In Episode 4: Adventures in a London Hospital we hear the remarkable and rare account of life in a children's hospital ward from a child's point of view, written in 1905 by 15 year old Frank Ruck, who describes his operation and long stay in Samuel Fielden Ward, the Children's Ward for boys in 'a well-known London Hospital' (the RNOH) in Great Portland Street:
This unique testimony was first discovered in 2008 by Stephanie Williamson, when she was Project Manager for the redevelopment of the RNOH Bolsover Street in Central London.
The basement of the old building had several locked storerooms that hadn’t been explored in decades and in a dirty old envelope she discovered Frank Ruck’s diary, carefully written in pencil in a fragile 'Penny Notebook' and accompanied by Frank's wonderful photographs documenting his Ward, his fellow patients and the Nurses.
Frank also drew a detailed map of Samuel Fielden Ward, with every part carefully labelled, including the rocking horse, pictured below top right, labelled: "Large cupboard, Rocking horse on top":
A number of these archives and objects were subsequently transferred to Stanmore, where they remained in another dusty cupboard until 2019, when RNOH Head of Research and Innovation Iva Hauptmannova re-discovered Frank Ruck's treasures inside a cardboard box. READ MORE here:
Let us explore these unique and beautiful photographs that magically illustrate Frank's vanished world of 1905...
The two boys stare at Frank as he photographs them. The "Large cupboard, Rocking horse on top" is there on the right, as described in his map of the Ward, obscured by the potted palm that is a feature of Victorian hospital wards.
The vases of flowers suggest it is Visiting Day - in this Episode you hear Frank's description of the Ward being filled with flowers on special days. The boys in their cots are also posing for Frank - and is the Nurse encouraging the little patient in the cot by the fireplace (Cot 9 in the map) to respond to Frank's camera?
The plaque above the cot identifies a benefactor. In Episode 1: "The Triumph of Miss Mary Wardell" an article from The Western Times about the opening of Mary Wardell's Convalescent Home in 1884 describes how these benefactors were commemorated:
"...In one room to be devoted to children I saw a little cot filled with lovely white Flowers and ferns, and on it was an illuminated announcement that this cot was endowed by a certain lady in memory of “Ethel”, her only child, who died from the effects of scarlet fever…"
Books, toys, ornaments and pictures would also be presented by benefactors. Pictured below is a Noah's Ark on the mantlepiece:
"Noah’s Ark toy sets were incredibly popular in the Victorian era for well-to-do families. These sets were usually made as ‘cottage industry’ family enterprises in Germany. Instead of large factories making toys, individual families would produce full sets or even just one type of animal...Historically these Biblical toy sets would usually be used only on Sundays, the same day as church services. Sometimes they would be the only toys allowed to be used on that day!"
The hanging tablets by the cots could be patient information, inscribed with the names of Surgeons.
The pictures on the walls of Samuel Fielden Ward are all reproductions of religious paintings. On the right of 'Nurse Storey' is a reproduction of a Madonna and Child ceramic relief by Florentine artist Andrea della Robbia. Above the Noah's Ark is the 'Granduca Madonna' by Raphael, from the Palazzo Pitti in Florence.
Pictured below is another view of the Ward, and features Frank's favourite, who he describes as a "dear little chap" who is "petted by all the nurses and getting very spoiled..." and who has had his foot amputated. The name of the Surgeon on the tablet propped up on the mantlepiece can be deciphered as Mr Muirhead Little, and in 'Plarr's Lives of the Fellows' on the Royal College of Surgeon's website, we learn he specialised in amputations. In the First World War Mr Muirhead Little acted as surgeon to Queen Mary's Auxiliary Hospital at Roehampton, where wounded ex-servicemen were fitted with artificial limbs.
"...Muirhead Little lived to see orthopaedic surgery rise from a small and somewhat neglected branch of medicine to a well recognised position, held in high esteem both socially and professionally... When he began his professional life three small hospitals were devoted to orthopaedic surgery, the Royal, the National, and the City. Their funds were low and they were not well conducted. Under pressure from the King's Hospital Fund they were amalgamated in 1905, and the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital was opened in Great Portland Street in 1909. The staff was carefully selected and the hospital was conducted on modern lines..."
Above the fireplace is another reproduction of ceramic reliefs by Florentine artist Della Robbia, and it reveals a fascinating story.
The picture is a reproduction of the 'Bambini', ceramic reliefs of babies in swaddling clothes by Andrea della Robbia, created around 1463 for the exterior of the Florentine 'Ospedale dei Innocenti' - the 'Hospital of the Innocents', which for over 500 years provided care for abandoned and orphaned infants & children in Florence. It is thought to be the oldest continuously operating children’s care institution in the world.
The Innocenti building was commissioned in 1419 and designed by Brunelleschi, considered by many to be the most important architect of the Renaissance. It represented a completely new concept in hospital design, based on the grand architecture of a 'palazzo', rather than a utilitarian public institution.
Pictured below a detail of one of the 'Bambini':
The images of Della Robbia's 'Bambini' in Samuel Fielden Ward reflect the charitable status and intentions of the Great Portland Street RNOH - a 'Voluntary Hospital' with free treatment for the poor, and dependent on donations, endowments and charity for survival, as was Mary Wardell's Convalescent Home For Scarlet Fever.
The city of Florence with its beautiful architecture, galleries and works of art was a popular destination for the affluent British in the late Nineteenth Century, and the benefactor who donated these pictures must have been part of that cultural tourism.
Many Nineteenth Century founders of hospitals and Public Health reformers were ambitious for their hospitals, believing that fine architecture and beauty were an important part of the healing process. Many adopted the style of Della Robbia 'roundels' for architectural art works, possibly including the RNOH plaque on the front gate at Stanmore:
In his 'Adventures in a London Hospital' Frank vividly describes his operation at the Great Portland Street RNOH, and pictured below is a photograph of the actual Operating Theatre, from the collection of Derek Sayers:
The lived experience of children like Frank Ruck, long-stay patients undergoing orthopaedic procedures, is an important part of the history of the RNOH, then and now.
Radio Brockley's Award Winning broadcaster Keith Reeve was himself a child patient at the RNOH in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, and in this episode he reflects on Frank Ruck's 'Adventures in a London Hospital' by sharing his own memories of scoliosis treatment and life in the Adolescent Ward at the RNOH. As Keith says, although there are many differences, there are also many similarities.
RNOH patient and musician Paul Gregory reads Frank Ruck's adventures, Keith Reeve shares his memories, and Iva Hauptmannova shares her reflections on discovering the archives.
Click on the images below for more details:
Pegleg Productions warmly thanks the Radio Brockley team, the RNOH, and all those who generously volunteered to take part.
Cast in order of performance:
Narrators: Keith Reeve and Iva Hauptmannova
Frank Ruck: Paul Gregory
Sound Design:Louis Morand https://www.louismorandsound.com/
"I Cannot Sing the Old Songs"/ 1905 / Richard Jose
"The Children's Corner" by Claude Debussy / performed 1913 by Debussy himself, transcribed from old piano wax cylinder rolls.
"Episode 4: Adventures in a London Hospital" is available to listen or download on the Radio Brockley website: