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Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

London, City of Science 1550-1800, the new gallery at the Science Museum. This is a guest review by LH Member Laurence Scales, @LWalksLondon.

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From Holland Park to Tower Hamlets you cannot go far in London without crossing the path of a notable scientist or passing a place where an important innovation or experiment was made. The Science Museum in South Kensington has long been full of Londony objects, although even London Historians might be forgiven for not realising that.

When I visited recently, the Museum plans, signage and maps had yet to catch up with the opening of the new permanent addition, the ‘Science City 1550-1800’ gallery which is all about London. The new gallery, opposite the not-quite-so-new Clockmakers’ Museum (which relocated here from the Guildhall if you have not kept up with things) is on the second floor. It is, in part, a new and roomier setting for an old friend, the George III collection of scientific instruments, which has returned after a world tour of a couple of years or more. It is supplemented by some of the objects previously secreted in the archive of the Royal Society, rescued from the overflow store, or loaned from elsewhere.

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Astrolabe, check. Mural arc, check. Sextant, check. Orrery, check. The gallery has all the beautiful brass, copper, wood, enamel and (probably) ebony artifacts that you would expect. Though, if you are a stranger to the astrolabe, you are unlikely to appreciate more than its engraving, after a visit here. And I’m afraid I cannot do much to enlighten you either. (I once asked at the Oxford science museum how an astrolabe worked, and I clearly did not look intelligent enough to be granted an answer – though they were quite nice about it.) Now, I am not normally a fan of videos in museums. But here is one that is absolutely appropriate, and worth your time. It shows for a few minutes some of the craft that goes (went) into making these things – gears, mirrors, glass vessels and globes. (By the way, one of the segments was filmed at the Clockworks, West Norwood which is often a participant in Open House in September.)

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In the near future the Science Museum is going to open a temporary exhibition on The Art of Innovation. But it has always been quite possible to treat the Science Museum as a refreshingly different and eclectic art gallery. City of Science continues that strand. There is a portrait of Georgian aeronaut Mrs Letitia Sage, and a view of old Westminster Bridge being constructed with the aid of pile driver developed by (Huguenot?) James Valoue. Bibliophiles will be pleased to glimpse early editions of great works by John Evelyn and Robert Hooke.

And now, welcome to geeks corner. With the opening of this gallery, the Science Museum can boast two different dividing engines on display in different rooms! Just so you know, it’s a kitchen range sized rotating table for marking an accurate scale on a sextant or theodolite. (The one by Troughton long displayed downstairs is the one to see.) However, it was seeing a surveying chain made by celebrated instrument maker Jesse Ramsden and a piece of St Paul’s Cathedral’s original lightning conductor where I found my goosepimples pleasurably elevated. But that might not be the effect on everyone!

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What is in the gallery is admirable. But ‘science’ is a misnomer, and an oversimplification. This is a physical science and technology museum. This gallery offers an informative but blinkered view of science over the period in question. Here, you would not guess that there were advances during this period by Londoners unconnected with, or even disdained by, the Royal Society. Also, physiology (William Harvey?) and natural history (Hans Sloane?) are scarcely represented but for Robert Hooke’s magnified louse and other drawings. But the Natural History Museum is next door.

The unfortunate thing about the Science Museum (and any science museum) is that exhibits which are not pure art may be difficult to enjoy from a standing start. In this case, it may be worth glancing at Wikipedia to refresh your memory on the subject of the Royal Society and its early great names before you visit. Even when such care has been taken over the captions, it would aid understanding to have someone next to you getting excited at times, or making a connection with something more familiar – I think. Science City 1550-1800 is an attractive gallery. I hope it may whet the appetite of history enthusiasts to see more of the Science Museum, but note that it probably will not wow the average child for more than about a second.


Laurence Scales is a guide specialising in the history of science and technology in London, and a volunteer in the archives of both the Royal Institution and Royal Society of Arts. His tours cover the period from about 1550 to recent times.

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Gunpowder & Geometry: The Life of Charles Hutton, Pit Boy, Mathematician and Scientific Rebel by Benjamin Wardhaugh. This book review is a guest post by London Historians Member Laurence Scales. 

gngThis is the biography of Charles Hutton (1737-1823). Charles Who? To those in the know he was a Georgian mathematician. For those of you who might just possibly have overlooked him, he was the first person to draw a mountain using contour lines – for a grand project we will come to shortly.

To paint Hutton quickly with a few contour lines, he was a significant figure in publishing, gunnery and scientific politics. His is a story of a snakes and ladders career in the long 18th century for someone with few advantages of birth, but with wits and ambition. Social mobility at that time is something we usually think uncommon and remarkable though the exceptions are numerous: Humphry Davy from Penzance, George Stephenson from Tyneside and Thomas Telford from Scotland, for example. Some of them may have lived their whole life being regarded by nobility as oiks. But they were respected oiks, and able to afford comforts that many would envy. Hutton came from hewing coal to taking a plate of oysters with Sir John Pringle, the President of the Royal Society. Pringle’s successor, Sir Joseph Banks, was a snob and, as a plant collector, had no time for mathematics. The Royal Society came close to disintegrating. Hutton’s rift with the Royal Society gives the biography an edge.

Hutton was from Tyneside, but it was a home he quitted permanently for London when, as a young man, he was appointed a professor at the Woolwich Royal Military Academy then turning out cadets for the Royal Artillery and later Royal Engineers. The appalling behavior of cadets (and fellow staff) is typical of the colourful detail that makes his story enjoyable.

Within a few years Hutton was working on one of the greatest practical experiments of the age, nothing less than the weighing (more properly, calculating the density) of the Earth. The delicate measurements, hundreds of them, were taken in Scotland by the Astronomer Royal, and not in a nice comfortable Edinburgh observatory, but on a mountainside in the dreich. But the number crunching, requiring contour lines to size the mountain, was done by Hutton longhand in Woolwich.

Hutton was a glutton in that he had an extraordinary appetite for long, tedious and repetitive calculations, the details of which we are spared while still gaining insight into the vital but unrecognised toil behind the mathematical tables for astronomers, navigators, surveyors and financial houses. As you might expect from this period and our distance from it, individual women do not play a large part in this story, but a few, and many unknown women, are tantalisingly glimpsed.

An insight I have gained is that Hutton was, I might say, only an artisan mathematician – a virtuoso problem solver and a great teacher playing by all the known rules. But he did not change the game. Although Hutton read several languages it took Cambridge mathematicians such as mechanical computer pioneer Charles Babbage and others to challenge the staid British mathematical community by hailing continental brilliance.
The author, Benjamin Wardhaugh, is an Oxford academic spanning mathematics, history and music. He has slogged to tease out the differences in hundreds of pages in each of umpteen different editions of Hutton’s works to try and read his mind. We can appreciate his effort and, as a result, we are relieved of it. Wardhaugh has published academic papers on Hutton. This biography, nevertheless, comes to us with a light and engaging style while carrying the authority of an academic writer. Recommended.


Gunpowder & Geometry (312 pp, illustrated) by Benjamin Wardhaugh is published in hardback by Harper Collins.


Laurence Scales is a guide specialising in the history of science and technology in London, a volunteer in the archives of the Royal Institution and Royal Society of Arts, and is working on an alternative history of engineering.

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Guest post by LH member Mike Rendell. This article was first published in our Members’ Newsletter from February 2015.

In 1775 my ancestor went to Leicester Square to see an exhibition of natural curiosities at a museum recently opened by Ashton Lever. He wrote “Went with Wife, Daughter and Son Francis to see Sir Ashton Lever’s Collection of Natural Curiositiers, and curious they indeed are. Din’d at a beefstake house.”

