When Wilfred met Wilfred

Nuno Torres recounts that Wilfred Trotter and Wilfred Bion “met around 1927 when Bion did his medical internship at University College Hospital having won the Gold Medal in Surgery, and being one of Trotter’s attendant dressers (Bion, 1985).” Bion qualified in medicine by means of the Conjoint Diploma (MRCS England, LRCP London) in 1930.

Ronald Britton writes in The W R Bion Tradition (2015):

“…Bion was influenced by his tutor, the philosopher H J Paton…However, I think the most influential figure in his intellectual development was someone he met when….he did his medical training at University College Hospital. Wilfred Trotter by this time, around 1930, was celebrated as a surgeon and pioneer in neurosurgery. As a young man in 1908 and 1909 he had written two of the earliest papers on group psychology…The clear influence of these on Bion’s ideas on groups is evident…there must be an additional component to establish the identity of things that seem constantly conjoined; this was previously called God by Descartes or Berkeley, but Bion says, “(it) is none other than a social component, Vox populi, vox dei, of the instinctual equipment” (Bion, 1992)…

…Even the celebrated phrase “learning from experience”, which becomes one of his book titles, is borrowed from Trotter…

…It is as if (Bion) prioritised Trotter’s teachings as a primer of his own personal apprenticeship…not one gleaned from publications shared with other readers…

…Bion’s description of basic assumptions in groups was clearly influenced by Trotter who also insisted that altruism is instinctual in man as a herd animal and is not as other psychologists, such as Lester Ward (1903), had suggested derived from enlightened self interest. Trotter’s view chimes perfectly with the centrality of depressive anxiety, guilt, and reparation in Klein’s theorising whereas in Freud it is – as it was for the American psychologists of the time – secondary to self regard. Freud was incredulous at the Christian doctrine of “love thy neighbor as thyself”, whereas Trotter, Klein, and Bion saw it as natural, like Auden, who used the term Agape for this as opposed to Eros.”.

Kay M Souter has highlighted in her writing Bion’s ability to represent the absolute necessity of the presence of another mind for psychic survival, and his sensitivity to the significance of everyday personal contact.


Shown: silver coin of Naples from beginning of 4th Century BC, with head of Parthenope

Wilfred Bion wrote in All My Sins Remembered (1991) about raising his baby daughter as a widower:


It was the name that Betty and I had decided should be the child’s if it were a girl. Immediately after the event I wanted the name to be her mother’s; then, that the name which had been born in the last agreed action of our life together should stand. “Illo Vergilium me tempore dulcis alebat Parthenope…”* All that I had to do was to equal Virgil to fulfil any part of the contract – another certain failure, but that one I could not mind!”.

*This sphragis from the closing lines of Virgil’s Georgics 4 (c29 BC) is analysed by Professor Andrew Laird:

“The utterance of line 563, (“At that time it was me, Virgil, sweet Parthenope was nursing”) represents a point at which the distinction between Virgil the poet and anyone else reciting these lines would become very pronounced.”.

On the Napoli unplugged site, Bonnie Alberts writes that, according to legend, Parthenope and her Siren sisters lived in the Tyrrhenian Sea. They haunted the shores of Campania, using their voices as weapons of seduction that lured unsuspecting sailors to their deaths. With the exception of Orpheus, who drowned out the Sirens’ song with the sound of his lyre, only Odysseus evaded the trap, by plugging his ears with beeswax. Parthenope drowned herself in despair, and her body was washed up on the shore of Megaride.

The Greek presence expanding into Southern Italy in the 8th and 7th Centuries BC included a small settlement on the tiny island of Megaride. They named it Parthenope in honour of the Siren whose tomb they believed had been venerated there.

By the 5th Century BC, the Greeks had built a new city, Neapolis, and Parthenope came to be known as the old city, Paleopolis – though Neapolitans still refer to themselves on occasion as Partenopeans.

“O Cuckoo! shall I call thee Bird,/Or but a wandering Voice?” William Wordsworth

Above: James Gillray’s 1802 caricature of Jenner vaccinating patients (verb from vacca, Latin for cow, because of early use of cowpox virus against smallpox).

I am staying in Alveston, South Gloucestershire, which lies in the Vale of Berkeley, between the River Severn and the Cotswold Edge, north of Bristol and south of Gloucester. Alveston is one of the villages surrounding the towns of Thornbury (my ultimate destination), Cam, Dursley, Wotton under Edge, and, seven miles away, Berkeley.

Berkeley was the birthplace in 1749 of Edward Jenner, son of the local vicar. He came to be known as “the father of immunology”, and in 1821 was appointed physician extraordinary to King George IV. Berkeley was his home town when he died, early in 1823.

(The website for the Baylor University Medical Center carries a paper by Stefan Riedel entitled “Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination”.)

