Fringe Box



Parke’s People No.14: Florence Desmond

Published on: 9 Mar, 2013
Updated on: 31 Mar, 2013

In the latest of an occasional series about people who have a connection with Guildford in one way or another, Bernard Parke recalls Florence Desmond, stage and screen entertainer and a prominent fundraiser in the 1960s for the Betatron radiotherapy machine at St Luke’s Hospital.

Florence Desmond – actor, singer, comedian and impersonator.

Florence Desmond – actor, singer, comedian and impersonator.

There must be many people who visit The Florence Desmond Day Hospital, the unit at the Royal Surrey that specialises in care for the elderly, and wonder what the name stands for.

Florence Desmond dominated the world of entertainment during the first half of the last century and her memory is particularly precious to the people of Guildford.

She was born Florence Dawson in 1905 in the London borough of Islington. She rose in her profession, staring with such artists as George Formby and Gracie Fields, plying her talent of impersonating many of the well known actresses of that period.

She went on to star in many films such as Sally in Our Alley (1931) with Gracie fields, the latter who was said to be the greatest name in show business of stage and screen at that time. 

Florence’s first husband Tom Black, was killed in an air accident in 1936. Although she was grief stricken, she married Charles Hughesdon the following year, settling down at Dunsborough Park in Ripley.

Her talents were not just restricted to her profession. In later years, during the 1960s, in a period of semi-retirement she won the affection of the people of Guildford when she took up the challenge of raising money for the installation of the Betatron radiotherapy machine at St Luke’s Hospital.

Made in Switzerland, the Betatron was then the latest appliance designed to treat primary malignant cancer.

As chairman of the Betatron Trust appeal, she alone helped raised more than £9,000 of a total of £200,000 needed for its purchase and installation. A staggering sum indeed in those days

Her fundraising included writing to her many friends an admirers – not only here in the UK, but from around the world.

The appeal reached its climax with a royal gala performance held on the stage of Guildford’s Odeon cinema.

Princess Alexandra and her husband Angus Ogilvie, the president of the appeal, were present among a galaxy of stars including Vera Lynn and Max Bygraves. While TV personality David Jacobs, was the compere.


Dunsborough Park House at Ripley.

Dunsborough Park House at Ripley.

This moment of celebration was overshadow not long after by a rather violent burglary at Florence’s home, Dunsborough Park. The three men who broke in were armed with hands guns, but at their trial said that they believed the house was be empty. Unfortunately it was not, and Florence was subjected to a terrible ordeal.

The men were found guilty and sentenced, and the stolen goods were retrieved, but such a trauma must have had considerable side effects on Florence.

This talented star faded from our lives with her death in Guildford in 1993, but her cherished memory still lives on. True stars such as her are rare indeed these days.

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Responses to Parke’s People No.14: Florence Desmond

  1. Roger Kent Reply

    December 31, 2014 at 9:03 am

    I have an affection for the 1920s and 30s even though I was born in 1952.

    Florence Desmond was apparently a brilliant mimic of the stars of the 1930s.

    She starred opposite George Formby in the film No Limit in 1935. This film gives us an insight to her character and warmth. but with the limitations of the script does not do full justice to her well documented talents.

    It is incidentally a very entertaining film, with the rare quality, for the time, of being filmed for the large part on location on the Isle of Man.

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