Over 100 years the RNOH has evolved in response to sequential national crisis and challenges, and the site itself is very complex. Buildings and departments are added and subtracted, land bought and sold. There are labyrinths of passageways and buildings, mysterious short cuts known only to the initiated, where suddenly you discover a relic from the past.
Our search for the 'Grey Lady' navigates through labyrinths of history, from wooden ambulance to heliports and car parks. Because much of the RNOH's history has been overwritten by its many changes, sometimes only fragments remain - on the site, in buildings, and in people's stories and memories.
The search began for those fragments and traces, filming and documenting the RNOH site in response to participants' stories and discoveries.
Behind the trees at the end of the overgrown path is the Zachary Merton Convalescent Home for Children, built on the RNOH Stanmore site in 1933 and no longer in use. Pegleg Productions was contacted by a former patient sharing memories of her stay in Zachary Merton and who remembered stories of the 'Grey Lady' told in her Ward during a stormy night.
Pegleg Productions discovered that there are many 'Grey Lady' ghosts throughout the UK, and they are often associated with hospitals and nurses.
Sarah Paterson, Librarian at the Imperial War Museum in London, says there is a 'Grey Lady' ghost in the Museum - the building was previously the Bethlem Royal Hospital for the Insane, known as Bedlam, purchased in 1936 to house the Museum, which had been founded in 1917 during the First World War.
In "Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History", historian Jay Winter argues that bereavement and the process of mourning was central to people's experience in the aftermath of the First World War. Respected scientists, writers, philosophers and the general public became fascinated by spiritualism, a channel of communication with the fallen, a bridge between science and the longing for spiritual certainty, in the face of so much death and wounding.
So is the 'Grey Lady' a manifestation of the First World War? Like Mary Wardell she remains elusive. There are reports of other manifestations, representing layers and traces of history throughout the site - including presences in the Disability Foundation corridors, initially the dormitories and kitchen for the 'Stanmore Crippled Boys Training College'. For more about 'Grey Lady' phenomena, check out:
There are also reports of Roman soldiers haunting the woods behind the Orthotics department - not far from The Obelisk, which is the RNOH's oldest structure. It is listed by Historic England, who describe it as "18th century obelisk commemorating Cassivellaunus..." who is claimed to have led his tribe, the 'Suellani', in a successful battle against Julius Caesar's Roman army. Mary Wardell named her residence at the Convalescent Home " Sullonicae", commemorating this ancient battle.
After Pegleg Productions launched the 'Grey Lady' project, RNOH Head of Research and Innovation Iva Hauptmannova sent a call out for archive material to all RNOH departments, and exciting treasures were discovered in cupboards, boxes, libraries, and offices - the fragments remaining from over 100 years of change.
In the Medical Imaging Department, a cardboard box was discovered containing a random collection of large format black and white copy negatives in 'glassine' envelopes. These included a negative of the 1914 image of nurses and Belgian soldiers:
It became clear that due to the RNOH's complex evolution from 1883 to the present day, archives have become widely dispersed, sometimes lost, stored offsite in the London Metropolitan archives, or in storage awaiting relocation.
For some time Iva Hauptmannova had been locating dispersed archives and keeping them safe in her office. Iva writes:
"The hospital can trace its history back to 1838 when William John Little (1810 – 1894) founded the Infirmary for the Cure of Club Foot and other Contractions. The hospital opened at No. 6 Bloomsbury Square on the 1st of July 1840. In 1845 the hospital acquired the Queen’s patronage and her permission to be renamed the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital. Following several location moves in 1905 the National Orthopaedic Hospital amalgamated with the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital to create what is today known as the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital (RNOH)..."
Pictured below, Iva displays a recently discovered treasure - the Royal Seal and Charter of Incorporation putting the 'Royal' into the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital:
In the image below, Iva and Senior Clinical Research Nurse Fiona Fitzgerald examine a cuttings scrapbook dating back to before the First World War - another treasure to find a home in Iva's office and a rich source of information about the RNOH:
Amongst these treasures is a shabby brown envelope containing a fragile 'Penny Notebook' titled 'Adventures in a London Hospital', written in pencil by Frank Ruck, a 15 year old boy describing his operation and long stay in Samuel Fielden Ward, in 'a well-known London Hospital' ( the RNOH), Great Portland Street. This treasure is accompanied by his wonderful photographs of the Samuel Fielding Ward.