From the age of fourteen, Edward was apprenticed to Daniel Ludlow, an eminent surgeon, in Chipping Sodbury. In 1770, he became apprenticed in surgery and anatomy as house pupil under surgeon John Hunter and others at St George’s Hospital, London. Hunter gave Jenner William Harvey’s advice, well known in medical circles and characteristic of the Age of Enlightenment: “Don’t think; try.”.

In 1772, Edward returned to Berkeley, spending most of the rest of his career as a doctor in his native town. With others, he formed the Fleece Medical Society, meeting in the parlour of the Fleece Inn, Rodborough, to dine together and read papers on medical subjects. Edward belonged to a similar society which met in Alveston.

Edward was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1788, following his publication of a careful study (in England during 1786-7) of the previously misunderstood life of the nested cuckoo (Cuculus canorus). He explained how the newly hatched cuckoo pushed its host’s eggs and fledgling chicks out of the nest – contrary to existing belief that the adult cuckoo did it. Having observed this behaviour, Jenner demonstrated an anatomical adaptation for it: the baby cuckoo has a depression in its back, not present after twelve days of life, that enables it to cup eggs and other chicks. The adult does not remain long enough in the area to perform this task.

An article published as late as 1892 claimed that the “absurdity” of Jenner’s account had been demonstrated in 1836 by the naturalist Charles Waterton. A few years earlier Charles Creighton (1847-1927), the epidemiologist and medical historian, whose intense opposition to vaccination led him to denigrate Jenner in every conceivable way, had described his paper on the cuckoo as mainly “a tissue of inconsistencies and absurdities”.

Jenner’s understanding of the cuckoo’s behaviour was not entirely believed until the artist Jemima Blackburn (1823-1909), a keen observer of bird life, saw a blind nestling pushing out a host’s egg. Her description and illustration of this, originally in a popular narrative for children called “The Pipits” (1871), were enough to convince Charles Darwin to revise the examples of innate behaviour in the 6th edition of “On the Origin of Species”.

Wilfred Bion (1897-1979)

Pictured: Wilfred with his sister in 1903

Wilfred was born in Muttra in the Punjab (now Muthara, Uttar Pradesh), a province that became a British colony in 1847. Like Samuel Beckett, Wilfred’s father, Frederick Fleetwood Bion, was of Huguenot descent. He was a successful civil engineer, and part time secretary to the Indian Congress, and married to Rhoda Salter Kemp. She was supported in caring for their son and his sister, Edna, by an Indian ayah, to whom the children were close. When he was eight, Wilfred was sent away to school in England – a pattern seen in earlier posts about Rudyard Kipling, P G Wodehouse, William Beveridge…

Wilfred Bion’s daughter was to write:

“Bion certainly absorbed a very great amount of Indian culture, much more than most…precisely because of the work that his father did – he was a civil engineer who built some of the first railways in India and very long irrigation canals (1,600 – 1,700 kilometres) whose plotted course, like the railways, often passed through uninhabited areas…

…So the family followed the construction site and moved month by month, as the construction site moved; practically a small European nucleus and a very large number of Indians…A colleague from Bombay told me he heard Bion speaking in the last year of his life, giving a lecture in which he spoke about the Bhagavad Gita: speaking about sacred texts he had a very strong English accent, but when he quoted even a phrase of Hindustani he had no accent; so there was certainly a level, a stratification that had become entirely unconscious, of an Indo European language that had been completely forgotten.”.

Wilfred Bion wrote in The Long Week-End 1897-1919 Part of a Life (1982):

“Poor little green hill; why hadn’t it got a city wall?…

…I went into this question thoroughly – and others like “Is golden syrup really gold?” – with my mother, and later with my father, but without being satisfied by either. I concluded that my mother didn’t really know; though she tried very hard she seemed as puzzled as I was. It was more complicated with my father; he would start but seemed to tire when I did not understand the explanation. The climax came when I asked my question about golden syrup for the “hundredth time”. He was very angry. “Wow!” said my sister appreciatively.

Later, when I wanted to know what “persona non grata” meant, I kept it and similar problems to myself. I developed a sixth sense about the “hundredth time” long before I learnt enough mathematics to count up to one hundred. Even then I seemed to have established such a gulf between applied and pure mathematics that I could not satisfy myself – then or now – of the connection between one hundred and “the hundredth time”.

Wilfred Bion (1897 – 1979) Part I

Pictured: Bion as father of the bride in Los Angeles, 1968

My post of 23/2/19 mentioned Powell and Pressburger’s 1944 film A Canterbury Tale, described by Xan Brooks as “a thing of such fragile, broken glory…(whose)…rambling detours lead to the richest, wildest rabbit holes of all.”. Its stars included Sheila Sim, who married fellow actor Richard Attenborough in January 1945.