Lever, who went on to be knighted by George III, had been a remarkable magpie of a collector of everything from stuffed birds, historical artefacts, fossils, shells and other natural history items. For a number of years in the early 1770’s he had exhibited them to casual callers at his home at Alkrington House near Manchester. He was used to getting more than 1000 visitors in a single year, scrambling to inspect his vast collection which filled over 1300 glass display cabinets. Running an open house with that number of visitors cannot have been easy. He hit on the idea of bringing the collection to a wider audience – and that meant opening a museum in London. He chose Leicester House, and took a lease of the premises in 1774. He then spent time and a considerable amount of money, in adapting it as a suite of display rooms, twelve in all, leading off a staircase in one long gallery. Walls were knocked down, doorways opened into wide archways, so that visitors could walk through from one room to the next without hindrance, looking at the 24,000 exhibits, mostly displayed in glass cabinets.

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View of Sir Ashton Lever’s Museum in Leicester Square, 1785.

He opened to the public in February 1775, giving it the name ‘Holophusicon’ (a made-up word from the Greek ‘holos’ meaning ‘whole’ and ‘phusikon’ meaning ‘of nature’). It must have been an extraordinary sight, with stuffed animals such as elephants and monkeys, alongside fossils and shells, stuffed birds, and Oliver Cromwell’s armour. Captain James Cook was apparently an admirer of the erudite Sir Ashton, and gave him a considerable amount of material brought back from his first and second voyages. This helped fuel a mania for Oceania – the public were enthralled at the display of artefacts from Tahiti etc, all displayed in a special Otaheite Room. After Cook died on his third voyage, further items were purchased for display in a Sandwich Islands Room, with weapons such as clubs and spears, ceremonial robes, paddles, utensils and so on.

The public were required to pay a fee – either by taking out an annual membership at a cost of two guineas, or by paying a single entrance fee of a quarter of a guinea (5/3d). Sir Ashton was forced to reduce this to half a crown (2/6d) because of falling visitor numbers. Poor Sir Ashton, he spent more and more money on his exhibits until the obsession got quite out of hand – the exhibits were independently valued at over £50,000. Facing bankruptcy, Sir Ashton wanted to sell the collection to the British Museum, which had opened thirty years earlier, but the trustees declined. It was also offered to the Empress Catherine II of Russia but she too turned down the chance to acquire the display as a single collection. Following the example of the jeweller James Cox, who had tried to sell his exhibition of automata by private lottery, in 1784 Sir Ashton applied to Parliament for permission to “dispose of the contents of his Museum, as now exhibited at Leicester House, by Way of Chance.”

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Sir Ashton Lever.

Parliament approved the scheme but only eight thousand tickets were sold, at a guinea each, out of a planned figure of 36,000. It was a pretty poor return for a man who had laid out thousands of pounds over many years. The lottery prize was drawn in March 1786 and went to a Law Stationer called James Parkinson, who got some 26,600 exhibits including over 1850 ethnographic items from the Pacific. After a year at Leicester House, where the entrance fee was dropped to one shilling a head, Parkinson decided to relocate the collection to the Rotunda in Albion Street, on the south side of Blackfriars Bridge. He dropped the name ‘Holophusicon’ and called it the Leverian Museum. By then Sir Ashton had died, and had nothing further to do with the museum which bore his name. For twenty years the exhibition continued to amuse and amaze the public at 3 Blackfriars Road, but in declining numbers. In 1806 the decision was made to sell the entire collection by auction. Once again the British Museum declined to have anything to do with it, and instead this remarkable collection was spread to all corners of the globe, furnishing many important museums with the cornerstone of important collections. These include Museums in Vienna, Honolulu, Berlin, Wellington and Sydney. The auction lasted a full 65 days, with the collection divided into 7879 lots. It raised a mere £ 6,642 13s 6d. For anyone wanting more information about the collection and the way it was divided up, have a look at Adrienne L. Kaeppler’s book Holophusicon, the Leverian Museum which came out in 2011. She is Curator of Oceanic Ethnology at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and she has put together a remarkable detective work in establishing ‘what went where’.

