"The future is a door, the past is the key."
Victor Hugo, 1802-1885
The search for the 'Grey Lady' began at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, Stanmore, in June 2019.
When Covid 19 struck, access to archives, explorations of the site and filming had to end. Pegleg Productions is now working on the audio only, podcast version of Searching for the Grey Lady: A Ghost From WW1' at the RNOH - a detailed narrative composed of contemporary accounts in newspapers and archives performed and read by RNOH staff, clinicians, volunteers and patients both past and present.
But before the completion and launch of the Podcast, Pegleg Productions wants to share some of the stories, histories and discoveries from our search for the 'Grey Lady'.
The timeline of our search begins with the founding of the hospital in Stanmore in 1883 and follows its evolution through the First World War, its aftermath and legacy up until 1920. But the aftermath can be seen to spill over into the 1920s and the 1930s, and our search ends when the Stanmore 'Crippled Boys Training College', now the Orthotics Department, opens in 1937.The starting point for the project's researches is a 1914 photograph showing nurses and wounded Belgian soldiers posed outside what is now Eastgate House, the building that once housed the 'Mary Wardell Convalescent Home for Scarlet Fever' and now housing the admin offices of the RNOH. In the image above, RNOH Head of Comms Tony Higgins demonstrates where the photo was taken.
In the centre of the group is a blackboard, and we can decipher "...souvenir de notre séjour a l'Hospital Mary Wardell à Stanmore Angleterre.." and "Guerre Européenne 1914" - translated as "...a memory of our stay at the Mary Wardell Hospital...European War 1914."
Then "Les Inséparables Carabinieres" - the "Inseparable Riflemen", followed by the signatures of the men - which are difficult to decipher.
We know Mary Wardell purchased the Stanmore site in 1883 to establish 'The Mary Wardell Convalescent Home for Scarlet Fever', and that in the First World War it was 're-purposed' as an Auxillary Military Hospital in response to casualties, like so many hospitals and big houses of the time.
Is Mary Wardell the ‘Grey Lady’? It has been suggested that she is the woman standing in the centre of the 1914 photograph.
But Mary Wardell died in 1917 aged 86, and the woman in the photograph is clearly not in her eighties - and could be the Hospital Matron.And who is Mary Wardell? It has been difficult to find out - but a few facts gradually emerge from newspaper and online archives. She has private means, she works with the London poor, and lives with her older sister Margaret in Belsize Park.
In the early 1880s she begins her 'Great Work' - to establish a convalescent home for Scarlet Fever in response to the epidemics of infectious diseases that ravage the population, which she witnesses during her philanthropic work in the East End of London. She is supported in this by Mrs. Gladstone, wife of the Prime Minister, and by many eminent medical men.
Mary Wardell's important supporters form a Committee and one of the most important is Sir Joseph Fayrer, pictured below. He gives the address at the opening of the Convalescent Home by the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1884, and Mary Wardell names all the rooms in the Home after members of her Committee.
Out of all the eminent Committee members, Sir Joseph is particularly emblematic of Britain's Medical profession and the British Empire in the late Nineteenth Century. He spends over 45 years in the Indian Medical Service, and becomes an expert on snake venom and cholera epidemics. In 1885 he represents the Indian Government at the fourth International Conference on Cholera, a fore-runner of the World Health Organization. He has Royal Patronage, which also helps Mary Wardell's cause.
There are many photographs and portraits of these eminent men, but as yet no photograph of Mary Wardell has been discovered. Perhaps she is present in this early photo of Eastgate House, in a blurry little group outside on a sunny day:
Articles, letters to newspapers, appeals and fundraising events document in great detail Mary Wardell pulling every string she can, as she struggles to pay off the Convalescent Home debts and keep donations coming in. In 1891 she moves from her house in Belsize to the Convalescent Home, and then at some point, probably due to ill health, moves to Ramsgate and dies there in 1917. In her Will she asks to be buried in St Lawrence's Church, Little Stanmore, and requests that no special fuss be made...
On a boiling hot day in 2019 Nicola Lane searched for Mary Wardell's grave in the churchyard of St Lawrence's, but did not find it. Where is she? The Parish Records are now stored in the London Metropolitan archives and are currently inaccessible due to Covid 19.
Nicola Lane writes:
"I first heard about the RNOH's 'Grey Lady' ghost from the receptionist at the Prosthetic Rehabilitation Unit (PRU) where I have been a patient since moving to NW London in 1988.
Over 100 years the RNOH has evolved in response to sequential national crisis and challenges, and the site itself is very complex.
I was told to meet someone in 'Old Coxon Ward', and I asked a passing physiotherapist in the PRU if she knew how to get there. She stood still, closed her eyes, then said - "I'm sorry, I know where it is, but I don't know how to describe how to get there!"
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."
The search for the 'Grey Lady' navigates through labyrinths of history, from wooden ambulance to heliports and car parks, all within a landscape that was chosen by Mary Wardell in 1883 for its "beautiful and breezy situation" and much loved today by patients and all who work at the hospital.