Sim’s character, Alison, who has been assigned Land Girl duties in wartime, is subject to an attack by the “Glue Man” when she arrives in the local village. On the farm, she finds that another of the girls there, Fee Baker, was similarly assaulted. Fee, whose boyfriend is away at war, tells Alison that she wouldn’t go out dancing again with a soldier (which was the cause of her being out in the blackout) for a hundred pounds. Fee comments:

“Do ya think his family like me goin’ out with strange soldiers? But a girl must live.”.

Fee Baker was played by Elizabeth Kittrick “Betty” Jardine (born 1903).

Wilfred Ruprecht Bion, DSO, was born under the British Raj in 1897. He served as a tank commander in the First World War. At some time in the late 1920s, Bion was briefly engaged before his fiancée became attached to another man.

Following the war, Bion studied History, then Medicine (with a view to becoming a psychoanalyst), before spending seven years in psychotherapeutic training at the Tavistock Clinic. Despite considering in retrospect that this experience had its limitations, he valued the fruitful contact it brought him with Samuel Beckett, who was in analysis with Bion from early 1934 to late 1935.

In 1938 Bion began a training analysis with John Rickman, prematurely terminated by the outbreak of the Second World War.

Bion recorded in summer 1939:

“So I could go for two or three weeks to Church Farm, Happisburgh, in Norfolk, with a party of friends including actor John Glyn Jones and actress Betty Jardine. That at least was a success: Glyn Jones was extremely amusing; Betty Jardine, whom I had seen in The Corn is Green as Bessy Watty and also at the Players Theatre, was not so amusing, nor as attractive as I had expected, but was likeable. She was obviously a very fine actress.”

In 1940, Bion was recommissioned as a lieutenant in the RAMC. His duties took him to Northfield Military Hospital, where his pioneering work in group dynamics led ultimately to the publication in 1961 of his Experiences in Groups. This was quickly to become a touchstone work for applications of group theory in a wide variety of fields.

Wilfred and Betty married in 1943, and she conceived the following year. Bion was in Normandy when Betty gave birth to a baby girl on 28th February, 1945. Three days later, Betty died from a pulmonary embolism. It took a week to locate Bion and break the news to him.

Railway children

Edith (Nesbit) and Hubert Bland moved to Lee in the last quarter of 1884. Edith was regarded locally as neglectful for letting her children run wild in the streets to exercise their freedom. Elisabeth Galvin writes:

“The Bland children loved playing along that stretch of railway line between Grove Park and Hither Green. They seemed to have got up to all sorts of adventures that would later inspire their mother to include in her novels, such as taking off their stockings and shoes and putting on their shabbiest clothes to sell posies they’d made from flowers in the garden to unsuspecting locals at the station.”.

In Chapter III of The Railway Children (1906), Mother warns her children not to walk on the railway line, leading to some discussion of the matter:

“….Bobbie understood a little how people do not leave off running to their mothers when they are in trouble even when they are grown up, and she thought she knew a little what it must be to be sad, and have no mother to run to any more…

…”Trains keep to the left like carriages,” said Peter, “so if we keep to the right, we’re bound to see them coming.”

“Very well,” said Mother, and I dare say you think that she ought not to have said it. But she remembered about when she was a little girl herself, and she did say it – and neither her own children nor you nor any other children in the world could ever understand exactly what it cost her to do it…”.

Noel Griffith, with whom, while she was married, Edith had a “fairytale romance” before he entered a marriage of his own, wrote:

“The old feeling that it was The Blands who had largely moulded my outlook on life never for a moment left me. And of course that inquisitive tolerance has been passed on to my children.

One’s outlook was completely changed by such a contact.”.

“And is there honey still for tea?”*

*Closing line of Rupert Brooke’s The Old Vicarage, Grantchester (1912)

The painting shown is Frederick George Cotman’s One of the Family (1880)

Mother to Phyllis in E Nesbit’s The Railway Children (1906):

“Jam or butter, dear – not jam and butter. We can’t afford that sort of reckless luxury nowadays.”

Raby, Peter: Samuel Butler (1991):

“One day she saw me eating bread and butter and honey. Brought up as she was during the early days of Dr Butler’s married life, while he was still poor, no doubt she had been allowed bread and honey or bread and butter, but not bread and butter and honey. Such extravagance alarmed her, and she said that it was not heard of in her youth, neither among the young people whom she knew, nor yet, as far as she could gather, in any class of society.

“Why, my dear,” she said, “don’t you remember, “The Queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey”; she was not eating bread and butter and honey.”

To which I, being I suppose then about 14 or 15, replied that the Bible expressly enjoined us to eat butter with our honey.

“Butter and honey,” it said, “shalt thou eat.”

Whereon she dropped the subject.”


My post of 8/12/18 mentioned that, in February 1886, the writer E Nesbit gave birth to a stillborn child, and that her housekeeping friend Alice Hoatson came to look after her.

I notice now that Chapter X of The Story of the Amulet (1906) opens with this line:

“A great City swept away by the sea, a beautiful country devastated by an active volcano – these are not the sort of things you see every day of the week.”

Later in the same chapter:

“Oh,” said the learned gentleman, “this is a good dream. I wish the child might stay in the dream.”

In Chapter VIII:

” “Where’s my priceless woven basket of sacred rushes?” asked the Psammead morosely. “I can’t go out with nothing on. And I won’t, what’s more.”

And then everybody remembered with pain that the bass bag had, in the hurry of departure from Babylon, not been remembered.”

Alice Hoatson left her own account:

“E never forgave (the doctor) for the loss of her baby…

This baby I prepared for burial and E had made me promise to bring (the baby) to her while Hubert was digging the grave in the garden. I had got a long fish basket and dressed the poor mite, laid her in it and put flowers all around…then I took her to E. She had promised to let me take her away in a quarter of an hour. By that time I ought to have known the worth of her promises! Well I didn’t. For one hour and a half I struggled to get (the baby) from her while Hubert came to know what had happened to keep me. At last she let him take (the baby); he looked so wretched he could not hide his misery.”

Dr Richard Horton, Editor in Chief of The Lancet, wrote in the issue of 16/4/2011:

“The grief of a stillbirth is unlike any other form of grief…”.

William Logsdail: “Bank and the Royal Exchange” (1887)

William Logsdail first left Britain in 1879 in order to train at the Academie Royale des Beaux Arts in Antwerp, under the guidance of Charles Verlat. Under Verlat’s tutelage, his work evolved to depict the lives of ordinary people who are struggling to make a living. He also learned in Antwerp a technique of making an impressionistic block like appearance, using a square ended brush and palette knife.

In 1887, when Logsdail had returned from his first sojourn in Venice, and before he had met Mary Ann Ashman, daughter of a Norfolk shepherd, he lived and worked at one of the Primrose Hill studios among the growing art community there. He embarked on a series showing busy street scenes with landmark buildings.

These speculatively built artist’s studio houses were built in 1877-82. The courtyard around which the houses were built inspired a camaraderie reflecting the egalitarian art worker ideal promoted by Ruskin and Morris. Amongst the first tenants were John William Waterhouse at No 3, who was to become a lifelong friend of William Logsdail, and Esther Kenworthy, the noted flower painter who married Waterhouse. Esther’s parents were artistic schoolteachers in Ealing, and the wedding took place at the parish church there (architect Sir George Gilbert Scott).

Waterhouse also befriended Joseph Wolf (1820-99), the greatest naturalist painter and illustrator of his generation, and another founding resident of the Primrose Hill community, who had lived at No 2 from the 1870s.

In the picture shown above:

Waterhouse is shown in the front row of an omnibus

Wolf features in the second row, reading a newspaper, and wearing a grey suit and black top hat

The prominent Victorian artists Tom Lloyd and Lance Calkin appear on the top of the bus in the lower right foreground

“An Early Victorian” (1906) by William Logsdail

In 1890, Logsdail left London for the warmth of the French Riviera, to alleviate his ailments. By the time he had returned in January 1892, his health recovered, he had produced a series of sixty nine small landscapes. In London he was introduced to Mary (May) Ashman:

“…there was something uncommonly attractive about her that made me ask her if she would care to see my studio…She arrived in a whiff of snow…after her walk from Hampstead.”. May became his model and, in the month of May that year, his wife.

Very soon thereafter, the couple moved to Venice, where they lived until 1900 in the Palazzo Contarini. Their first child, Mary, was born in 1894, and Edward William appeared in 1896.

At the turn of the century, William and May decided to return to England so that their children could be educated there. Meaning to stay a short time in Taormina, they lingered for two years, Logsdail producing fifty two paintings.

Their children enrolled at the Froebel Educational Institute, West Kensington, Logsdail began planning a new series of paintings of English cathedrals. He also painted individual portraits of his wife and children.

To his surprise, the portrait of his daughter Mary, shown above, was proclaimed “The Picture of the Year” after being shown at the annual Royal Academy exhibition in 1907. Another surprise to William and May that year was the arrival of a third child, Stuart.

From that year forward, Logsdail concentrated primarily on portraiture (in 1912, he was invited to join the Royal Society of Portrait Painters):

“….no more rising at dawn, no more searching for models and paying them for their services, no more out in the open at the mercy of all weathers with all the difficulties of complicated subjects, no more doubt as to the sale of my work when done.”.

In 1922, Logsdail moved his family to the village of Noke, just north of Oxford, which would be his home until he died in 1944. Edward, who was a test pilot for the RAF, was to die in a plane crash in 1923.

Mary married in 1926, and Stuart in 1932.