Tag Archives: Birmingham

Disability and the Great War

Wounded soldiers wearing their ‘convalescent blues’ on Victory Celebration Day at the 1st Southern General military hospital, Edgbaston, c. 1918-9 [Ref MS 4616]

This November, to mark the centenary of the armistice, Voices of War and Peace and the Library of Birmingham collaborated to organise an exhibition showcasing work about the First World War that has been carried out by local community organisations since 2014. Two of the projects displayed in the exhibition researched and presented information about injured and disabled soldiers. In honour of Disability History Month, and as Research Assistant for Voices of War and Peace, it seems appropriate to write about what I have learned about disability and the Great War.

The scale of the First World War was unprecedented and unexpected, putting a massive strain not only those on the front line but also on the home front. The injured soldiers returning home created a huge demand for hospital services. In Birmingham, Rubery Hill War Hospital opened in 1915, and then a second war hospital, Hollymoor, opened shortly after. As the war progressed, these hospitals were not enough to keep up with the need for medical services in the area. Large private houses across the Birmingham area were donated, such as Highbury in Moseley, to become treatment centres. The University of Birmingham buildings were also adapted for the uses of war, becoming the 1st Southern General in September 1914. Aston Webb was appropriated as a hospital, as well as ten other buildings on campus, and tents were also erected on the grounds. You can see archival images of the University and Highbury as treatment centres in the exhibition. By 1919, 125,000 patients from across the globe had been treated in Birmingham. These facts and statistics really give a sense of how many lives must have been completely changed by the war.

VAD nursing staff with wounded soldiers in the Great Hall main ward (Aston Webb building) of 1st Southern General military hospital, Edgbaston c. 1914-8 [MS 4616]

By the end of the war, about forty-thousand men had lost their arms or legs, leaving them permanently disabled. Many of them could no longer do the jobs that they had before the war, and some had to completely re-learn how to live independently. Immediately after the war, the war hospitals helped the men recover from their injuries. After serving the war, and literally giving part of themselves to the effort, the returning soldiers expected their country to now look after them in their time of need. Although there were schemes like the ‘Kings National Roll’ (1919) that were implemented by the state, they were mostly unsuccessful. It was charity organisations that provided ‘sheltered’ employment that helped the soldiers rehabilitate themselves. An example of ‘sheltered’ employment would be Thermega, teaching men how to make electric blankets. Another example is training men to be prosthetic fitters at Roehampton. It was charity organisations providing these services that gave these disabled servicemen a second chance after the war.

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The Southern Cross – The Journal of the 1st Southern General Hospital R.A.M.C.T. Birmingham

The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham is now well-known as the home of the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine providing specialist care for wounded members of the armed forces. The treatment of war casualties in Birmingham has a long history dating back to the First World War when wounded servicemen from all over the world were treated here.

One of the largest war hospitals in the city, and the first to open, was the First Southern General Hospital which was housed in the buildings of the University of Birmingham in Edgbaston. Following the declaration of war on 4 August 1914, the Royal Army Medical Corps Territorial Unit received orders to mobilise and the following day beds and mattresses began to arrive at the University buildings. The first convoy of 120 sick and wounded men arrived on 1 September, and by the end of 1914 the First Southern General had 800 beds and had received 3,892 patients.

First cover of The Southern Cross, Issue No. 1. January 1916. [Ref. MS 2046 (1985/093)]

The Southern Cross was a monthly journal produced by patients of the hospital, with the first edition being published in 1916.  Through written articles, illustrations and anecdotal jokes, the journal proved to be a reflection of the day to day life in the hospital and to act as a ‘reference in years to come when it is wished to refresh memories – pleasant but possibly not untinged with sadness – of what the reader or his friends did for their country in the greatest war the world has ever seen’ (MS 2046 (1985/093)).

Caricature ‘Till the Boys Come Home’ from The Southern Cross, Issue No. 8 p. 173. [Ref. MS 2046 (1985/0930)]

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Living with Buildings – Preparing for an exhibition

One of the joys of living and working in a city like Birmingham is being able to look at all the different architectural styles and buildings found side-by-side throughout the city. Examples range from the Neo-Classical Town Hall, to more contemporary buildings such as The Cube and the Library of Birmingham. Buildings play such a role in our daily lives that they can contribute to our physical and mental health in positive and negative ways. A great example of a location where buildings have contributed positively to the health of the community in Birmingham is Bournville.