Pegleg Productions has 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 - presences in the Disability Foundation corridors, initially the dormitories and kitchen for the 'Stanmore Crippled Boys Training College' and then accommodation for Student Nurses.
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.
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.
Nicola Lane started working with filmmaker Jan Letocha, who has worked on many RNOH projects. Filming began in the top floor of Eastgate House, once designated for 'Second Class' patients at Mary Wardell's Convalescent Home for Scarlet Fever:
After the RNOH call out for help with the History podcast, 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 has discovered many fascinating archives, including the 1895 Convalescent Home Pamphlet and card pictured above.
RNOH clinicians, staff, volunteers and patients past and present, revealed and recovered many treasures. Pictured below is Tony Higgins with Derek Sayers' excellent 2015 publication, "A Pictorial History of the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital".
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.
Pegleg Productions is fortunate to have the expertise of RNOH Head of Research and Innovation Iva Hauptmannova, who for some time has 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:
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:
RNOH Rehabilitation Consultant Dr Sedki kindly allowed Pegleg Productions the use of an office at the PRU on Friday afternoons. The scanner is set up and the search for the Grey Lady begins.
After Pegleg Productions launched the 'Grey Lady' project, Iva 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 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:
In October 2019 at the Herbert Seddon Teaching Centre, Imperial War Museum Librarian Sarah Paterson presented an illustrated talk for the 'Grey Lady' project, which looked at the development of different nursing organisations in the First World War, revealing how profoundly it changed the status and profession of nursing.
Pictured above is a photograph of a Nurses' sitting room probably taken soon after the Wardell Hospital was sold in 1920 - and probably very little changed since Mary Wardell's time.
In Mary Wardell's letters and newspaper articles about the Convalescent Home for Scarlet Fever there are frequent references to the difficulty of finding nurses who have already had Scarlet Fever, and the problems with retaining 'Sisters'.
Archives in the Royal College of Nursing and elsewhere document in great detail the experiences of nurses in the First World War, and reveal that many nurses had trained both at the Mary Wardell Convalescent Home for Scarlet Fever and the Wardell Auxiliary Military Hospital. One of these nurses is Anastasia (or Anastatia) Cooney, discovered by Laura McGuinness. In 'The Framing of Harry Gleeson', by Kieron Fagan, (Gill & Macmillan 2015) she is described as:
"..an unmarried and formidable woman... Anastasia had driven a battlefield ambulance during the First World War. She trained at the Mary Wardell Hospital in Stanmore, north of London, before being sent overseas..."
Laura discovered that Anastasia's time as an ambulance driver could be either with the Women's Legion or the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. But after searching the National Archives she discovered that most records were destroyed in WWII during the Blitz, and Anastasia's had not survived. But Laura found her Service Card in the VAD Archives:
There is no picture of Anastasia Cooney driving her ambulance, but here is Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker in their motor ambulance in the ruins of Pervyse,1917, on the Belgian Front Line north of Ypres, where they organised a first aid post for most of the War. These two women were Front Line celebrities and feature in many photographs:
This brings us back to the 1914 photograph of the wounded Belgian soldiers at the Mary Wardell Hospital. The Belgian Front Line and the ancient town of Ypres were gassed, bombed and almost totally obliterated. (Today Ypres maintains a close association with Hiroshima, promoting peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons.)
The Belgian population and army, and "Les Inséparables Carabinieres" in our 1914 photograph, were the first to experience the devastation that would characterise the First World War, as they resisted the German invasion of their neutral country in 1914.
Pictured below a postcard commemorating "Les Carabinieres" with their gun carriages pulled by dogs. "The Riflemen machine-gunning the outposts..." in Sempst, a village in Belgium in 1914:
In “Our Belgian Guests - Refugees in Brent, 1914-1919" By M.C. Barrès-Baker, a fascinating account compiled from Brent archives, it is noted that:
"...between late August of 1914 and May 1915, 250,000 Belgian refugees arrived in Britain, the largest influx of political refugees in British history.
Helping Belgian refugees was a significant part of local people‟s contribution to the war effort and was managed by local authorities:
"On 28th October 1914, Chairman Diaz of Kingsbury Urban District Council reported that “he had formed a local committee for the purpose of looking after the interests in our district of Belgian Refugees”. Altogether there were 2,500 such committees throughout Britain..."
As stated in 'Our Belgian Guests', the Belgian refugees are almost entirely forgotten, and barely mentioned in social histories of the First World War. But a number of fascinating Centenary projects are re-discovering their story:
On October 31st 1914, the 'Uxbridge & West Drayton Gazette' reports that the Mary Wardell Convalescent Home is now a hospital for wounded Belgian soldiers, with upwards of 50 Belgian patients being treated there. It is possible that our 1914 photograph records that moment.
In the 'Glasgow Daily Record' of August 25th 1915 we see this photograph:
The caption reads:
"The 'Trench Band' give a performance at a party at the Mary Wardell Hospital, Stanmore, given by the British soldier inmates to a number of wounded Belgian soldiers who are under the care of the Wounded Allies Relief committee. The performers are using the home-made instruments with which they formerly amused their comrades in the trenches."