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A guest post by LH Member Laurence Scales. This article first appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter for February 2015.

London has been at the forefront of exploration beyond the naked eye by telescope and microscope. But another inspiration behind this article was Will Self, the sesquipedalian writer, who recently left London for the underground particle collider at Geneva to see if he could ‘feel the wonder’. (Self Orbits CERN, BBC Radio 4.)

He could not, and who could blame him? The instrumentation engineers, metaphorically looking under the bonnet of the detector, were somewhat detached from the wonder, and the absurd public relations people were bowling him sound bites as if he were a person unused to thinking. Nobody seemed to say to him that particle colliders are continuing an age old exploration of both the infinitesimally small and the infinitely large. A succession of Russian dolls has been opened up, often by Londoners. We may regard ourselves as one doll somewhere in the middle of the set.

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Particle collisions studied at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (European Centre for Nuclear Research, known as CERN)

Through the Lens
The first astronomers were limited to studying where the heavenly bodies appeared, and it helped them to cultivate and to navigate. A few weeks before Galileo obtained his telescope in 1609 Thomas Harriot at Syon Park pointed one at the moon and, drawing its imperfections, made the kind of observation that we are all capable of: ‘[It] lookes like a tarte that my Cooke made me last Weeke.’ Galilieo’s discovery of Jupiter’s moons was probably more significant in the long run.

In simple form the optical microscope and telescope both involve a pair of lenses. The main difference lies in where the focus of the lenses needs to be. Robert Hooke bought a microscope from Christopher Cock and published, despite terrible lenses, fine drawings he made of familiar objects such as a body louse in Micrographia in 1665. (Familiar? Eek!)

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From this we get the Hooke’s word ‘cell’ for the biological building block. Samuel Pepys found the book ‘so pretty that I presently bespoke it.’ Even before Micrographia, Pepys was already succumbing to the wonders of the microscope in 1664.

‘After dinner up to my chamber and made an end of Dr. Power’s booke of the Microscope, very fine and to my content, and then my wife and I with great pleasure, but with great difficulty before we could come to find the manner of seeing any thing by my microscope. At last did with good content…’

A lens usually has a spherical surface because it is easy to make it that way. Unfortunately it is not quite the right shape to focus properly and, even if it were, it would not focus the different colours in the same place. For the telescope, Isaac Newton solved the problem in 1668 by using a curved mirror instead of a lens, bouncing rather than bending the rays. Optician John Dollond, one of the Huguenot silk weavers of Spitalfields, was able to correct the problem for the lens by adding a layer of a different glass in 1758 (Actually, the idea came from a barrister of the Inner Temple). It is sad that such a name as Dollond should be discarded from the high street by the Philistines of our own time.

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1852 saw the construction of Reverend John Craig’s telescope on Wandsworth Common. The lens, two feet in diameter, was flawed and the tube dangled at the mercy of the wind. Not a failure of Victorian big science, this was one man’s folly.

Similar problems afflicted microscopes but as the microscope was more a toy than a scientific instrument it had to wait until 1826 for a similar solution by Joseph Jackson Lister. In 1827 botanist Robert Brown of Soho noticed pollen grains jiggling about under the microscope as if pummelled by unseen fists. This ‘Brownian motion’ is caused by invisibly small atoms and molecules striking the pollen. But no one knew it at the time. Atoms were, in 1827, only a theoretical abstraction.

We probably associate the microscope more with microbiology now than any other discipline. It is no coincidence that Lister’s son, the famous surgeon and pioneer of antiseptic surgery, unlike so many others, was receptive to the notion that invisible particles might contaminate and putrefy wounds. A few stones of Joseph Jackson Lister’s house remain in an east London park. Most accounts of the house do not bother to mention him.

