Tag Archives: Disability History Month

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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Explore Your Archive: Disability History Month 2016

Blue Celebrated

MS 4647 William Robert Mackenzie

William Robert Mackenzie (left) [MS 4647]

 One of the interesting accessions received at Archives and Collections, Library of Birmingham, back in 2013 was papers and photographs about William Robert Mackenzie (b. 1920) and his working life at Parkinson Cowan, (formerly the Parkinson Stove Company), later Thorn Gas Appliances Ltd.   [Accession 2013/167  MS 4647]

The factory was on Flaxley Road, Stechford, Birmingham, and Mr Mackenzie worked there from 1935 – 1983, beginning as tea boy and finishing as Departmental Manager for the Spares Department and Sheltered Workshop.

Mr Mackenzie was an active member of the Association for Research into Restricted Growth, advising on employment, and he helped to develop a Sheltered Workshop for people at Thorn Gas Appliances Ltd. who became disabled after joining the firm.


Article from the collection recognising the ‘Fit for Work’ award.  [MS 4647]

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Employment of Disabled Ex-Servicemen

As a result of the effects of combat during the First World War, the lack of available employment for disabled ex-servicemen led to Henry Rothband (d. 1940) proposing, in 1917, a scheme named the King’s National Roll Scheme (KNRS), whereby, ‘every company in England and Wales with over ten employees (had) to ensure that no less than 5 per cent of their workforce comprised disabled ex-servicemen’.

The government was initially reluctant to implement the KNRS, but towards the end of 1918 they realized that employment problems were worsening, and a large number of disabled ex-servicemen were set to remain unemployed. This encouraged the state to establish the scheme in September 1919.  The scheme was voluntary, but employers were encouraged to take part by its advertisement as a way of honouring those who had served for their country. It became very successful, with around 89,000 men finding employment through it within a year and continued to be a success until 1944, when the compulsory Disabled Persons’ Employment Act took over.

Attempts to make the scheme compulsory, thus leading to greater employment of disabled ex-servicemen, were always overruled by the War Cabinet. It was, nevertheless, a beneficial way of encouraging employment and enabling disabled ex-servicemen to become more integrated into society.

Birmingham Corporation set up a Sub Committee of the General Purposes Committee  to consider  action on the employment of disabled ex- servicemen. At a meeting of the Sub Committee held on Friday 15 October 1920, consisting of the Rt. Hon. The Lord Mayor (Alderman W.A. Cadbury), Alderman Lloyd and Councillor Lancaster, a return from the General Purposes Committee was examined which showed the percentage of disabled men employed by the various Corporation departments in relation to the total number of male and female employees.


Minutes of the General Purposes Committee, Special Sub-Committees. October 1920. [BCC/1/AG/38/1/7]

Where departments had a very low percentage, as in the Asylums, Markets and Fairs, and Health departments, the Mayor felt that they should be asked to engage a sufficient number of disabled men to bring the proportion up to the 5% minimum.

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200 and Counting!

Here at The Iron Room, we are celebrating our 200th blog post today! The first post on The Iron Room was on 4 October 2011 and was an introduction to what we hoped to achieve with the blog – to highlight events and exhibitions, to showcase our collections and to provide advice for researchers.

We have continued to follow this ethos to this day and are proud to have supported important issues, as we are doing here with Disability History Month.  This year is of particular significance as Disability History Month examines the theme of War and Impairment: The Social Consequences of Disablement as the First World War led to an unprecedented number of soldiers returning with a disability.

The Gymnasium. Birmingham Hospitals, Highbury, First World War.

The Gymnasium. Birmingham Hospitals, Highbury, First World War.

The Voices of War and Peace programme of events includes a First World War Study Day this coming Saturday (6th December), examining the war in relation to injury, medicine and disability.  For further details and to make a booking for this free event, which is held at the Library of Birmingham, please visit the Voices of War and Peace website or the Library of Birmingham website.

The Voices of War exhibition also addresses the issues of disability in Birmingham as a result of the First World War and includes fascinating exhibits relating to the employment of disabled servicemen.

World War 1 poster asking employers to employ or train an ex-service man suitable for commerce of the professions

Poster asking employers to employ or train an ex-service man  [MS 4383]

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