So it appears that by 1915 wounded British soldiers have also arrived in the Mary Wardell Hospital. Details are very difficult to find, but for the duration of the War there are newspaper articles and references to soldiers convalescing in the Hospital.
Laura McGuiness discovered a moving account of the Stanmore community welcoming back a popular local doctor when he returns from the Front Line in France in 1916. Pictured below is a recent discovery by Laura of a soldiers' tea party at the 'Mary Wardell Hospital', from The Wigton Advertiser, Saturday, September 4, 1915:
In early 1918 discharged disabled soldiers were also housed at the Mary Wardell Hospital, and there are newspaper reports that the wounded soldiers find Brockley Hill very difficult and inaccessible and that a bench would be helpful...
In February 2020, at the RNOH Herbert Seddon Centre as part of the 'Grey Lady' project, Dr Julie Anderson, Reader in History at the University of Kent, explored the legacy of the over 41,000 British servicemen who lost limbs, together with Dr. Imad Sedki, RNOH Consultant in Rehabilitation Medicine, who presented his perspective on contemporary prosthetics and rehabilitation:
The unprecedented numbers of amputee ex servicemen in the First World War is a huge challenge for the UK and its Allies, and the provision of today's prosthetics and orthotics has evolved from the challenges of their rehabilitation.
Nicola Lane writes:
"From 1968 to 1988 I was a patient at Roehampton Limb Fitting Centre, as it was then known. I have now discovered that it was initially established by another determined woman like Mary Wardell - Mrs Gwynne Holford, who after a visit to a military hospital in 1915 vowed:
"...I will work for one object, and that is to start a hospital whereby all those who had the misfortune to lose a limb in this terrible war, could be fitted with the most perfect artificial limbs human science could devise.”
The original 'Roehampton House' had been requisitioned in the First World War as a billet for soldiers, and then became Queen Mary's Hospital for the rehabilitation of wounded soldiers 'who had the misfortune to lose a limb'.
In the photograph below from the IWM archives, we see the workshops at Queen Mary's Hospital for the re-training and rehabilitation of amputee ex servicemen, and one of the ex servicemen possibly being trained in the fabrication of artificial limbs:
Watch this incredible footage from the archives of the Imperial War Museum, a film on the work of the Army rehabilitation centre at Roehampton in the autumn of 1917, titled Repairing War's Ravages. It is a silent film and mysteriously titled in Spanish, but it is stunning, important documentation of these men and the systems of re-training being devised to mitigate the devastation of the First World War.
Throughout the UK different charitable initiatives provide re-training and rehabilitation for the wounded ex servicemen. Historian Julie Anderson identified the example of 'The Chailey Heritage Craft School and Hospital for Crippled Children' in Sussex. In the First World War it became a Convalescent Home for wounded soldiers called the Princess Louise Military Orthopaedic Hospital:
"Servicemen who had lost limbs in the conflict were sent to Chailey Heritage Craft School, set up in 1903 to provide a home and education for children with disabilities, to learn from the youngsters how to overcome their injuries.
At the school, an ‘educative convalescence’ programme allowed soldiers and children to learn and play together through activities such as agriculture, toy making, painting, music and sports.
The youngsters even built their own wooden huts, which they moved into to allow their original building, a former workhouse, to be used as a hospital for the wounded soldiers."
Pegleg Productions was contacted by Jane Robinson, a Member of the Friends of St Paul's Cathedral, who has been researching the 'First World War Altar Frontal' given to St Paul's Cathedral in 1919. Jane shared this cutting:
" Queen Alexandra …visited the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Great Portland Street and inspected a number of pieces of embroidery work which have been done by wounded soldiers under the tuition of Lady Mary Dormer, whose father, the Earl of Denbigh, is chairman of the hospital. On screens were many examples of embroidery...The Surgeons have expressed their sense of the value of the work in helping the men to regain the use of their hands and fingers. The Royal Orthopaedic Hospital was the first to be selected for the special treatment of soldiers with bad wounds of the arms and legs, and since early in 1915, three thousand cases have passed through..."
Pictured below one of the found negatives titled 'Rehabilitation Hand Exercises after Operative Treatment' - including the action of weaving, in the bottom row middle pane:
Jane told Pegleg Productions that there is a Memorial Book that goes with the Altar Frontal which lists the names of the ex servicemen cared for at the RNOH who contributed embroidery for the panels. Pegleg Productions hopes to recover those names.
Pegleg Productions is grateful to Jane Robinson for sharing this story, which illustrates many aspects of researching the First World War and its wounded soldiers - the absence of records, the narratives and people lost in time. During her researches she found no direct 'paper trail' of archives relating to the First World War at the RNOH.
The participating soldiers were from all over the Commonwealth. Check out this account of a Canadian soldier's contribution:
The Altar Frontal was presumed to be destroyed in the Blitz, then re-discovered in storage.
Archives relating to the founding of Mary Wardell's Convalescent Home and its evolution into a Military Hospital in the First World War are very sparse, and the Hospital's historical narrative is fragmented.
More fragments of the story arrived in Iva's office in a box donated by Derek Sayers and labelled 'R.N.O.H. Photographic Archival Collection'. Inside were many wonderful images.