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Joseph Jackson Lister

New Images
Particle physics had to be developed over the next century before there were further significant advances in microscopy, such as the electron microscope. If you can crystallise a substance then X-ray diffraction can reveal the structure. The beautiful patterns captured by researchers, some at the Royal Institution, sufficiently excited interior and fashion designers to incorporate them in their products and at the Festival of Britain in 1951. An X-ray image made at King’s College London in 1952 resolved the structure of DNA. Atomic force microscopes now make it possible to see single atoms as fuzzy blobs. Poking about inside the blobs is where particle colliders come in.

Early Victorian astronomers such as those at Greenwich were still limited to studying the position and motion of the heavenly bodies. William Hyde Wollaston, who lived just off Fitzroy Square, found in 1802 that the light from the sun, refracted to display a spectrum, was missing certain narrow bands of colour. It was found on the continent around 1860 that chemical elements held in a flame burn with light characteristic of that element. The two discoveries were combined and for the first time it was possible to consider stars as objects of varied substance rather than points of reference.

Three people who explored that substance through studying spectra were draper William Huggins of Tulse Hill who had his own observatory there; Margaret Murray whose own interest in spectroscopy led to her marrying Huggins in 1875; and civil servant Norman Lockyer whose first purchase of a telescope was sparked by socialising at the Wimbledon Literary and Scientific Society and having a house there with a good hilltop position. He identified a new chemical element, helium, in the sun in 1868. Today we need liquid helium to cool magnets in MRI scanners in hospitals.

Dig for the Sky
The nuclear reactions in the stars that forge those elements also produce splinters in the form of cosmic rays. Paradoxically the rays are often studied underground so as not to overwhelm the detectors. We now know that all of the heavier atoms in our own body (the iron from your spinach) formed inside stars.

In the 1930s nobody was thinking of building a 27km cavern for research underground but a cosmic ray detector (an instrument called a cloud chamber originally created to study… clouds) was installed in the unused Aldwych platform at Holborn underground station. Cloud chambers like this one were designed so that invisible particles stealing across them would photograph their own visible trails. This development won Patrick Blackett a Nobel Prize. Some of the detectors at CERN (bubble chambers and spark chambers) are descendants of his cloud chambers.

The Hugginses and others assayed the stars and interstellar dust. But from Hubble telescope observations it turns out that the substance we have come to understand over several centuries only adds up to about 5% of the mass of the universe. The collider will help to find the rest. So, we now find ourselves down a hole, using a descendant of the microscope, to explore what is too distant or too ephemeral to see with the telescope. Do you feel the wonder yet? Would you want the exploration to stop? The hole may be in Geneva, but London has always provided explorers, and a vital prerequisite: scope to wonder.

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A guest post by LH Member Val Bott, @BottValbott.

Review: The Hidden Horticulturists by Fiona Davison.

hidden Horticulturists coverWhen the Horticultural Society’s Chiswick Garden closed in 1904, greenhouses, fixtures and fittings and plants were moved to Wisley. Amongst the items taken from Chiswick was a modest volume labelled The Handwriting of Under-Gardeners and Labourers. Soon after she became Librarian at the Lindley Library, Fiona Davison came across this in the stores there; its record of 105 young men who had been selected as trainees in the Chiswick Garden in a six year period starting in 1822 set her off on a significant piece of research.

The Society began offering training to raise horticultural standards nationally and the young trainees had succeeded in a very competitive selection process. Each wrote in the book in his own hand a short CV, all covering similar ground; often they were the sons of gardeners or had worked on estate gardens, sometimes both. Each recorded his horticultural experience, the name of the person who had recommended him (usually a Fellow of the Society). This demonstrated his literacy and the fact that he fulfilled the eligibility criteria for admission. Most were young men from England and Scotland but a few came from abroad.

Using this apparently modest and limited source Fiona Davison has traced the life stories of 32 of the apprentices to introduce to her readers. Using the clues offered by the entries in the Handwriting Book, she has asked many questions of the sources. While one was the famous Joseph Paxton, much less was known about others and some had rather lowly lives in comparison. From my own research into 18th century gardeners I am aware how difficult it can be to trace the lives of such individuals and, while she had the advantage of additional sources, like the Census and local newspapers in the 19th century, I can see how hard the author has persisted with her inquiries over three years of spare time research to bring us this book!

