Death, Disease & Dissection: Keats, Quacks & Bodysnatchers – what’s not to like?

Death Disease & DissectionAt last, I can catch my breath and report back on the launch of my second book with Pen and Sword, Death, Disease & Dissection: The working life of a surgeon-apothecary 1750-1850. The book has only been out for a couple of weeks, but it has been a part of my life for so long I can’t believe I am only really now telling people about it. As many of you who read my blog regularly know, this has been a difficult year for me and for my family so that vital marketing has been left a little behind. I am just hoping it doesn’t affect sales too much. These things matter so much now, especially with Christmas coming up.

LitFest3On Thursday 16th November I spoke to a sell-out crowd at Taunton Literary Festival, presenting some gruesome pictures of horrible procedures to much groaning and squirming (and laughter) in the audience.  Nothing like the quack doctor and failed boot polish salesman Dr Solomon and his Cordial of Gilead to tickle a few ribs, and descriptions of a lithotomy (removal of a bladder stone in men) to get a few chaps crossing their legs too…

We then celebrated with wine and cake (by the fabulous Charlie of Charlotte Jane Cakes) and a book signing that went really well. Lionel and Jo Ward of Brendon Books are so supportive (Lionel founded the festival) that is was an evening I will remember for a long time, and feedback has been fabulous. If you are in the Taunton area do take a look at the bookshop in Bath Place that can often get a book to you faster than Amazon…

Anyway, what is the book about? The premise of the book is summarised up quite well by the blurb the publisher printed on the back:

Imagine performing surgery on a patient without anaesthetic, administering medicine that could kill or cure. Welcome to the world of the surgeon-apothecary…During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, significant changes occurred in medicine. New treatments were developed and medical training improved. Yet, with doctors’ fees out of the reach of ordinary people, most relied on the advice of their local apothecary, among them, the poet John Keats, who worked at Guys Hospital in London. These men were the general practitioners of their time, making up pills and potions for everything from a toothache to childbirth. Death, Disease and Dissection examines the vital role these men played their training, the role they played within their communities, the treatments they offered, both quack and reputable against the shocking sights and sounds in hospitals and operating theatres of the time. Suzie Grogan transports readers through 100 years of medical history, exploring the impact of illness and death and bringing the experiences of the surgeon-apothecary vividly to life.

wax head

Wax anatomical model of human head c1800

I examine the class structure of the medical profession, the training a young man had to go through and the sort of life he would have enjoyed (or otherwise) when he was qualified. The medicines available to treat the most common illnesses and the operations undertaken at great risk to the patient (and sometimes to the surgeon) are detailed, as is the vital work of the anatomist, dissecting bodies (often obtained by body-snatchers) to understand the workings of the human body. It was a time of great change and is populated by some wonderful characters – good and bad – who occasionally sound like something out of a gothic-horror novel.

Keats

John Keats

I was inspired to write the book when I was keen to find out more about the life John Keats, my favourite poet, would have lived had he not given up medicine (after nearly 7 years of training) to pursue one in poetry. He was so far from the frail romantic image many still have of him that I was determined to highlight how hard he had worked in what desperate conditions to become a man filled with empathy and knowledge of the harsh realities of life. The publisher wouldn’t let me indulge my passion for the man with a chapter to himself, but they have commissioned me to write a separate book about him which is a thrill.

I have also found out that this subject is on the GCSE curriculum and it has already got a 5* review from someone working in the NHS with a teenager using it to mug up on coursework, which is gratifying. It was also an era covered by the fabulous BBC2 comedy Quacks earlier this year. Historically accurate, it is highly recommended if you can get hold of a box set.

Quacks

BBC2’s Quacks

So please do consider buying a copy for the history lover in your life, especially if they have an interest in the Georgian period or a bit of Victorian gothic. It also details many issues affecting the poor specifically and there is little doubt that many of the deeply committed men ( women were excluded from medical training as a doctor during this time) I offer short biographies of are the forerunners of today’s general practitioners, facing many of the same problems.