Frank also drew a detailed map of Samuel Fielden Ward, with every part carefully labelled, including the rocking horse, top right, labelled: "Large cupboard, Rocking horse on top".
In 1966 Frank Ruck sent his notebook and photographs to a Mr Blake, at the London RNOH. At first it was thought Mr Blake was a surgeon, but then Pegleg Productions was contacted by Mr John Blake, who wrote:
"My late father, Sidney Blake, worked at RNOH for 43 years (barring war service in Burma) as assistant treasurer, then 'House Governor and Secretary [to the Board]' as the administrator was then known. His office was in Great Portland Street, with visits as needed to Stanmore."
Frank writes in his letter: "I am very pleased that my young endeavours into journalism have met with your approval..." So Mr Sydney Blake obviously responded sympathetically to this treasured archive, which Frank had kept safe for 61 years. His childhood experiences in the Samuel Fielden Ward were clearly very important to him, and like so many of us as we age and contemplate our mortality, he wanted to share them and ensure their survival. But Frank Ruck's book and photographs very nearly did not survive. Stephanie Williamson, Co-Chair of Architects for Health, tells the story:
"In 2008 I was the Project Manager for the redevelopment of the RNOH Bolsover Street in Central London, which included two tasks: decommissioning and emptying the old 1920s building and developing an art strategy for the new building. The basement of the old building had several locked storerooms that hadn’t been explored in decades- filthy dirty, dusty and damp in places. Frank Ruck’s diary and photographs was a gem of a find in a dirty old envelope...
Much of the material is now in the London Metropolitan Archives. I was very lucky to persuade them to take it because otherwise I had been told to skip it all. I kept some material back because I wanted to commission an artist or graphic designer to engage staff, public and patients in the history of the organisation, recording material for the 'History Wall' at Bolsover Street, which includes Frank Ruck’s diary and photographs. After the original material was loaned to the designer it came back for temporary storage in the Herbert Seddon Teaching Centre at Stanmore..."
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. Frank Ruck's unique and wonderful photographs enable us to look back in time, through the eyes of a 15 year old boy in 1905.
How marvellous that thanks to Mr Sydney Blake, Stephanie Williamson and now Iva Hauptmannova, this treasure has survived 117 years!
DISCOVER MORE AND LISTEN to Frank Ruck's " Adventures in a London Hospital" together with Radio Brockley Award Winning broadcaster Keith Reeve's memories and reflections on his treatment and life in the Adolescent Ward at the RNOH in the late 1960s and into the 1970s:
After the RNOH callout for help with the 'Grey Lady' project, more discoveries and archives begin to arrive. Laura McGuinness, Head of History at Claremont High School Academy, contacted Pegleg Productions to offer her help as a "forever grateful former patient at the RNOH." Laura discovered many fascinating archives, including the 1895 Convalescent Home card and Pamphlet pictured here:
Before Lockdown, Nicola Lane had started working with filmmaker Jan Letocha, the RNOH videographer. They began filming on the top floor of Eastgate House, once designated for Mary Wardell's 'Second Class' patients, as described in the Pamphlet pictured above.
"...the top floor contains the dormitories and bathroom for the second class patients, the matron's bedroom and the linen room, and the dispensary and 'sister's' bedroom."
The ghostly image pictured below was found in the box of old negatives, and appears to be the 'Dispensary' for the 'Second Class' patients on the top floor as described in the 1895 Mary Wardell pamphlet:
Tony Higgins and the resourceful RNOH Estates team helped Nicola Lane and Jan Letocha to locate the site where this photograph was taken: known as the 'Old Operating Theatre', it is sited in Eastgate House's curious 'Octogon' turret. It was difficult to get inside - no one has been there for a very long time.
It is a strange and fascinating room. The view from the window, the central heating system and shelf on the right, are all unchanged from the archive image above.
The 'Octogon' turret can be seen in this 1889 illustration of the Mary Wardell Home, pictured below:
For the next chapter in 'Our Search for the Grey Lady' go to: