Stories from St George’s: The Gunpowder Mill Worker

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This guest post is written by Dr Carol Shiels,
Museum Curator and Senior Lecturer at St George’s, University of London.

The anniversary of the failed Gunpowder plot is celebrated each year with fireworks and bonfires. If the plot had succeeded, the 36 barrels of gunpowder would have resulted in an explosion that would have destroyed Westminster. In this blog article we get an insight into the world of gunpowder production from an account of a patient at St George’s Hospital in 1850.

In London, a major site of gunpowder production was the Hounslow Powder mills, near Twickenham, in what is now Crane Park. In 1850 a large explosion occurred and a 21-year-old labourer was injured . He was only 5 metres away from the blast site and as a result of the explosion a beam fell on him and flames enveloped him as the loose gunpowder on his face and clothes caught fire. He was able to throw himself into one of the nearby rivers and was taken to St George’s Hospital at Hyde Park Corner. He was admitted to the hospital with his face black, his skin scorched and blistered and his hair and beard burnt away in places.  His major injury was a broken elbow joint; the pointed end of his elbow (part of the ulna) had broken off and the ulna was also fractured into three splinters.

Broken bones in the 19th century were often a life-threatening injury. Caesar Hawkins, a senior surgeon at St George’s, decided to amputate the arm just above the elbow joint. A few years previously this would have been a severe and painful operation, but the recent use of chloroform as an anaesthetic during surgery meant he had a pain free operation. It went well with little blood loss and the patient had an uneventful but restless night. He was given opium to help with the pain and over the next few days his arm healed well with no swelling. Unrelated to the accident, the patient had a bad cough, producing dark coloured foamy sputum. When questioned by Caesar Hawkins, he described this as commonplace in the men working in the charcoal house at the mill. This is most likely to be due to the inhalation of carbon dust from charcoal production and, as the patient confirmed, led to the early death of many workers at the mill.

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The elbow joint from the patient. It has been fixed in formaldehyde and displayed in a glass jar. This has been maintained in the Museum for 167 years.

Caesar Hawkins retained the patient’s elbow joint and added it to the collection of pathological specimens in St George’s Museum. He had discovered a piece of loose cartilage in the joint during the operation and described this as looking like a ‘bicuspid tooth from which the fangs had been removed’. Loose pieces of cartilage can be painful and can make movement of the affected joint difficult. Caesar Hawkins wrote an account of the case and it was published in a 1850 volume of the Lancet. Both the patient’s elbow joint and this early edition of the Lancet are still part of the St George’s Museums and Archives collections.

Such accidents were not uncommon and 55 explosions were reported at the same powder mill over its working life; some described as being like an earthquake.  It is likely that many workers ended up at St George’s as a result of these accidents and their stories will be uncovered with further exploration and research into our Museums and Archives collection.

 


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St George’s Library in 2016

As 2016 draws to an end, we bring to you the highlights for St George’s Library.

Supporting RAG Week

Dragon toy in a box with money

This year, the Library supported St George’s Students’ Union’s Raising and Giving Week by donating fines for a day and raised £137.45. The supported charities were Equip Africa, MACS and St George’s Hospital Charity.

App Swap

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We’ve been continuing with our App Swap events. where staff and students get to talk about the apps that they have used, or have been involved with. Response has been great from student and staff who have attended, include Learning Advocate Ele Clancey. We aim to run more next year.

Supporting 10 Days of Wellbeing

June was the month for peace and relaxation in the Library, not least because it saw the St George’s Staff Development team launch its first “10 Days of Wellbeing” programme. We supported the new initiative by putting out a book swap trolley in the library foyer, where students and staff were encouraged to pick up or drop off books to share with others. We also added a selection of Mood-Boosting Books to the library collection.  To date, the most popular title of the Library’s 2016 Mood-Boosting collection is The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain.

Library Refresh

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Regular library users might have noticed a few changes to the look of the library, especially the main Quiet Study Group area; this year we replaced all our chairs, brought in round tables, and then brought back rectangular tables due to student demand. We also added screens to create a more flexible study space and help reduce noise. We’re always looking for ways that we can make the space work better for all our users and are open to feedback – let us know if you have any thoughts by speaking to staff or filling in a feedback form at the Library helpdesk.

Extended Opening Hours

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In response to student feedback and after running some successful trials, this July we were pleased to announce that during the 2016/17 academic year we would once again be offering extended opening hours.

We’re now open longer than ever before; offering 24 hour access to the Library from 8am on Monday mornings to 9pm Saturday evenings and 9am-9pm on Sundays.

Library Treasure Hunt

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The start of the new academic year is always very busy for library staff and this September/October was no different as we welcomed all our new undergraduate and postgraduate students – we hope you are all now well settled in to life at St George’s! Alongside our busy programme of induction sessions, we ran a Treasure Hunt featuring a number of clues and activities to help new students find their way around the Library and its resources.

Fresher’s Fayre Winners

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Thank you to everyone who took part in our Social Media competition by liking our Facebook page and following us on Twitter. Our lucky prize draw winners went away with Honest Burger vouchers, Blossom tote bags and a St George’s teddy among other prizes. We also gave away a £20 Amazon voucher in our Treasure Hunt prize draw. Best of all, everyone who took part in the Social Media Competition can now get useful Library updates straight to their Twitter and Facebook feeds!

New Book Display

In September we introduced a book display to showcase various resources that we think you will find helpful.  Previous displays included our best books on study skills, and online resources recommended by the Learning Advocates.  Come and take a look to see what delights we have in store for the New Year!  You’ll find the display near the Library Helpdesk.

Children in Need

On 18th November we raised £100 for BBC Children in Need’s annual fundraiser by raising money through our staff sweepstake and donating fines. Pudsey was spotted all over the library waving hello.

Explore Archives

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In November we also participated in and celebrated Explore Your Archive week, a campaign organised by the UK National Archives and the Archives and Records Association. We ran two handling sessions where selected objects were taken from the archives and displayed.  The history of each object was shared by the archivist Elisabeth. It was enlightening to find out more about our history and wonderful to share in the positive reactions and interest from staff and students at St George’s who attended.  The sessions were supported by a series of daily hashtags showcasing photos from our archives. We loved taking part in Explore Your Archives and learnt more about the fascinating history of St George’s’.

Christmas at St George’s

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We end our blog with an original photograph from the archives showing St George’s Hospital at Hyde Park Corner at Christmas time in the mid-20th century.

In 2017 we are looking forward to working with all our users and the Students Union to continue to improve the study environment for everyone.

St George’s and the outbreak of the First World War.

This year marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The Library will be publishing four blog posts reflecting on the experiences of medical staff and patients during the conflict, not only at St George’s but within the wider medical community. The posts will be published at the beginning of each week during November starting from today. We hope you will find them interesting.

St Georges and the outbreak of war

The outbreak of war in August 1914 was accompanied by a swell of patriotism in Britain and many appeared to accept the morale boosting suggestion that the War would not only be easily won, but that it would also be ‘over by Christmas’. Although confidence in the British Empire ran high, others were less sanguine and their outlook was epitomised by Viscount Grey’s famous comment of that same month:

‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, and we shall not see them lit again in our life-time’ (Spender, 1925, pp. 14-15).

At St George’s Hospital and Medical School however, both administration and staff appeared to share the  enthusiasm of the nation for war. A writer in the St George’s Hospital Gazette described the:

‘patriotism of the younger and (many of the older men)’. He continued to note that within a few days of the declaration of war ‘practically the entire resident and non-resident staff volunteered their services to the Admiralty or War Office ‘(St George’s Hospital Gazette, Oct 1914, p. 99).

The dark side of this burgeoning patriotism also revealed itself. Forty nurses were reported to have attempted to have a housekeeper with a German name removed from her position; she only survived by revealing she had changed her nationality (Bloomfield, 1933, p. 92).

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Title plate from The St George’s Hospital Gazette, October 1914.

The first effect of the war upon St George’s was the loss of medical personnel to the Territorial regiments or the Royal Naval reserve. They were soon joined by professional nursing staff; in October 2014 alone twenty two joined the British Red Cross Society (St Georges Hospital Gazette, Oct 1914, p. 106). At the same time there was naturally no respite in the workload of a busy London hospital. Visiting staff and Registrars stepped in to take resident posts, retired employees returned to work and despite placing a hundred beds at the disposal of the War Office, the hospital coped. This was partially ascribed to:

‘… Certain rearrangements evolved in the depths of the brain of the Superintendent, who , fortunately, is an ex-Wrangler…’ (St Georges Hospital Gazette, Oct 1914, p. 100).

The first major engagement, The Battle of Mons, took place in August 1914 and St George’s staff who had volunteered saw service soon after signing up. A St George’s medic wrote of treating casualties who had arrived after a lengthy train journey at an unnamed military hospital in France:

‘Of the wounds I need not say much, except that taken on the whole they were more severe than one sees in England’ he continued ‘The more severe injuries however, especially those caused by shrapnel were generally very foul, with a certain amount of gangrene and cellulitis’ (St George’s Hospital Gazette, Oct 1914, pp. 97 – 98).

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Walking wounded 1916 (photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum).