Earlier on in the year, a request for a loan came through from the Wellcome Collection to borrow some of our Bournville Village Trust documents. As a conservator, this is one of the parts of my job that I enjoy the most as it is an opportunity for these documents to be seen by a wider audience. It also allows people to learn about the history of Bournville and see how revolutionary this model village was and still is.

Once the initial request had come through specifying which documents the Wellcome wanted to borrow, I assessed each item on whether it needed conservation treatment, what environmental conditions it needed to be displayed at, what the lighting level should be, whether it was to be in a display case or framed and making sure that the Wellcome’s exhibition space was secure and would meet our standards for Exhibition and Loan. Once this had been agreed with the Wellcome, I was then able to commence conservation treatment and prepare the documents for display.

Before and after conservation treatment and mounting [MS 1536/ Box 5/Correspondence of George Cadbury- Letter to Lloyd George, February 17th 1916, Page 2]

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The Legacy of War

The First World War signified a change in the conduct of war. War was now waged on an unprecedented scale against both military forces and civilian populations. The mass mobilisation of military firepower led to untold devastation on the battlefields, campaigns which left millions dead.

Emerging from this ‘total war’ were cases of shell shock, soldiers psychologically affected by the harsh reality of 20th century warfare. Still a relatively new diagnosis, the first use of the term shell shock was believed to have been recorded in the Lancet in 1915 when Charles Myers, Captain in the Royal Army medical Corps, published his article ‘A Contribution to the Study of Shell Shock. Being an Account of Three Cases of Loss of Memory, Vision, Smell and Taste, Admitted into the Duchess of Westminster’s War Hospital, Le Touquet.’

Order for the Reception of a Dangerous Lunatic Soldier. [HC AS]

There are only a handful of surviving records from the psychiatric hospitals in Birmingham dating from the First World War. In the records of All Saints Hospital are reception orders for those admitted to the hospital. These include ‘Service’ patients who were members of the armed forces who had experienced attacks of a psychological kind that had left them with symptoms including those of hallucinations, apathy, loss of memory or understanding, restlessness and the inability to answer simple questions.  In some cases, these men already had pre-existing conditions. In 1917 one soldier, whose cause of attack was unknown, was described as ‘… deluded imagining his food is poisoned. He told me that he was surrounded by enemies who wished to take his life.’ [MS 344/15/14]. We don’t know the full details of this soldier’s condition, however the effects of war seem to be obvious.

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Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution by Priya Satia

For Black History Month, this week’s blog post is a review of a recent addition to our holdings:  Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution by Priya Satia published this year by Duckworth Overlook.

At the heart of this studious discourse rests an argument which provides a new appraisal of the forces which drove Britain’s place at the forefront of the industrial revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The central premise of the tome is that the real cause of economic and imperial expansion was due to an exceedingly lucrative military contracting the production of guns and other weaponry which kept the nation in an almost constant state of production and warfare. This revisionist view of the genesis of the industrial revolution places conflict and Britain’s global expansionist desires very much at the forefront of the country’s change to an industrialised nation.

The book is thoroughly researched as evidenced by the extensive footnotes and bibliography, but it also contains an emotional core – in the preface the author describes how a family conflict over a bequeathment heightened to a standoff which involved a gun and the ease with which the trigger can easily be pulled. From this episode the author expands upon and explores further some of the legacy issues brought about by British colonial expansion in the Indian Sub  – Continent which may have contributed as factors in the family turmoil.

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Sporting Heritage: A Victorian Baths

National Sporting Heritage Day, held on 30th September, was established to highlight sporting heritage post the 2012 Olympics. More information can be found on the National Sporting Heritage website.

As an enthusiastic swimmer, and occasional dipper in its pool, Woodcock Street Baths, now called The Sir Doug Ellis Woodcock Sports Centre, seemed an ideal subject to investigate in recognition of the day for the Iron Room.

Frontage, Woodcock Street, Public Baths Photos [Acc. 2012/146]

Woodcock Street Baths opened in 1860, the second baths to open in the city after Kent Street in 1851. Their formation was prompted by the Baths Act of 1846, whereby local authorities were obliged to provide bathing and washing facilities for residents.

The original architect of Woodcock Street Baths was Edward Holmes, who designed and built the baths for £12,000. At their opening they consisted of an engineer’s quarters, swimming baths, and private washing baths for men and women, each with their own plunge pool. In 1902, the building was completely renovated and a First Class Swimming and Baths were added.