Pictured below are photographs taken after Mary Wardell has died and the First World War has ended. In 1920 The Wardell Hospital is sold and becomes the 'Country Branch' of the RNOH. The excellent 'Lost Hospitals of London' website states that the Committee of Management of the RNOH in Great Portland Street bought the Hospital for £4,000:
"... after undertaking to provide convalescent treatment in accordance with a trust set up by Miss Wardell. A 23-acre field next to the garden was purchased for £1,635."
These beautiful photographs are likely to be publicity images taken to promote the 'Country Branch'.
The photograph above is heavily re-touched, but after High Resolution scanning superb detail is revealed. We can see the 'Treatment Hut', or 'hutment', donated to the 'Country Branch' by Queen Mary's Hospital in 1922.
These huts, which Nicola Lane remembers from her time at Roehampton, were used throughout the First World War, as they could be quickly assembled in response to need.
Just as Mary Wardell chose the site for its fresh air to enable recovery from infectious disease, the RNOH 'Country Branch' promotes the healing effects of 'Dr Sun' and 'open air treatment', preventing "Nine or ten thousand deaths a year from Surgical Tuberculosis".
RNOH scrapbook: Daily Chronicle, October 22nd 1922:
"...among the trees and flowers of an old-fashioned garden, numbers of London's little cripples were lying yesterday on rugs or in cots, winning health and strength from the sunlight..."
These scenes in the 'old-fashioned garden' give us a glimpse into the hospital grounds of Mary Wardell's Convalescent Home and the Military Hospital. The planting was almost certainly created during Mary Wardell's era. In her letters and fundraising publicity for the Convalescent Home she makes many references to the importance of the gardens for the well-being of the patients, and raising funds to pay for two gardeners to maintain them.
RNOH scrapbook: 'The Tatler', April 16th, 1924:
"Here the creative rays of the sun are combined with the skills of surgeons and nurses..."
The ghostly image pictured below was found in the box of old negatives, and shows the operating theatre possibly installed in the Mary Wardell Hospital after the inauguration of the 'Country Branch'. At the time it was stressed that the 'Country Branch' was a fully functioning hospital with an Operating Theatre, and not just a Convalescent Home.
Tony Higgins and the resourceful RNOH Estates team helped Nicola Lane and Jan Letocha to locate the 'Old Operating Theatre', 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. It is possible this room was the 'Dispensary' for the 'Second Class' top floor patients as described in the 1895 Mary Wardell pamphlet.
Iva Hauptmannova discovers a fragile notebook: 'Adventures in a London Hospital', written in pencil in a 'Penny Notebook' by Frank Ruck, a 15 year old boy who describes his operation and long stay in 'a well-known London Hospital' ( the RNOH) in Great Portland Street:
"You must also know that I was put in the children’s ward known as “The Samuel Fielding Ward”, and it was full of “kiddies”. I was the oldest, the youngest four months old."
Frank also drew a detailed map of Samuel Fielding Ward, with every part carefully labelled, including the rocking horse, top right, labelled: "Large cupboard, Rocking horse on top". This treasure is accompanied by his wonderful photographs:
Frank Ruck sent his notebook and photographs to an Orthopaedic Surgeon at the London RNOH in 1966, when he was 75.
"The operation I had in 1905 enabled me to walk well enough to have 16 years on the stage and even now at 75 I still entertain in character studies..."
In the image above, Nurse Fiona Fitzgerald holds Frank Ruck's photograph of her 1905 colleague. On the back is written 'Nurse Cross' - her mood, or her name? It looks as if it is taken on the balcony outside the Ward, mentioned by Frank Ruck in his account. This was the only access the children had to fresh air, and an important reason for establishing a 'Country Branch'.
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.
We will share his whole story in the Podcast, but meanwhile here are some of his marvellous photographs of Samuel Fielding Ward. We look back in time, through the eyes of a 15 year old boy in 1905.
Pictured below is another archival treasure - the Annual Report of the City Orthopaedic Hospital: "For the Gratuitous Surgical Treatment of the Absolute Poor only. Principally Prostrate Crippled Children."
The 'Lost Hospitals of London' website states that The City Orthopaedic finances deteriorated badly and so they reluctantly merged with the RNOH in 1906. Read the fascinating story here:
'Voluntary' hospitals like the City Orthopaedic, for 'the Absolute Poor Only', had been established in the Nineteenth Century throughout the UK, and like Mary Wardell's Convalescent Home relied on donations, endowments and charity for their survival.
A cutting from the Scrapbook describes Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, attending a fundraising dinner for the new RNOH Country Branch in 1923 :
"I am most anxious to develop this hospital at Brockley. (cheers) As you know it is right in the country. It has a garden, trees, pigs, chickens, and all the things which must spell fairyland to poor children from a great city..."
Prince Henry goes on to say:
"...and when we consider that at the same time they are being transformed from helpless cripples into strong, self reliant citizens of our Empire, the worthiness of our object is overwhelming..."
The terminology of the past is very different to today, and in the dictionary the word 'cripple' is defined as 'dated, offensive' - and it is considered offensive by many people. According to a graph tracking its use over time, use of the word peaks between 1900 and 1920.
Artist and disability activist Tony Heaton OBE is a former patient at the RNOH and his work has often explored the perception of disabled people as invisible and 'other'. Here he reflects on the 'cripple' word:
"The C word is an opportunity to think and for disabled people, us cripples, it’s an opportunity to explore. In previous explorations I have written:
Raspberry Ripple…is rhyming slang for Cripple, we cripples resurrect it in Crip culture and Crip humour, it’s ours to own.
Words do oppress, words like Cripple and Queer.
Like the N word, forbidden, and is thus imbued with its own power.
Cripples do pop up throughout art history too. LS Lowry, who would probably self-define as disabled if he were alive today, painted ‘The Cripples’ in 1949. It’s a powerful work, and it has been suggested he portrayed himself at the centre of the composition, perhaps associating himself with them, the different, the outsider. His friend, sceptical of this gathering of cripples, took Lowry on a short drive across Manchester in which, to his friend’s surprise, they counted over a hundred visibly disabled children, women and men.
The painting has been described as ‘…this motley collection of unfortunates, painted large and with an unflinching eye for detail, is tough…’
Suggesting perhaps that we become somehow invisible, too hard to contemplate.
Lowry’s subjects from between the two World Wars were no doubt returning veteran victims of the terrible conflicts, but there would also be those bearing the impairments of disease and ill-health brought on by poverty, malnourishment and harsh working conditions.
Seventy five years ago, not long after Lowry painted 'The Cripples', Sir William Beveridge in his radical report that pre-empted the birth of the Welfare State, cited the five giants needing eradication as Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.
Sadly they are still present in society, as are we cripples, and whilst we would want to eradicate the five giants, we can be sure that disabled people will always be present."
The financial challenges faced by Hospitals is ever present and dominates every stage of the evolution of the RNOH, beginning with Mary Wardell's Convalescent Home, then appeals for the Wardell Auxiliary Military Hospital, and finally the RNOH 'Country Branch'.
In the cutting pictured below, Chairman of the RNOH, the Earl of Denbigh, writes an article titled: 'Hard Times for Hospitals. Right and Wrong Methods of Meeting Present Temporary Crisis', where he argues for retaining the Voluntary system:
"...Under any State or Municipal system the management and medical staff in every Hospital would have to be paid, and in addition there would be the cost of management and supervision by some central Government Department."
The year is 1927, and Britain is struggling to recover from the First World War. There is Recession and Mass Unemployment, and the Earl of Denbigh acknowledges these are 'bad times for most people' but insists this is 'temporary'. He is being optimistic. The Great Depression is just 2 years away.
Nearly 10 years have passed since the First World War ended, but the challenges of providing rehabilitation and retraining for the wounded ex servicemen remain.
Here is a 1928 cutting from the Scrapbook, with an article describing a party hosted by Sir Trevor and Lady Dawson in Elstree, with "little guests" from the RNOH and "...a party of wounded soldiers from Queen Mary's Hospital, Roehampton, arriving for the party."
The Garden Party's host is Sir Trevor Dawson, and he is a very important person. He is the Chairman of 'armaments giant' Vickers, from 1906 to 1931. He was going to be made a Lord but was removed from the New Year Honours List in 1917, probably because of 'the unpopularity of the armaments companies' according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
The arrival of the truck with its wounded soldiers could be experienced as a reassuring message of recovery and renewal after the First World War. They are no longer wearing the 'hospital blues' that identified them as war wounded and they are back in the world rehabilitated and ready to be 'self-reliant citizens'.
One man on the top left appears to be an upper limb amputee. Presumably the other men are amputees who have been issued with their 'appliances' at Queen Mary's Roehampton. That would also be a reassuring message in 1928 - that the 'wounded soldiers' had been successfully rehabilitated.
Perhaps the 'Duraluinin" as advertised by Vickers in the image above, was used in their prosthetic limbs. The material was used in aviation, and in the old Catalogue of Appliances, discovered in the RNOH Orthotics Department, it is identified as an important innovation in the fabrication of prosthetics.
After the First World War, rehabilitation continues to evolve at the RNOH, at the intersection of rehabilitation, education, and training for work.
The 1978 Warnock Report identifies the first steps taken in the late Nineteenth Century to provide 'rudimentary' education and training for disabled children:
"The first separate educational provision for physically handicapped children was made in 1851, when the Cripples Home and Industrial School for Girls was founded at Marylebone. A training Home for Crippled Boys followed at Kensington in 1865. Both institutions set out to teach a trade, and education as such was rudimentary. The children came mainly from poor homes and contributed to their own support by making goods for sale..."
Warnock Report (1978) Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Handicapped Children and Young People
'The Home for Crippled Boys in Kensington' becomes an important part of the evolution of the RNOH. The 'Uxbridge and West Drayton Gazette' reports in 1934 on the AGM of the RNOH at Great Portland Street, with Mr Louis Fleischman as Chairman of the Committee. He emphasises the need for a Training School for 'cripples':
"...the arrangements would provide for training cripples whose deformities were not susceptible to complete cure, in trades at which they might be able to earn an independent living. It was obviously desirable that such a school should be in immediate proximity to a fully equipped Orthopaedic hospital"
Another cutting reports the progress of the scheme:
The Times, 1935:
"...Arrangements had been completed with the board of the Wright's Lane Home for Training Crippled Boys for the amalgamation of the Home with the work of the hospital...a smaller block for paying patients should be provided...it was anticipated that the training centre would be self supporting after the first few months..."
The phrase "...it was anticipated that the training centre would be self supporting after the first few months..." is a familiar one. Mary Wardell's Committee had urged her to include 'first class" paying patients to enable the financial survival of her Convalescent Home. So the same model is proposed for the financial viability of the Stanmore 'Crippled Boys Training College', but in neither case did it prove to be a successful strategy.
The Wrights Lane National Industrial Home for Crippled Boys had been negotiating for the transfer since the 1920s, as it was in financial difficulties. It can be seen in the image above, where the words 'Crippled Boys' can just be made out on the right hand side of the building.
Pictured below is a drawing of the proposed Training College at Stanmore with treatment block and dormitories that were eventually named after Louis Fleischmann. This was a significantly more 'progressive' design than the Wright's Lane Industrial Home. It was designed to be accessible, with light and air and green spaces.
The historical context of this moment is worth considering. Hitler is in power in Germany, and in 1936 the Olympic Games are hosted in Berlin, showcasing Nazi ideology as personified in the ideal 'Aryan' body.
The following year in Stanmore, the Earl of Stanhope, President of the Board of Education, opens the 'Crippled Boys Training College' - the culmination of many years of hard work by Louis Fleischmann.
In the recently discovered 'Photographic Archival Collection' box are a number of photographs of the Training College:
Pictured below a wall of wooden shoe lasts:
The caption on the photographs reads:
"The 'Cripples' Training School moved to the west end of the hospital in 1936 from Kensington. Some of these chaps stayed all their working lives in the hospital. "Mac" McKensie can be seen just to the right of the boy standing in the centre. He retired and sadly died just a few years ago. Boots are still made in the hospital in the same area - now called Orthotics Dept."
In the summer of 2019 Nicola Lane and Jan Letocha began to film and document the Orthotics Department, with its workshop space designed for the 'Crippled Boys':
Pictured below is a foot operated, cast iron ('Made in England') hole punch, which leaves both hands free - a resilient relic of the Industrial Revolution which is in daily use in the Orthotics workshops. It could have migrated either from the Wrights Lane Industrial Home, or the old RNOH workshops in Great Portland Street.
The computer in the background illustrates the synergy between different technologies, which frequently occurs in workshops - both are in daily use.
Not long before Pegleg Productions started filming, the hole punch pictured above fractured, for the first time in its very long history. Because it was so useful to the Workshop's workflow, a search began for another one. But there was nothing out there - even on the internet, with its vast resources of vintage machines for sale. Eventually just one was discovered, in another workshop- but no way would that workshop Manager let it go.
Below is one of several anvils. We were told there used to be a fully functioning forge in the Workshops:
Orthotics Production Manager Chris Trueman shared a number of archive treasures, including the Price List pamphlet pictured above, dated 1936 - Stanmore Cripples Workshops - Surgical Instruments & Appliances and Surgical Boots.
There is also a promotional magazine from Shell Oil, possibly from the early 1970s, which contains a feature article by Tim Kenny about the Workshops' use of plastics in Orthotics and Prosthetics, and a clue to the Workshops' link with the First World War - Mr. William Tuck, then Manager of the Orthopaedic Appliances Department at the RNOH.
The article describes how as a child Mr Tuck was was treated for a 'foot deformity', and for many years wore surgical boots and a leg support, and that:
"The tragedies of the 1914-18 War taught him the skills he uses..."
Mr.Tuck's portrait was another find in the box of old negatives - a spectral black and white presence. He has become invisible, but once he was featured as an important member of the RNOH hierarchy:
We do not know the back story to Mr. Tuck, how it was that the First World War taught him his skills.
Jane Robinson's discovery that the Great Portland Street RNOH was the first hospital to treat soldiers with 'bad arm and leg injuries' suggests that some wounded ex servicemen might have been employed in their Workshops. A former employee remembers:
"The Surgical Appliances Department (pre-Prosthetics Unit) had a large workshop...The workshop took up all of the basement area and employed several disabled (prosthetic-wearing) men who made the prostheses... I think Mr William Tuck was the person in charge of the department..."
In a RNOH fund-raising film made around the late 1920s or early 1930s, and recently re-discovered in a dusty box, there is a reference to the 'wounded ex servicemen' employed in the RNOH Great Portland Street workshops. Perhaps Mr. Tuck had been a child patient, and was then inspired to learn his skills from these men.
(Be prepared for lots of 'dated, offensive' language in the film.)
From 'Buttercup Time" at 2.47:
"Look at the makers, fitting splints! Instruments and boots are made in the Workshops, by wounded ex servicemen, who have been taught this difficult and useful work..."