Death Disease & Dissection (ISBN: 9781473823532) is available from Pen & Sword, Amazon and all good online and high street retailers.

 

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Posted in Book, Death, Disease and Dissection, History, Keats, Literature, Medicine, Romanticism, Victorian History, Victorians, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Hoping ‘…it passes smoothly, quietly’ – on the anniversary of John Keats’s birth, his birthday wish ‘To my brothers’

John Keats

Today marks the birthday of the poet John Keats. He was born on 31st October (the day is not absolutely established, but most likely) 1795 in Moorgate, London and he died just 25 years later, in Rome. During that period he developed with astonishing speed, as a poet, letter-writer and as a man and he has written some of the very best poetry (and the most wonderful letters) in the English language.

Today on social media there is much celebration of this day – not least because Keats remains one of the most relevant and admired poets of the 19th century. He speaks to us across the centuries, of matters close to our hearts in this fast-paced and often difficult world. It is a subject I have written about for The Wordsworth Trust Romanticism blog in ‘Moods of my own Mind: Keats, melancholy and mental health’. 

Tom Keats

However, instead of his most famous lines, I thought I would share a poem that was written very early in his career as a poet and at the end of his time as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital. It is an early poem to George and Tom, his brothers with whom he had recently set up home. It is to mark Tom’s 17th birthday in 1816 and celebrates their time together, as brothers and housemates, and the joy they can share in this simple, companionable existence. For those that know of Keats’s life, and that of his siblings, it is hard not to feel a sense of sadness –  the brothers were close, not least because they had lost their parents at an early age. The poem foreshadows the death of Tom, of tuberculosis, just two years later, and the loss of his brother George to a new life in America in the same year. Those losses were traumatic, but shaped his development as a poet,  and although he was beset by constant money troubles and the knowledge that the woman he loved could never be his,  he was determined to ‘be among the English poets’ after his death.

To my brothers…

Small, busy flames play through the fresh laid coals,
And their faint cracklings o’er our silence creep
Like whispers of the household gods that keep
A gentle empire o’er fraternal souls.
And while, for rhymes, I search around the poles,
Your eyes are fix d, as in poetic sleep,
Upon the lore so voluble and deep,
That aye at fall of night our care condoles.
This is your birth-day Tom, and I rejoice
That thus it passes smoothly, quietly.
Many such eves of gently whisp’ring noise
May we together pass, and calmly try
What are this world s true joys, ere the great voice,
From its fair face, shall bid our spirits fly.

George Keats

Clearly, Keats was not a great one for birthday parties, or nights out to mark the passing of another year. This quiet companionship on an early winter evening is all he wants and hopes for before their life together ends.  It is about fragility, about familial love and support and the knowledge that this happy peace cannot last forever. He is still finding his way with words – searching ‘around the poles’ for rhymes – but he succeeds in bringing that crackling fire to life, as if it is a character in the room with them, whispering them into drowsiness and sleep.

So happy birthday my friend (and he has been that to me, in difficult times.) There are many of us who would benefit from the quieter existence described in this sonnet.

 

Posted in Books, Family, Keats, Literature, Poetry, Reading, Romanticism, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

What makes a good ghost story?

Ghost-Stories-The-Woman-In-White-Who-Stands-In-The-GraveyardI write ghost stories. I don’t know if they are any good (although I did publish three, in a short collection called The Marrow Scoop, just to test the water) but it is a genre I enjoy reading and that is always a positive start when one wants the words to flow.

I have been a little disillusioned lately though, as my favourite spooky stories are nearer those of M R James, Charles Dickens or Edith Wharton than the paranormal psychological and positively erotic supernatural fiction that has become so popular. I wonder if we, as a species, are becoming harder to frighten? So many stories and video replays of real-life horrors are available via social media 24/7 that the rustle of a curtain or the scratch on a skirting board might seem too tame.