Plan of Woodcock Street Baths [BCC 200]

This above ‘proposed’ plan is by Holmes. If it was for the initial construction, it suggests that originally the two pools were intended for men only. I’m unclear without additional research if this is what was actually built as much of the literature suggests that first class swimming and baths were added in a 1902 renovation, and that women had swimming facilities from the outset.

Plan of Woodcock Street Baths, 1920s [in Souvenir Programme of Gala Baths, LP 25.12]

In 1926, the washing facilities were again revamped and this time, a gala baths was added for events.

Programme 1929 [LP 25.12]

This programme above from 1929 highlights how events at the Gala Baths attracted local, national, and international competitors—a Miss Joyce Cooper of London, and two competitors from Holland, Miss Marie Braun, and Miss Marie Baron, who all took part in the non-local events, including relay races, 100 yards back-stroke, 100 yards free-style, 200 yards breast-stroke, plus an ‘Education Exhibition of Correct Strokes’ and ‘Ornamental, Scientific and Trick Diving’.

Programme 1959 [LP 25.12]

The Gala Baths held many different championships, including water polo tournaments and also ‘Speed Swimming’ contests as this programme from 1949 demonstrates. Improvements were also made to the lighting, as in 1948 under-water lighting was added to aid both swimmers and to help display the swimmers’ abilities for the audience.

Gala Baths, Woodcock Street, Public Baths Photos [Acc. 2012/146]

Many more modernisations of the baths have been made in the subsequent years, for example in the 1980s the Gala pool was covered over and turned into an assembly/sports hall. The most recent changes I’m aware of took place in 2010 when the complex was again refurbished (bringing a hiatus to my attending a very pleasant aquafit class!)

Swimming baths, Woodcock Street, Public Baths Photos [Acc. 2012/146]

As I understand, only the Second Class Baths from 1902 still remain. They are, however, beautifully restored.

Rachel Clare, Senior Archives Assistant

Further reading:

History of the Corporation Vol II, Bunce [BCOL 31 HIS]
The City of Birmingham Baths Department, 1851-1951, Moth. J [L45.33 MOT]
BCC Baths Committee [BCC 1/BN/1/1/1-]

St. Oswald’s Camp, Rubery

St. Oswald’s Camp, 1923 [MS 703 (1961/001)]

This year is the 30th anniversary of the opening of Rubery Community and Leisure Centre, located on Holywell Road, Rubery.  Opened in 1988 after a number of years of fund-raising and renovation of the derelict facilities on the site, the centre offers sports and other activities to the local community. However, the history of the site goes back well beyond the 1980s as the land had been used for recreational purposes since the early years of the 20th century, when it was given to the Mid-Worcester and Class XIV Sub-Union of the Midland Adult School Union (MASU) for use as a weekend holiday centre.

St. Oswald’s Camp, n.d. [MS 703 (1961/001)]

The donors of the land were the brothers, Edward (1873-1948) and George Cadbury Junior (1878-1960), both of whom, like their father George Cadbury (1839 -1922), were active in adult school work with the Class XIV group of schools based in south-west Birmingham and North Worcestershire.  Arthur T. Wallis, secretary of the Mid-Worcester and Class XIV Sub-Union schools, wrote in the  1956 Jubilee Celebration leaflet that when the brothers built their houses in the Lickey Hills, they greatly appreciated returning to the peace and beauty of the countryside after spending the working day at the Cadbury chocolate factory in Bournville.

St. Oswald’s Camp, n.d. [MS 703 (1961/001)]

So that others less fortunate than themselves could also enjoy it, they set aside a seven acre field, a wood and a bathing pool, and arranged for a Dutch barn accommodating 25 people, a kitchen with a cooking range and water boiler, and club room to be built and furnished. The site was named St. Oswald’s Camp, after a monk who is said to have lived there in a stone cell and distributed water from the Holy well, located on the edge of the camp and still in use by local villagers at the time the camp was established. Opened by Edward Cadbury on 6th June 1906, the camp was run by volunteers from the adult school movement,

…to provide, at the most modest charges possible, opportunity for such change from the ordinary routine as will provide full refreshment for body, mind and spirit both for members of the Schools and others who wish to avail themselves of it.

(Jubilee leaflet 1956, MS 703 (1961/001))

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