Below is the scan of another treasure found in Orthotics: "This book belongs to J. Hall" - a well-used catalogue of 'Orthopaedic Apparatus and Appliances' by A. E. Evans and Son from 1935, makers to many institutions and charities as well as to the War Office and Ministry of Pensions, the providers of Appliances to ex servicemen. It is likely this catalogue came from the RNOH Great Portland Street workshops.
"Following the formation of the Ministry of Pensions in 1917, discussions took place to decide which and how appliances should be supplied to disabled war pensioners by the state and the Lord Kitchener Memorial Fund..."
Here we come back to Sir Trevor Dawson and Vickers' 'Duraluinin', now described as 'Duralumin', which is much easier to say:
"Fig.113: Illustration of Metal Limb for above knee amputation, noted for lightness, durability, and comfort. An important feature of this limb is that the whole of the lower section is made out of one piece of Duralumin..."
During a visit to the Orthotics Department by Nicola Lane, Iva Hauptmannova and Science Museum curator Stewart Emmens, another box of treasures is discovered - a wooden box filled with tools.
In the detail below we can see that it is one of the boxes containing the tools for learning their trades.
Someone remarked that the tools 'smelled of slave labour'. But it is also a very important object in the history of disabled people, and it can also be argued that the box and its tools represent the transmission of skills and knowledge.
To further explore legacies of rehabilitation and re-training, Pegleg Productions interviewed Simon Cox of the RNOH Medical Physics Department. After a serious accident, his treatment, rehabilitation and Occupational Therapy at the RNOH enabled Simon to develop his engineering skills. He now provides essential skills and problem solving for Medical Physics, including the often overlooked but crucial element in the provision of medical devices, appliances and machines - repair.
'Old' technology is often perceived as redundant and totally superseded by new technology. But it is a 'ghost in the machine', existing alongside and in dialogue with modern technology. Legacies of the First World War are present in the skills and materials still used in today's Prosthetics and Orthotics.
Plaster is still an essential material in Orthopaedics.
Yet again, the First World War has left an enduring legacy through the pioneering and innovative work of artist Anne Acheson, another of the 'hidden histories' uncovered during our search for the 'Grey Lady'.
Anne trained as a sculptor, which in those days included rigorous training in anatomy. In 1915 she volunteered for the Surgical Requisites Association (SRA), set up to supply surgical dressings for wounded soldiers. She witnessed soldiers coming back from the Front with broken limbs held together with wooden splints:
"...Armed with an expert knowledge of the human anatomy gained from her sculpting experience, Anne invented the first anatomically accurate splints which allowed soldiers with broken bones to heal faster. Constructed initially from papier mâché made from sugar bags, and later Plaster of Paris, Acheson’s splints were comfortable, lightweight and cost-effective. Moulded around the injury of an individual, the custom-made splints also ensured that bones were held in the correct position to properly heal."
The Wellcome Collection image below is labelled as 'Women manufacturing prosthetic limbs'. Nicola Lane suggests it could actually be a representation of women in the SRA, utilising or being trained in the new techniques for making splints:
Opposite the RNOH Orthotics department is a theatre. It was once the 'Louis Fleischmann Concert Hall', and it is now where the British Orthopaedic Association (https://www.boa.ac.uk/ ) hold Plaster Casting Courses.
In the 'History of the BOA' we see that yet again the First World War is the source:
"On 1 February 1918, a temporary Executive Committee met and a formal proposal to form the Association was agreed. The Inaugural Meeting of the Association was held on 2 February 1918 at Queen Mary’s Convalescent Auxiliary Hospital in Roehampton...The First World War further stimulated the growth of Orthopaedic Surgery..."
3 years after the opening of the Crippled Boys Training College, Louis Fleischmann addresses the RNOH Committee at the AGM in June 1939, as for the second time in living memory the UK prepares for War:
The Times, 23rd June, 1939:
DEFECIT OF OVER £7,000
"...Legacies and donations were down to £6,000. Expenses were higher in most departments, and during the crisis in September the Hospital had to evacuate a considerable number of patients... The workshop at Great Portland Street had been transferred to the Training College at Stanmore, and the number of trainees had been increased to 112. The training college was not self supporting yet, and unless the hospital could get an increase in the contribution from the authorities it would be difficult to make both ends meet...
"...For the moment it had to be constantly borne in mind how best to adapt themselves to the requirements, in case of an emergency, of the Ministry of Health. The plan at present is to evacuate patients at Great Portland Street, which, like most London hospitals, would be used as a casualty-clearing hospital. Cases which could not be sent home would be transferred to Stanmore or elsewhere, but Stanmore would be principally a base hospital. It was hoped that all the preparations that had to be made would not be an additional burden on the hospital finances..."
The Training College was closed throughout the Second World War, opened briefly in 1946, then closed permanently in 1948.
Thanks to Derek Sayers and Keith Reeve, pictured below is a rediscovered group photograph of the 'Stanmore Cripples Training College', illustrating the residential nature of the School, with its many staff.
It is possibly taken in 1948, perhaps as a final farewell when the College closed. What happened to the 'Boys' afterwards? We know some remained as technicians when the building was re purposed as the Orthotics Department.
Pegleg Productions has not discovered any equivalent of Frank Ruck's testimony or personal accounts by 'Boys' who attended the Training College.
In 1923 the RNOH 'Country Branch' opens the very first Hospital School, certified as a 'Residential School for Physically Handicapped Children' - another legacy from the First World War era, established after the 1918 Education Act made schooling for all disabled children compulsory:
Pictured below is a recently recovered treasure, a Special Edition of the 'Kings Breakfast' by A. A. Milne and illustrated by E.H. Shepard, donated in 1925 to the children at the RNOH Hospital School: "This is a presentation copy for the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital." and signed by author and artist.
In the Movietone clip below, at 0.46 we can see the RNOH children performing in celebration of the new front gates, at a ceremonial opening by the Duke of Gloucester in 1930.
The creators of the 'King's Breakfast', A. A. Milne (author of 'Winnie the Pooh') and his brilliant illustrator E. H. Shepard, both served at the Front in the First World War. Shepherd served at the Somme, Arras, Ypres and Passchendaele and was awarded the Military Cross for ‘conspicuous gallantry’. When the War ended, he packed all his drawings and everything connected to his military service in a trunk where it remained hidden for 100 years until an exhibition at the House of Illustration in 2016.
Nicola Lane writes:
"For me, this represents an important aspect of the First World War, which is common to other conflicts and traumas: the desire to put the trauma away, and move on.
Sometimes this desire can erase memories, history and people. What we remember and what we forget can be an unconscious decision, or a deliberate choice, or determined by others.
In 1919 a Peace Parade marks the end of the First World War. But the wounded are largely unrepresented - many had been paid to stay at home."
Recently, difficult and painful aspects of British history are emerging, with an urgent need for the forgotten and invisible to have their story told.
We have not found the 'Grey Lady', but during our search we continue to discover and re-cover stories, sites, memories and archives, 'hidden histories' on the edge of disappearing, the invisible made visible.
The traces and legacies of the First World War are embedded in the history of the RNOH. Our searches also reveal that history is not confined to the documents held within archives but can live in memories and stories, skills and technology, in the lived experience of patients, staff, volunteers and clinicians.
"Our experiences, our memories and relationship with the hospital site and those who work there, have a powerful and persistent meaning in our lives.
Many years ago I had a conversation with the gentleman in charge of the lodge by the RNOH main gate. He told me that he still received phone calls from former patients, who would ask to speak to 'their surgeon' from 30, 40 or even 50 years ago.
During our pre-Covid 'Grey Lady' search, we interviewed RNOH volunteer and Radio Brockley broadcaster Keith Reeve in 'Old Coxon Ward', the 'Sir William Coxon Ward' where Keith spent long stretches of time as a child patient in the 1970s. We followed him as he walked through the now empty spaces, populating them with games, treatments, hard times and mischief. Frank Ruck's account and photographs transport us to Great Portland Street in 1905.
These lived experiences can restore a disappeared world."
Artist Anne-Marie Creamer, a participant in the Grey Lady Podcast project and a patient at the RNOH, found that a special tree outside her Ward at RNOH Stanmore brought strength and solace during her recovery - a direct link to Mary Wardell's passionate belief in the importance of the grounds in recovery and healing.
After the RNOH call out for help with the History podcast, Pegleg Productions was contacted by both current and former patients, volunteers, nurses and consultants, who wanted to support the project and express their gratitude and affection for the Hospital during these challenging times of Covid 19, which is proving to be one of the toughest challenges yet in the RNOH's long history.
Pegleg Productions wants to thank everyone who is part of this fascinating journey - Derek Sayers for sharing his collection and knowledge of the RNOH, the brilliant 'Lost Hospitals of London', Tony Higgins and the Comms team, RNOH Consultant in Rehabilitation Medicine Dr. Sedki, staff, clinicians and patients at the PRU and Orthotics department, RNOH Head of Research & Innovation Iva Hauptmannova, the Estates team, Jan Letocha, Mary Lauder at the Disability Foundation, Christine Bows, Senior Clinical Research Nurse Fiona Fitzgerald, and all the wonderful Podcast readers and researchers.
Thanks also to Gateways to the First World War and historian Julie Anderson, who has been so generous with her time and knowledge.
Pegleg Productions is grateful for the collaboration of RNOH award-winning hospital radio Radio Brockley, with former patient and veteran community broadcaster Keith Reeve and all the Radio Brockley volunteers. How typical of the RNOH that Radio Brockley is sited in a building loaded with history - built to withstand 'blast' and designed for decontamination in case of gas attack in the Second World War!
In creating the RNOH History Podcast, our fragmented discoveries are given depth and narrative context by the marvellous resources of medical archive collections and the British Library newspaper archives.
Watch this space for further announcements about the Podcast!
Pegleg Productions invites and welcomes information, memories or corrections, so do get in touch using the website's Contact Form.
Project Leader, Pegleg Productions
October / 2020
A big thank you to the National Heritage Lottery and National Lottery players for making 'Searching for the Grey Lady: A Ghost From WW1 at the RNOH' possible!