What can be more frightening than one man driving a car deliberately to kill a random group of strangers he knows nothing about or setting a bomb filled with nails to kill and maim for life? Except perhaps the knowledge that our children might be at risk of harm whilst in the care of those we thought we could trust implicitly?

Perhaps this surge in the popularity of the mythical beasts of horror – the vampires, the werewolves, the zombies – is part if the desire to control a new reality. Down the centuries there have always been people who commit the most wicked crimes against their own, or against strangers, but now it is exposed to daylight and refuses to crumble to dust.

download (12)So I am reevaluating my own spooky tales as I continue to write them for a modern audience. I am reading as many of the ‘greats’ as I can, shorter and longer stories, spooky or less so, classic or contemporary.  However, even Susan Hill, the author of one of the best ghost stories of recent years The Woman in Black seems to be finding it hard to compete with the out and out gore fest of the horror genre, and with psychological thrillers and crime novels, which increasingly seem to delve deep into our innermost fears – of being hunted perhaps, or stalked. Her most recent stories, such as The Small Hand and The Travelling Bag have garnered less favourable reviews. Choking mists and a gothic backdrop can only achieve so much it seems. The chills must come from elsewhere, and the piece be deemed a good short story as well as simply a frightening one.

My best stories (I think) have been inspired by antique pieces with something of the grotesque about them –  a marrow scoop or spoon, for example, was used in the 18th and 19th centuries to scoop the marrow from cooked bones, as something of a delicacy. Another tale of mine, The Ponyskin Trunk, was again triggered by the sight of a travelling case covered in the hide of a piebald pony. But one can only use that device so often before the ‘game’ is given away too early on.

As a child, I remember television programmes that left me genuinely too scared to go up the stairs for fear of what might be lurking. Even my favourite poet, John Keats, has conjured a phrase, in a fragment, that sends shivers down my spine…

This living hand, now warm and capable 
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold 
And in the icy silence of the tomb, 
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights 
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood 
So in my veins red life might stream again, 
And thou be conscience-calm’dsee here it is– 
I hold it towards you…

But how does a modern writer capture that feeling and express it on the page to create an equally terrified response?

RatsnovelI recently read some James Herbert to better understand the creeping horror that can build to a crescendo, sending you hurtling under the bedclothes, seeing a potential killer in even the smallest creature. The Rats certainly sickened me and occasionally left my fingers feeling contaminated by something as I turned the page on yet another gruesome scene of rodent carnage. I did hear scuttling and caught shadows flicking quickly at the corner of my eye, but I finished it feeling sick rather than truly scared. I also read The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty, but found I was imagining the horrors of the film version rather than conjuring my own scenes from the author’s prose.

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson,  did grip me, having seen the film too long ago to really remember the stand-out images, but I think that is more than a ghost or horror story. There is an examination of psychological issues layered within the plot that could almost make one believe one’s very sanity is at stake.

So I am really interested to find out what my readers find truly terrifying in a story. Is it still possible for a classic ghost story to create the proverbial ‘shiver down the spine’ on first reading? Which books or stories have stood the test of time and which modern authors have truly ‘creeped you out’?

Or do you think, as I am beginning to, that we are faced with so much that is ‘wonder full’, so many things possible that were, just a few years ago, unthinkable, that it is almost impossible to be surprised? Will the next stop be the book with an image that suddenly comes to life before your eyes, snarling on the page?

Do let me know what you think!

 

 

Posted in Books, Literature, Nostalgia, spiritualism, Writing | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

On death, dying and being afraid of life…

fear_slideshowMy blog has been sorely neglected over the past 4 months. A couple of posts have made it here, the last in July, but for much of the time, there have been no words.

