Ballinteer District Nursing Association in 1962 when Lily retired. The Jubilee Nurses, the pioneers of today’s state district nursing service, operated country-wide so “that women belonging to all classes and to all creeds be united in the one aim of promoting the public health of the community.” By the 1940s there were over one hundred branches of the Association all over Ireland, employing 258 Jubilee Nurses. The main objective of the Association was educating people in the care and prevention of tuberculosis, but it also reached people in need, through ‘Baby Clubs’, schools and homes of the sick and pregnant women, in every district.

WW1 changed the lives of many families including the Overends with friends and family seeing active service. As the casualties grew all over Europe, women responded in great numbers contributing to the war effort by collecting sphagnum moss from the bogs of Ireland to use in dressings bound for the front. The Overend women contributed in many different ways. Lilly was busy, in the Dundrum District of the War Hospital Supply Depot, gathering clothes, cigarettes and material for bandages for the front.

Letitia worked tirelessly as a St. John Ambulance Brigade volunteer at the central depot. Her work involved packing and ensuring the bales of supplies arrived at the war front undamaged. Records show that she contributed more hours to the cause than any of her co-volunteers often walking back to Dundrum after a long-day’s work. She was offered an OBE from the King in recognition of her work. She refused, on the grounds that, “it would be impossible that everyone who did good work during the War can be recognised.”

Letitia’s involvement with SJAB continued throughout her life bringing out all her organisational skills, her ability get on with people and to make good friends and her sense of fun. She was awarded their highest honour becoming Dame Justice of the Order of St. John and in 1961 she proudly accepted an Honorary Doctorate from Trinity College in recognition of her public services.

Sunshine Home

Dr Ella Webb came into contact with the Overend women in the 1920s. Here they, along with many other willing volunteers, worked to alleviate the deprivation and suffering of children, mainly through poverty in the city slums. The Children’s Sunshine Home was founded in 1923 as a response to the high infant mortality rates and great numbers of children being permanently disabled in city slums from the disease of rickets. A suitable site was found near Stillorgan in the hills of Dublin. Aided by seed capital of £5,000 donated by Letitia Overend in March 1925, the Sunshine Home admitted its first twenty junior patients.

The home was open to children from six months to five years of age suffering from rickets. They came from all over Ireland and were admitted on a non-sectarian basis. A diet high in vitamin D and as much light as it was possible to endure on the open verandas of the wooden building were administered until the sufferers were cured. An ultra-violet lamp provided ‘sun’ in the dark winter days. Garments for the children were made by members of the St. John Ambulance Brigade. The Overends’ tireless fundraising, through the difficult economic post-war climate, can be seen through documents in the archive, many from grateful parents. This drive was necessary to keep up with demand for services and equipment that was all privately funded.

The love of cars and travelling

The three Overend women were enthusiastic drivers and their cars can still be seen in Airfield today. They were famous figures all over Dublin thanks to their cars, in particular Letitia’s Rolls Royce which she described as ‘the perfect travelling companion’. The love affair with cars began in 1903 when Letitia attended the Irish motorcar rally. Naomi was also a keen motorist and in 1936 she was given a present of an Austin Tickford which she kept all her life. Both women attended a course at the Rolls Royce School of Instruction in London, although it was Letitia who really enjoyed carrying out basic maintenance on her own car and often changed the oil and spark plugs and stripped and cleaned the engine. They were both members of various vintage motoring clubs and loved to travel around Ireland entering rallies and to socialise at the Automobile Club in Dawson Street. The ability to drive from an early age gave each sister the freedom to be independent and travel the length and breadth of Ireland.

Throughout their lives both women were prolific travellers and visited a number of countries and continents. They particularly enjoyed cruises and their first holiday of this nature was a family trip to the Mediterranean in 1928. Both sisters spent weeks or months away visiting Europe, India, America and Australia and together they toured northern Europe/Scandinavia several times favouring Norway and Denmark. Naomi was an excellent skier and annually went to Austria with friends until she was into her early 60s. Letitia took part in a world tour with the British Medical Association in 1935. Their travels are extensively documented in their archive through their own photographs and even some recently discovered film footage. While on a skiing holiday, Naomi witnessed and documented the Nazis marching into Austria. Being independently wealthy gave the sisters great freedom not only to devote themselves to their various charitable causes but to personal fulfilment and enjoyment. Their spirit lives on in the charitable trust they set up in their home Airfield that, due to their foresight, continues to be a place of education and recreation, an oasis of nature in the city.

Bernadette Larkin