Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to Seale-Hayne Hospital, near Newton Abbot in Devon, to meet Ray Bartlett, Chair of the Seale Haynians, who has a special interest in the role of Seale-Hayne as a military hospital during the Great War. The building is now run by one of Britain’s oldest charities, Hannah’s (run by the Dame Hannah Rogers Trust) which is ‘dedicated to empowering children, young people and adults with profound physical and learning disabilities, providing them with life-changing opportunities and advocating their needs…… challenging societal beliefs and cultural acceptances surrounding disabled people with the aim of making disability incidental.’
I have written about Seale-Hayne before, as I researched the work of Dr Arthur Hurst there for both Shell Shocked Britain and a lengthy article for Britain at War magazine, so I was thrilled to be able to appreciate the beautiful buildings first hand. Hurst was the doctor behind the grainy black and white films detailing the experiences of men admitted suffering from the effects of shell shock and he made claims for a cure rate of around 90%, a figure that has been challenged along with his methods. Much of the controversy seems to be caused by a 21st century determination to judge methods used 100 years ago by present day standards. This applies not just to the treatment regime but to the making of documentary films, and it has infuriated Ray Bartlett, and others on the research team working to find out more about the men who spent time at the hospital in 1917 and 1918.
Having discussed this controversy in a previous post Shell Shock on film – myth or reality, I won’t detail it again, but the matter is complex. Ray was generous with his time and I enjoyed hearing first hand his enthusiastic defence of the doctor. Real or reconstructed, the symptoms exhibited by the men on the films are as described in much of the documentary evidence of the time, and Hurst’s use of hypnosis and suggestion achieved its greatest success in the reduction of ‘somatic’ or physical symptoms – facial tics, contractures, sensory impairment for example. How far he ‘cured’ men of the impact of the psychological trauma of war is certainly debatable. Ray and the team have uncovered success stories, particularly that of Percy Meek, the ‘star’ of the films, but the psychiatrists of the First World War were notoriously bad at follow-up, and the numbers breaking down post war suggest that for many, respite was short-lived.
Ray Bartlett thinks Seale-Hayne is magical, and having visited it I have to agree with him. The men treated for shell shock were given the opportunity to work on the farm land around the hospital, rest in the grounds and use the workshop space to gradually rebuild their skills at woodwork, pottery and basket making. The views across the rolling Devon countryside are stunning (although there is concern that housing developments are encroaching at an alarming rate) and the peace and quiet can only have been beneficial to the traumatised minds of men sent home from the Front so desperately damaged.
What is so significant though is how, despite being housed in buildings that spent much of the 20th century as an agricultural college (the purpose for which it was built, before it was briefly used as a military hospital), Hannah’s has somehow taken on the mantle of Hurst’s work nearly 100 years ago. People with profound disabilities have opportunities to work alongside members of the local community in areas dedicated to horticulture and creative arts. Art exhibitions, small creative businesses and story telling areas sit alongside sports facilities, hydrotherapy pool and a polytunnel. Psychological therapies are available, as is accommodation for respite care. The similarities to Hurst’s mission are significant, but because it is the 21st century, there is a bistro, shop and other ways to support the building financially, offering meeting and conference facilities.
I spent some time in the Old Library, sitting with Ray in an environment that is redolent of the original Edwardian atmosphere and I saw the small archive they have built up, much of which is currently on display in the Newton Abbot Museum’s First World War exhibition sited in the Great Hall. The Seale-Haynians and Hannah’s are keen to hear from anyone descended from patients or staff at the hospital, or anyone with a story of that time to share and I hope to be able to help them with some of the family history research necessary to identify the families of patients they know to have been treated there.
I would like to thank Ray and Hannah’s for welcoming me, and I was thrilled to have my photo taken on the very steps down which the men are filmed taking the first footsteps to some kind of recovery. I was surprised to find architecture so unchanged over a century, and one could genuinely feel that should ghosts exist, the spirits of those tormented men who sought help from Dr Hurst could be roaming the high-ceilinged corridors and rooms of the old building.
Shell Shocked Britain has offered me the opportunity for some wonderful experiences, and the visit to Seale-Hayne was one of the loveliest.