Bear with me for a little while…In the past four months I have lost my lovely old mum, and two months later, just as the greatest pain of that traumatic time had seemingly passed, we had to have our wonderful dog, Barnaby, put to sleep, quite without preparation. It seemed that I would never stop crying, huge tears, like those of childhood – unrestrained. Press FF >> and another two months have passed. Now my husband’s father has died. His children weren’t close to him, he was a difficult man and he never liked me much, but nonetheless, it is a final link lost with that generation above. Peter and I are now top of the tree.

I feel besieged by death, lost in melancholy thoughts of my own demise, or that of my husband. My own brush with mortality 11 years ago haunts me still and resurfaces in health anxiety to remind me that one day, it will be my turn. Death is always there, yet we fail to acknowledge or accept it, except perhaps when dealing with the death of others.

And sense the solving emptiness
That lies just under all we do,
And for a second get it whole,
So permanent and blank and true.
The fastened doors recede. Poor soul,
They whisper at their own distress

Philip Larkin, for the full poem, see Ambulances

Why are we, in Western culture anyway, so afraid of the inevitable? My lifelong battle with debilitating anxiety and bouts of depression leads me to think it is perhaps life I am afraid of, not death. I am afraid of enjoying it too much, in case it brings on disaster. I am afraid of the terminal diagnosis, (though in truth we have all had one, from birth) the potential suffering leading up to my final breath, and the leaving behind of those I love. There is also a little bit of me, I must admit, that resents the fact that the machinations of the world will all go on without me. I am curious to know what happens when I am gone, and cannot bear to think I can no longer intervene in events.

Why do we seemingly wish to live forever? Is it because we are so materialistic and self-obsessed we can’t bear to think it is impossible to continue to enjoy our possessions? Can that really override the realities of old age and the society those in their later years have to inhabit?

Joyous headlines suggesting it is possible for the babies born today to have a life expectancy of 100 years or more belie the distressing scenes I witnessed as mum and her contemporaries struggled with failing bodies and the loss of mental faculties. There were the endless little indignities and that depressingly regular occurrence – the loss of a friend or relation. That constant thought – ‘me next?’.

download (11)In a wonderful article on this subject for The Guardian last year, Margaret Drabble quoted the description of Jonathan Swift’s ‘struldbrugs’ on the island of Luggnagg, in Gulliver’s Travels.  Struldbrugs are immortal, but they live to extreme old age with ever-diminishing capacity…

“[Struldbrugs] had not only the follies and infirmities of other old men, but many more which arose from the dreadful prospect of never dying. They were not only opinionative, peevish, covetous, morose, vain, talkative, but incapable of friendship, and dead to all natural affection, which never descended below their grand-children. Envy and impotent desires are their prevailing passions … they forget the common appellation of things, and the names of persons, even of those who are their nearest friends and relations. For the same reason, they never can amuse themselves with reading, because their memory will not serve to carry them from the beginning of a sentence to the end …”

Drabble goes on to echo my own thoughts as she later describes the horrors perpetrated on the elderly person without a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ label on their notes. One sees CPR used for upwards of an hour on a body essentially at the end of its natural lifespan. Broken ribs, a faint pulse, and any remaining time left to them stuck in a bed totally dependent on medical services for what is still termed ‘life’. It is hard to imagine anything more fear-inducing. Yet people with more money than they know what to do with are having their bodies frozen in the hope of a cure for old age and infirmity, without any real thought to the quality of life they can hope for should they be defrosted.

Let me die a youngman’s death
not a clean and inbetween
the sheets holywater death
not a famous-last-words
peaceful out of breath death…

Roger McGough – for the whole marvellous, humorous, insightful poem, Let me die a young man’s death see HERE 

My father in law was buried on Saturday, with a full Catholic mass, which to me was clearly the work of authors other than a benign spirit. I have never been to a burial, only cremations, and in my imagination, it took on all the trappings of a gothic horror story. That built it up into more than it actually was – a group of people, remembering two entirely different versions of the same man, crowded around a rather cramped little corner of a cemetery. Graves are dug not by a wizened old man with a large shovel, but by a mini-digger, which sat with gaping mouth just close by, ready to drop bucketloads of soil on the coffin. Floral tributes have partly given way to Chelsea flags, teddies and other items that clearly meant something to the deceased, but which assault the senses of the mourning. It seemed less like a place for all God’s children – despite the holy water sprinkled on the coffin – than the last remnants of a car boot sale.

The fear of death is a suffocating one that can override all others, and prevent us from enjoying our lives before ‘ashes to ashes’ and the final sods of earth are cast over our sightless eyes and breathless lips. The death of others brings this home to us like nothing else.

This blog post is my way of trying to work through some of these thoughts and as you can tell, and I appreciate, it is in no way a cohesive philosophy. I don’t want to die. I have too many books to read; too much research to do and articles to write. I have a lovely husband and two fine children I want to see into middle age.

So perhaps my philosophy should mirror that of Woody Allen:

I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens…

I’d love to know your thoughts…

 

 

 

Posted in Health, Mental health, psychology, Religion, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Passchendaele and the management of shell shock

It is 100 years since the notorious battle of Passchendaele. We now know much more about the trauma experienced by thousands of troops during the Great War and we recognise that, even into the 21st-century, service personnel can be affected by combat stress and post-traumatic stress disorder on the battlefield, and for many years after their involvement. Sadly, there is still insufficient support for those affected, and it is still difficult for men and women to come forward and talk about their symptoms, admitting fragility in such a tough environment.

Just before the battle we now refer to as Passchendaele (or the Third battle of Ypres) – fought between July and November 2017 and perhaps the most bloody and futile of the First World War – the War Office was becoming concerned at the sheer number of men breaking down with what was commonly known as ‘shell shock’. So General Haig’s adjutant, Lt Gen. Fowke, issued  ‘General Routine Order 2384’, stating that diagnoses of mental disorder were not to be made on the battlefield, instead requiring several days of observation by doctors close to the Front.

So during the Battle of Passchendaele, a tougher approach was taken. It was thought then that ‘suggestion’ could reinforce symptoms and that evacuation to a specialist hospital, or back to Britain should be a very last resort. The aim was to get a man back to the trenches – using what was referred to as ‘discipline and forceful encouragement’, and there was more prolific use of alcohol, which, they believed, made mental collapse less likely and prevent the retention of traumatic memories.

Clearing station

Men who showed symptoms of shell shock were offered time away from the battlefield. Evacuation to a specialist hospital was not to be considered until a man had spent a number of weeks under observation, in (slightly greater) comfort with the opportunity for sleep and better food rations, at a Clearing Station within ear-shot of the trenches. Their duty to their fellows in the trenches and their love of their country was reinforced and the majority did return to the front line, encouraging doctors to consider this tougher approach a success. The 1922 Committee on Shell Shock heard evidence that only 16% of cases had to be referred to specialist hospitals, and 10% were returned to England.  Just 10% of men returned to active duty, it was claimed, relapsed once and 3% more than once.

Post war there was little written on this subject by the doctors involved, and younger, more progressive doctors and psychiatrists (who were not involved in the strategy and who would undoubtedly have questioned the methods) were horrified at any suggestion that leaving a fragile man amongst his peers could lead to some form of ‘infection’ with shell shock.

But during that terrible battle, and until the end of the war, the most important factor in the treatment of shell shock was to deal with the numbers – there was an acute shortage of trained men and every available chap was needed to fight for his country. Their post-war suffering was not the first concern. In fact, it was a real worry, as politicians struggled with the amount they feared would need to be paid out in pensions for those most seriously affected.