Most of the younger doctors who volunteered from St George’s and elsewhere had no experience of military medicine. Some of the senior medical staff however had held military rank and worked in theatres of war, particularly during the Boer War. A letter published by the Lancet in September 1915 reflected this:

I have looked up my old notebooks relating to my experiences of the Boer war and Zululand rebellion of 1906 in the hope that [they] may be of use to others who have not had the advantage of previously treated cases of rifle wounds’ ( The Lancet, 1914, pp. 642–44).

In hindsight this might seem naïve, but during the early stages of the conflict few comprehended that advances in medical science such as blood transfusions would be matched by advances in weaponry. Medical establishments had historically evolved from military and religious organisations. This was reflected by the hierarchical disciplined systems adopted by institutions such as St George’s. The organisation of nursing on the wards had developed from Florence Nightingale’s theories, which were themselves condensed from her experiences in the Scutari Military Hospital during the Crimean War (Nightingale, 1859). In that, and subsequent conflicts, the majority of deaths were caused by infection and disease rather than injury, so the importance of medical care in contributing to military success was understood. Moreover advances in medicine including an awareness of sepsis and disinfection had improved recovery rates from injury. The late Victorian and Edwardian eras had also witnessed a growth in interest in public health including sanitation, infection control and hygiene. Therefore it is not surprising that there was initially a degree of confidence in modern medicine’s ability to deal with the war wounded.

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Interior of a military hospital ward in Cambridge (photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum).

As the war continued, the adoption of trench warfare meant the combination of wound and infection would become a major and recurrent challenge. The first shipment of wounded back to St George’s arrived on the King’s and Hope Wards in mid-October 1914. (St George’s Hospital Gazette, Oct 1914, p.100). John Lavery’s painting: The First Wounded, London Hospital, August 1914 although somewhat idealised suggests how the wards at St George’s might have looked. In the painting the wounds are probably not depicted in their full severity but the injuries and conditions prevalent amongst those admitted would have been similar to those treated at St George’s later that year. The most common problem was frostbite which continued to be the case throughout the war (Atenstaadt, 2006). Infections were also rife as was rheumatism, most probably caused by trench fever. Of the trauma cases upper limb injuries were more numerous (Park and Park, 2011). Although hospitals like St George’s were at this point staffed by professional medics and nurses used to treating infection and trauma, the scale and violence of the injuries must have profoundly affected the staff working with the first tranches of war casualties.

(c) Rosenstiel's; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

John Lavery. The First Wounded, London Hospital, August 14 (courtesy of Dundee Art Gallery).

This seems to have concentrated the minds of some medics, as a less grim consequence of the outbreak of war at St George’s was a rush to marry sweethearts, with the Gazette recording four such marriages (St Georges Hospital Gazette, Oct 1914, p. 108).

The effects of the War and the speed of its escalation in terms of manpower and effort can be detected within issues of the St George’s Hospital Gazette which appeared during its early months. As the war continued the numbers of St George’s staff involved increased and some were taken prisoner, injured, or killed in action. One of the first casualties was Septimus Hibbet, a House Physician at St George’s who was lost with the H.M.S Formidable in January 1915, one of the first battleships to be sunk during the war (St George’s Hospital Gazette, Oct 1914, p.102). In a surreal footnote a survivor of this sinking was reputed to have been resuscitated by a sheepdog called ‘Lassie’ who may have provided the inspiration for the famous Hollywood films (Clarke, 2008).

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HMS Formidable (photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Atenstaadt, R. L. (2006) ‘Trench foot: the medical response in the First World War 1914 – 1918’, Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, 17(4), pp: 282 -289.

Blomfield , J. (1933) St George’s 1733 – 1933. London: The Medici Society.

Clarke, N. (2008) Shipwreck Guide to Dorset and South Devon. Charmouth: Nigel J. Clarke Publications

Ministry of Information First World War. (2014) Ward of the 1st Eastern General Hospital which stands on the grounds of Kings and Clare Cricket Fields, Cambridge. Available at: http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//290/media-290607/large.jpg (Accessed: 29 October 2014).

Lavery, J. (1915) The First Wounded, London Hospital, August 1914 [Oil on canvas]. Dundee Art Gallery, Dundee.

Nightingale, F. (1859) Notes on Nursing: What it is and What it is Not. London: Blackie & Son.

Park, M. P. and Park, R. H. R. (2011) ‘Art in wartime: The First Wounded, London Hospital, August 1914’, Medical Humanities, 17(1), pp: 23-26.

Spender, J. A. (1927) Life, Journalism and Politics. London: Cassell and Company Ltd.

(1913-1914) St Georges Hospital Gazette.

(1914-1919) St Georges Hospital Gazette (1914 – 1919), 22.

The Royal Navy 1914 – 1918. HMS Formidable. Available at: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205319700 (Accessed: 29 October 2014).