w h r rivers 1893, rivers the healer



It is not easy to write a biography that does Rivers justice. As Slobodin points out, the ‘varied…shape of his career.. that he had no chance to draw together the diverse strands’ and the fact that he was an intensely private man has left us with a somewhat unusual record. In some periods of his life, there is so little known that it is unclear what to say, at others, the doctor appears to have been involved in so many activities at once, that it is difficult to know which to recount in priority to another, let alone fit them all in. Slobodin describes Rivers as an enigma, a pivotal figure in the development of not only Psychology and Psychiatry but in Physiology, Anthropology, and Ethnography as sciences. Much of what we know of him relates only to his work and the few insights into his non-college personae can be glimpsed in the papers of others such as Arthur Hocart who worked with him, or in the memoirs of his sister Katharine


On a cold rainy night in March 1864, near Chatham Hill in Kent a first child was born to Elizabeth and the Rev Henry Rivers The boy was duly Christened in a ceremony conducted by his own father, and named William, as per the family tradition of naming each eldest son. His middle names, Halse and Rivers, have caused biographers some puzzlement over the years, particularly because they could not find any evidence for the use of Halse in either side of the family, though with a little research the explanations are not difficult to find.

Luton Area of Kent Where Rivers was Born

Luton Area of Kent Where Rivers was Born

The surname repeated as a Christian name is another a habit of the Rivers family – two previous incumbents fought on HMS Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar, a father and son; the father a famous gunnery captain whose notes on naval artillery were well known: the son, a midshipman who, aged 17, sustained a serious leg wound himself at the battle, resulting in partial amputation of that limb. A bust in commemoration of his service was given to Greenwich College, London (http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/63987.html )  Legend purports that he did not utter a sound as the operation was performed, (and that Henry frequently cited this fact when trying to instill his own strict notions of manliness into his own sons. Pat Barker, in her ‘Regeneration’ series, goes as far as to suggest this may have been the cause of a number of William’s later emotional problems) It is, also, from their Naval service we might discover an explanation for ‘Halse’ ; William’s brother, born in 1865, was Christened ‘Charles Hay’ and the ‘Hay’ is said to derive from either an officer who served with the Trafalgar Rivers, or a place close to where they set sail from in Portsmouth. ‘Halse’ therefore may have a similar history.

Bust of Gunner William Rivers

Bust of Lt William Rivers. 1788-1856 who lost part of his leg at Trafalgar

The family, expanding over the next decade by the arrival of Ethel Marion (1867) and Katharine Elizabeth (1871), lived in the Medway area of Kent. The siblings seem to have enjoyed a relatively idealistic childhood. In ‘Memoirs of the Rivers family’ Katharine recorded boating, exploring local woods and fields, and relaxing in the evening whilst the adults played croquet on the lawn. They had many guests since Henry worked part-time as a speech therapist as well as an Anglican priest, and often his ‘patients’ would lodge with them. One of his daughter’s favourites was the creator of ‘Mathematical Croquet’, Rev Charles Dodgeson, who became better known as the author Lewis Carroll.  He suffered from a stammer and unfortunately, whilst his impression of Katharine was favourable, his reaction to her brothers was seriously lacking ; a pity since William, had also stammered badly since infancy, had been something of an embarrassment to his father, who rather treated him as a case needing correction, not a son to be supported (S. Monteith, Critical Perspectives on Pat Barker, p124)  and could well have done with role model. Whether caused by the frightening vision of his ancestor’s fate on the Victory, or something else, the boy’s stammer was ‘paralytic’ which meant he actually got ‘stuck’ upon attempting to say certain letter combinations – similarly afflicted, Dodgeson could have been a great comfort  and inspiration to the youngster but instead he rejected him, because, apparently, he ‘hated boys’. (K. Rivers, published 1976)


The stammer was not the only problem William faced from an early age – whatever the incident was that brought it on also robbed him of his ‘visual memory.’ He could picture well the lower floors of the house he’d been brought up in until around five years old, but not the upper floor or, indeed, and thing else after that age unless he had a fever. It appears that something he had seen or experienced on that upper floor so scared him that he not only blotted it out but his mind’s ability to create images, alongside. Rivers never mentioned discovering the actual event but speculated that it could have been something that would seem trivial to an adult, yet extremely disturbing to a young child who felt forbidden by his father’s strictures to show distress. Growing up shy and perhaps under-confident, particularly in emotional expression, he understood from boyhood what it was like to try to keep reactions suppressed


These problems did not stunt his academic progress. From the age of thirteen, he and Charles attended Tonbridge Wells School as day boys. Both brothers are noted in school magazines of the era for their achievements; William, studying a year ahead of his age, gained prizes for all-round attainment and Classics and his report mentioned a curious enquiring mind’ whilst Charles was also rewarded for good work. The girls were educated at home and, although there is no detailed record of what they were taught, Katharine, in her writing appears articulate and well-read. Unlike many girls of their day, their education had not been sacrificed for the sake of their brothers’.

Charles, William, unknown seated woman, Katharine Rivers in Jena

Charles, William, unknown seated woman, Katharine Rivers in Jena

In the final year of his time at Tonbridge, Rivers decided that he would like to go to Cambridge University, like his Father and Grandfathers, and perhaps study the Classics or some kind of science. It would be interesting to know which particular college he had in mind; Trinity, like them or another?  Sadly, before he could take the scholarship exam which would fund his place, William became ill, probably with typhoid, and was obliged to relinquish the opportunity.

Recovery took a long time, almost a year of convalescing at home and with family in Brighton, and the illness left him with a condition something akin to what we now call M.E… It did not, however, destroy all his hopes for further study.


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