One thing that always strikes us about those who survived the war is their silence, their reluctance to talk about their experiences. For many years, this was seen as bravery, the stiff upper lip of the British Tommy and many of the men returning to their families coped well. But we now know that not to speak of trauma, to repress it, can be deeply harmful. Levels of alcoholism, criminal activity, domestic violence and family breakdown are still higher amongst veterans even 100 years later. Giving men a break from the horror, a stiff drink and the opportunity to sleep may have helped a few, but it left many scarred for life, whether or not they ever ‘relapsed’ in the sense expressed to the committee in 1922.

The treatment of shell shock during the Great War, and the consequences for men and their families, for society as a whole and those affected in subsequent conflicts are something I researched at length for Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, and as we move into the last eighteen months of the commemorative period I believe it is desperately important that this legacy is not lost as 100 years since the Armistice approaches.

Posted in Book, First World War, History, Medicine, Mental health, psychology, Shell Shocked Britain, War | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dunkirk – a war film on a different scale

Dunkirk_Film_posterI don’t often write film reviews on here – not least because I don’t actually go to the cinema very often, and when I do I am not sure that anyone would be interested in what I think of it. However, having written Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health and written articles and given talks on the aftermath of war, I was actually asked for my thoughts (always a boost to the old ego).

I have written at length about how troops were (or rather were not) supported to deal with the trauma they had experienced, and emphasised that even into the 21st century we are regularly failing those experiencing combat stress. I have read many personal accounts, been told stories of distant fathers and grandfathers who were simply unable to express their feelings and who perhaps turned to drink, or on their families.

The beach at DunkirkBut it wasn’t really until I sat in the cinema last night and watched Christopher Nolan‘s Dunkirk that I realised how impossible it is for anyone who hasn’t lived through war to appreciate what those young men (and women) went through, again, in WW2. Don’t misunderstand me – it is the very best war film I have ever seen and succeeds on almost every cinematic level – but even this immersive experience is always tempered by the knowledge (which the actors, when interviewed have been quick to highlight) that the men we see on the screen would always hear ‘cut’ and know they were safe. Those on the beaches of Dunkirk  – within 25 miles of home – were not so lucky.

Nolan’s use of time is wonderful, but you must pay attention, as you are watching the story unfold from different perspectives over interlocking periods and I know I got tripped up a couple of times. All the most obvious rules of cinema are broken here – we get no back story, we find out nothing about the characters, many of whom are anonymous, and the politics of the situation are totally ignored. We don’t see a German until right at the very end, and then for just a few seconds.

The whole cast brings an honesty (not all actions are ‘heroic’ in the usual sense) and intimacy to the film that at once makes it true on a wholly personal level, whilst at the same time portraying the universality of the horror. It is a terrific ensemble piece.

DUNKIRK-7-1200x800‘Star’ actors have little dialogue (in fact dialogue is at a minimum throughout) and it is genuinely the young men in the front line who are at the heart of the story, although Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh are wonderfully understated in pivotal roles. Much of a to-do has been made of Harry Styles‘s acting debut and he does well, and his presence is not at the expense of the other young lead, Ffion Whitehead, who is remarkable. Jack Lowden, as one of the two pilots struggling to support the vulnerable shipping below them, was also good, although it is Tom Hardy as the other pilot, who seems to set the hearts fluttering. When you have had a crush on Ken Branagh for as long as I have (about 30 years now) Hardy will have to do better than be a total hero (no spoilers!)

The soundtrack is an integral part of the action, raising the tension and heartbeat. It brings in a touching and stirring hint of Elgar, particularly at the end and is never intrusive.

DUNKIRK-9-1200x800What I loved most about this film was the authentic nature of the action – no CGI (or little) was used to recreate the horror. Surviving Spitfires were used, as were some of the original small vessels sailing over the channel to evacuate the desperate troops (as Branagh sights the flotilla heading towards the beach a real lump comes to the throat). There is little blood (I am sure there was plenty in reality, but this is no gore fest like Saving Private Ryan, for example) but neither was there a sanitisation of the experience. I literally held my breath in some of the watery sequences…

Cillian Murphy is the actor portraying the ‘shell shocked’ soldier, his odd reactions after being rescued diagnosed by the Mark Rylance character, who had obviously had his own, earlier experiences of war, and who had already been affected by the tragedy of the second conflict. Murphy’s was not a sympathetic character, which I was a little sad about, but it was good to see the issue highlighted as one that hadn’t ended in the trenches of the Great War.

