On Friday I was in London at the unveiling of a plaque to commemorate the Women’s Military Hospital in Endell Street, near Covent Garden, which was run by the Women’s Hospital Corps (WHC) between 1915 and 1919 and was staffed entirely by women.
The event was organised by Dr Jennian Geddes, a great-niece of Louisa Garrett Anderson, one of the chief surgeons at the hospital. Louisa (1873-1943) was the daughter of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Britain’s first woman doctor. She was actively involved in the militant suffragette movement, and in 1912 even spent time in Holloway prison. She and the other chief surgeon, Dr Flora Murray, continued to campaign for the vote throughout the war. The WHC adopted the motto of Mrs Pankhurst’s organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU): “Deeds not Words”. The motto is inscribed on the beautiful stone commemorative plaque and a few of the women at Friday’s ceremony wore the suffragette colours of green (hope), purple (dignity) and white (purity).
The hospital was entirely staffed by women doctors, nurses and orderlies, and treated 26,000 casualties who were brought there after arriving by train at Charing Cross. Dr Jennian Geddes has written an excellent short history of the hospital which is available online.
The best contemporary account of work at the hospital and the activities of its staff is in Dr Flora Murray’s own book: Women as Army Surgeons: Being the History of the Women’s Hospital Corps in Paris, Wimereux and Endell Street September 1914 – October 1919 (London: Hodder & Stoughton 1920). The book is unfortunately out of print and difficult to find.
I was at the ceremony in Endell Street because of my grandmother Olga Campbell (1891-1943), who was related to Flora Murray by marriage. Olga’s mother Ethel was one of three sisters, the daughters of John Bruce, a wealthy Edinburgh merchant. One of Olga’s aunts, Evelyn Bruce, married William Murray of Murraythwaite, Ecclefechan, Dumfries, who was Flora Murray’s brother. In 1924 Olga married my grandfather Horace Archer Byatt who was Governor of Trinidad and Tobago at the time.
All three of Olga’s sons, Hugh, Robin and David Byatt, were at the ceremony on Friday, as were their cousins (descended from the Bruce sisters) John Wells and Fenella Birch. The following details about Olga’s involvement are taken from my father’s notes (largely based on Flora Murray’s book) and an article written by my aunt Mary Byatt:
Through Flora Murray, Olga was recruited as an orderly on 14 September 1914 and went to France with the first group of volunteers led by the two doctors, who were both members of the suffragette movement. Olga was one of three orderlies at the hospital. In a letter from Louisa Garrett Anderson to her mother (16 September 1914), Louisa wrote “The women orderlies are going to be a great success I think. Three very attractive capable girls who speak French well and know how to look after themselves.”
“The French Red Cross offered the two doctors the use of a large empty building, the Hotel Claridge off the Champs Elysée. The building had been recently built, but on their second morning in Paris the Women’s Hospital Corps moved in and began the major job of clearing and cleaning. A doctor from the American Voluntary Hospital at Neuilly was in charge of an improvised taxi ambulance service. On that second afternoon, he rang to ask if the Hotel Claridge could take any wounded later in the day, from the first Battle of the Marne. Bravely Dr Murray replied, “Yes, we could take twenty-four this afternoon and another twenty-six tonight.” She knew that their equipment was still at the Gare du Nord where Orderly Hodgson was still struggling to retrieve it. In the end she arrived with the packing cases just ahead of the first stretchers with wounded men. Late in the afternoon, a message from Dr Louise Anderson came to the wards to ask if the theatre was ready and whether she could operate that night. The answer went back, “It is ready now.” That night the surgeons operated till a late hour. This only three days after the Women’s Hospital Corps had taken over the building. By the end of the week the hospital was a smoothly running concern.
In January 1915 the hospital was moved to Vimereux [now Wimereux], near Boulogne and placed under the British Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). They quickly installed themselves in the Château Mauricien which was rented from Monsieur Le Maire. The two doctors made an early call on the headquarters of the RAMC in Boulogne and presented letters of introduction brought from Paris. “We know all about the Women’s Hospital Corps here,” they were told. “You are very welcome here.”
When the doctors asked if the RAMC would make use of their hospital, the Colonel replied “Yes, to the fullest extent. You will be working directly under me.” This overjoyed the two doctors since all the time it had been their ambition to work as army surgeons under the British War Office. There followed a conversation about their immediate needs and later the Colonel asked, “Have you a quartermaster?” The doctors looked at each other and simultaneously answered “Yes”. Both were thinking of Orderly Campbell who was instantly promoted. She must already have made an impression on those with whom she worked. (Murray, p.93)
Orderly Campbell was promptly provided with a letter saying “The Women’s Hospital Corps have established a Hospital at the Chateau Mauricien at Wimereux and is recognised by the War Office. Signed DDS Lt. Colonel for A.D.M.S. 5th November 1914.”
Armed with this Quartermaster Campbell assumed her duties and began work as understudy to the RAMC Quartermaster at the RAMC Military Hospital based at the Grand Hotel in Boulogne. Together they visited the local army supply depot. When they returned with superabundant supplies, the male Quartermaster was apologetic and puzzled but Miss Campbell’s account was simple:
“An orderly asked me if I would like a side of bacon and when I said yes, he put one in the car. Another said a case of peaches would be useful and put it in. And someone else brought the jam and cheese, and they said a bag of tea and another of sugar would not come amiss. And just as we were leaving a sergeant threw in two hams.” “So there it all is,” she ended gleefully.
On the following day, 6 November 1914, the hospital was ready for occupation. “In the evening the ambulances met the trains. Before very long all the beds were filled up and the pressure of work continued until January … The women felt strangely close to the front because the men came down from the lines in a few hours and their tales of the mud and wet in which they were standing almost up to their waists, the agony of frostbite, the terrible shortage of ammunition, and the superiority of the German guns made pitiful hearing.”
Work also continued at the Hotel Claridge on the Champs Elysée, and for a time it became busier than ever. But as really cold weather set in early in January it became increasingly difficult to get enough fuel to heat the large building and after much debate it was decided that the Hotel Claridge should close, which it did on 18 January 1915. The doctors and staff then proceeded to Wimereaux to join forces with the rest of the Corps.
The cold weather continued and with it a lack of activity at the front. It became clear that the hospital at Wimereux was becoming little more than a clearing station for cases being passed on to England. It was learned that 50,000 extra hospital beds were to be set up in England. The organisers had now to decide whether the Women’s Hospital Corps might not be more useful there than in France. They were urged not to give up military work and General W of the RAMC sent a dispatch note to the RAMC Surgeon-General warmly commending their work. This led to an interview for the two doctors with Sir Alfred Keogh in London and an invitation to take charge of a hospital of 500 or 1000 beds. This he announced on 18 February 1915.
Dr Flora Murray wrote: “In the quartermaster’s offices there was a young team, full of good spirits and ready for any enterprise. They fed and clothed and administered the hospital, and were ready for every entertainment and piece of fun. They prepared extra teas and extra suppers; rehearsed and performed, if need be; danced or sang, or carried tables and handed refreshments, with equal vigour and enthusiasm. Messages of appreciation came to the stores from the wards.”
I was fascinated to find that AS Byatt is working on a book set during the period 1895 to 1918 and in an article in the Guardian in which several authors nominated books that they would like to see back in print through an initiative promoted by Faber and Faber, she mentions Flora Murray – although it is slightly misleading to say that Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson “worked for the French”. Having set up the WHC in 1914, they turned to the French Red Cross because the Royal Army Medical Corps would not accept women doctors at the start of the War. However, when the unit moved from Paris to Wimereux in January 1915, it was recognised by the RAMC (the very first document to state this being the letter quoted above, addressed to Olga Campbell, the Orderly in charge of Supplies).
AS Byatt on Unfinished Adventure by Evelyn Sharp and Women as Army Surgeons by Flora Murray
I’ve been working on a book that covers the years between 1895 and 1918. Two books by women interested and excited me. One was the autobiography of Evelyn Sharp, who was a suffragist, wrote for the Yellow Book and believed in leading an independent life. The book is called Unfinished Adventure: Selected Reminiscences from an Englishwoman’s Life. She was imprisoned, and had her belongings removed by bailiffs during the first world war when she continued to assert the principle of “no taxation without representation”. She was perspicacious, witty and a very good writer. The other is Women as Army Surgeons by Flora Murray, who, with Louisa Garrett Anderson, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson’s daughter, founded the Women’s Hospital Corps, which ran hospitals in Paris and London during the war. The British army wasn’t interested in women doctors, so they worked for the French. Murray was a doctor, not a writer, but the detail of the world she shows us is revealing and moving.
After the war, Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson remained close friends and companions and they jointly owned a house, Paul End (now Gatemore Grange), in Penn, Buckinghamshire. They continued to work at their hospital in the Harrow Road until it was forced to close because of lack of funds in 1921. They then retired to the country. Murray had a brief illness in 1923 and died at a nursing home in Belsize Park in 1923. Anderson continued to live at Penn where she is also buried.
It seems very probable that Olga Campbell would have attended Flora Murray’s funeral as she was based in London until her marriage. Flora Murray’s memorial is in Dalton Parish Church, Dumfries. It reads: “She graduated at London University in 1902 D.P.H. Cambridge 1905. On the outbreak of war, she formed and took to France a complete Women’s voluntary hospital unit. In May 1915, at the request of H.M. War Office, she opened the Military Hospital, Endell Street, which command she held until it closed in October 1919 with the military grade of Lieutenant-Colonel. She died 28 July 1923 and is buried at Penn in Buckinghamshire.” (The Scottish War Memorials Project).
The five years that Olga spent in the company of Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson must have left an indelible mark on her character and aspirations. As Jennian Geddes writes
Endell Street differed from other women’s hospitals of the First World War in that the staff made no secret of their militant views, and the public perceived it to be a specifically suffrage hospital. In forming the group, Murray and Anderson had left no ambiguity about their aims, and, explicitly linking their work with their political aspirations, committed themselves to educating and training the women under their command in their expectations and obligations as future citizens.
On Friday, 7th November, 2008, 90 years after Armistice Day, their extraordinary and inspirational achievement was finally acknowledged through the unveiling of a commemorative plaque at 36 Endell Street to mark the site where the hospital once stood.
(thanks to James Byatt for the photos)