It is a wonderful film, that can only add to our knowledge and appreciation of the role played by so many in the defence of Britain. There was no sense in the film that victory was on the way – in fact, there is some despair and a real sense of failure. But Churchill’s words, used at the end, leave you with a sense that it was an event that brought the country together  – in failure then, there was new hope.

Go and see it as soon as you can, and at the cinema if at all possible. A small screen won’t diminish the brilliance of the film, but on the big screen, you can literally immerse yourself in it.

Posted in Film, History, Reviews, Shell Shocked Britain, War, World War Two | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Guest post: The evacuated teachers of the Second World War by Gillian Mawson

 

Evacuation of Gateshead School Children 1939 courtesy Gateshead Libraries

School children evacuated 1939. Courtesy Gateshead Libraries

As many of my regular readers know, I have recently written about the loss of my mum. I have delayed publishing this wonderful guest post from historian Gillian Mawson because it is a story that resonated so closely with my mother’s experience as a child during WW2 that I found it quite hard to comment on it. At the age of just 10, with her 6-year-old brother, my mum was evacuated out of London to Bedfordshire and was so traumatised by her experience at the hands of the woman who took them in that even in old age she would recognise similar abusive traits in others. It would bring back all those unhappy memories, and when she felt most vulnerable it caused her a great deal of distress, even in her 80s. Gillian has written a number of books describing, often in their own words, the wartime experience of evacuees. Some had a wonderful time, but others, like my mum, were less fortunate and it is important that all their stories are heard. So I am thrilled Gillian has written this post for my blog, focusing on the teachers’ experience, and the responsibility they felt towards their young charges. Full details of Gillian’s latest book can be found at the end of the post. Do take a look – the immediacy and freshness of some of the memories are heartrending.

During the Second World War, thousands of British teachers were evacuated with their pupils, yet we hear their stories far less often than those of child evacuees. These men and women took on a great responsibility. Cut off from their own families, they not only educated the children in their care but did their best to monitor their health and happiness, providing comfort when their pupils were homesick or distressed.

Maureen Brass described preparations at St Dominic’s Infant School, London

‘The week before the evacuation, we gave parents lists of what the
children should bring with them, made labels showing their names,
the name of the school and the school number. Ours was school
number 0302. On the morning of September 1st 1939, the children
assembled in school around 7.00am. The staff had arrived at 6.00am.
At 8.00am we set out from the school, waved off by tearful mothers,
grandmothers and others. The groups, Seniors, Juniors and Infants,
with staff and helpers, walked in fours to Kentish Town West Station.
We all boarded a train that was waiting for us and set out into the
unknown.’

Mary Richardson taught at Cork Street School, Camberwell, and recalled the school’s arrival in Kent;

‘Each teacher was assigned 10 children and after a long train journey,
we arrived at Sevenoaks where we were neatly put into cattle pens
to be counted. We then caught another train and arrived at Brasted
station, which is quite a distance from the village, so when we
arrived at the church hall we were a sorry sight – tired, thirsty and
afraid. Mothers came and chose us and I was seized upon by the
lady at the village shop and bakehouse. We had promised to try to
keep families together but with four Peabody girls and four
Sparrowhawk boys, this proved impossible. Some of the younger children had head lice, some had wet themselves and their clothing was dirty,
ragged and unsuitable. However, the Kent ladies were brilliant, extra
clothing was found, menus were changed to accommodate townies
who never ate ‘greens’ and cuddly toys given to comfort the weepy ones.’

Guernsey children and teachers arrive July 1940 in Disley Cheshire

Guernsey evacuees and their teachers arrive in Cheshire, 1940

When the children arrived at their new billets, they wrote their new address on a postcard, together with a short message for their parents. Their teachers advised them to write phrases which would cheer up their anxious parents, such as ‘Dear Mum and Dad, am living with nice people. I am very happy. Don’t worry about me.’ However, this had tragic consequences for one little boy and his family. He left his new billet, placed his postcard, with the above message, in the letter box then went for a walk. Sadly he fell into a canal and drowned. His family were advised of his death that evening, but two days later, his postcard with its poignant little message arrived at their home.

In many cases, whole schools were evacuated to open air camps in the countryside. When Derby School was evacuated to Amber Valley in Derbyshire, the teachers became virtual ‘foster parents’ to 200 boys. Elisabeth Bowden’s father was the Headmaster of Derby School and she moved into the camp with her parents;

‘Mum, Dad and I lived in a bungalow whilst the pupils and the other teachers
were billeted around the camp in large wooden huts. It was a huge responsibility
for those adults, in charge of 200 boys. Mother had some petrol because
she drove the emergency vehicle. Several times she had to take boys
with broken arms, limbs and that sort of thing, to hospital.’

Although many evacuees received loving care from their wartime foster parents, others did not. Children endured physical and mental cruelty at the hands of unsuitable hosts because billets were not fully vetted before the children were placed there. Children were sometimes ‘rescued’ from these situations because their teachers noticed their unhappiness or observed bruises and marks.

Peggy and Betty White were evacuated to Oxford and were very happy in the home of Mr and Mrs Murphy. However, when Mrs Murphy was due to have a baby, the girls had to move out and, as Peggy recalls, their next billet was very different;

‘We moved in with Mrs Fisher who turned out to be the most wicked
woman we had ever met. From the very next day, we were beaten
and made to do all the housework before going to school. We had to
get up at five each morning and we were sent to bed as soon as we
got in from school. As an extra punishment we would be shut, one
at a time, in a dark coal-shed all night. We lived there for about a year,
which to us seemed like forever. One day Betty’s teacher, Mrs Payne,
saw the terrible bruises on her. She questioned us both, and we said that Mrs
Fisher would kill us if we ever told anyone. Mrs Payne took us back to the
house and told us to pack our belongings in a suitcase while she had words
with Mrs Fisher. Then we all left. As we walked along the road in
the gathering dusk, with our battered suitcase balanced precariously on
Mrs Payne’s bicycle, she said, ‘Where would you like to live most of all?’
Betty and I cried in unison, ‘With Mrs Murphy.’ She replied, ‘That’s just
where we are going.’ We skipped the rest of the way there. Mrs Murphy
cried when she saw us and so did we.’

The teachers who remained with their evacuated pupils carried a huge burden of responsibility during the war. Miss Grace Fry’s life was completely changed by her wartime experiences. She was evacuated with her pupils from Guernsey to Scotland for five years and remarked some years later, ‘It was the evacuation that decided me, I was not going to get married and I wasn’t going to have children because I had had enough with all that during the war.’ Looking back today, child evacuee, Kathleen Cowling, believes, ‘We were very fortunate in having teachers who stayed with us throughout the war years and provided some continuity in our lives – they sacrificed a lot.’ John Davis adds, ‘My memory is of the unfailing kindness of the staff at a time when their own personal lives must have been under great stress, as well as the responsibility of teaching and caring for such a large number of children in very difficult circumstances.

My latest book, ‘Britain’s Wartime Evacuees’ can be viewed here:

evacueeshttps://www.amazon.co.uk/Britains-Wartime-Evacuees-Evacuations-Accounts/dp/1848324413/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

My sincere thanks to Gillian for this post. You can find out more about her valuable work at her blog https://evacueesofworldwartwo.wordpress.com/

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