She has grouped them according to types of experience, from “The Horticultural Elite”, through the “Deserving Men” lower down the horticultural ladder and “Fruit Experts”, to “Criminals in the Garden”. She writes sensitively and almost affectionately about the young men’s experiences at the Chiswick Garden, describes their successes and failures, traces their future careers, as gardeners on large estates, as plant hunters on the other side of the world or as nursery gardeners some of whom had little business acumen.

Many of the trainees went on to have the kind of lives which would not ordinarily have attracted a biographer, though others left their mark on significant gardens which have survived. Nevertheless the narrative is surprisingly rich because it provides the context offered by their family histories and their horticultural activities in a variety of locations in the UK and abroad. Correspondence and press reports show the difficulties encountered by men who went to Egypt, Ceylon, Australia and South America; some were caught up in difficulties in far-flung colonies or became ill in hostile climates.

The records of the Old Bailey reveal the foolishness of young men caught out selling stolen seeds. But she found in the archives evidence of Joseph Sabine’s poor management of the Chiswick Garden and his failure to spot embezzlement by a protegé which led to serious financial difficulties for the Horticultural Society. So stealing seeds may have been an act of desperation for the men involved, when the Society cut labourers’ wages from 14 to 12 shillings a week and the pay of the under-gardeners from 18 to 14 shillings weekly.

This makes for a thoroughly readable book full of good stories about real people; its glimpses of 19th century history will have a wider a wider appeal than pure garden history. Though attractively designed with rich colour plates, its only shortcoming is the fact that a few of the black and white images in the text are rather grey. However, I am already thinking of the friends for whom it will make an excellent gift!

An RHS exhibition about the Hidden Horticulturists at the Lindley Library runs until 6 May.


The Hidden Horticulturists, Fiona Davison, Atlantic Books/Royal Horticultural Society
published 4 April 2019, £25.00 cover price.


Val Bott. Some of Val Bott ‘s research on gardening history can be seen on nurserygardeners.com. She is the Editor of the Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal.

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Before going into the Painted Hall, Greenwich yesterday, I peered down into part of the old Greenwich Palace which had been rediscovered very recently, a great find. Both Mary I and Elizabeth I were born there, and Henry VIII entered this world in its predecessor, prior to Henry VII’s rebuild. It was known as the Palace of Placentia and was eventually demolished by Charles II, becoming in due course the site for Wren’s Greenwich Hospital.

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But what caught and gladdened my eye was the sight of a pair of bee boles. Before modern beekeeping as we know it was developed in the late 19th Century, domestic honey bees were housed in spirals of straw, hence the common logo for honey which survives today as a universally understood symbol, a bit like how the diagram of a dial telephone also survives. Sometimes you see jars actually in this shape. Here is an example: the Beehive pub in Brentford.

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Like the home of the first of the three little pigs, a house of straw was vulnerable to wind, so beekeepers kept their hives in special alcoves within walls, typically those surrounding a flower garden, for obvious reasons. These are known as bee boles. There are also some fine examples at Fulham Palace (below) which had been bricked over but restored and exposed again in 2015.

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For more on bee boles, there is a bee bole register here. And, writing this piece, I have just discovered the eminent bee and apiary scientist Eva Crane (1912 – 2007), a Londoner.

Please let us know in comments if you know of other London bee boles. Thanks.


Images: M Paterson / London Historians.

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This guest post by Gareth Edwards was first published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter of January 2015.

A longer version of this article, with more images, is here.

Look around Endell Street today and you could be forgiven for thinking it just an average London street. But one hundred years ago it was home to an important, and now near-forgotten, part of British history – the Endell Street Military Hospital, the first British Army hospital officially staffed, and managed, entirely by women.

That the hospital existed at all was largely thanks to the efforts of two remarkable women – Dr Flora Murray and Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson. Both women had trained at the London School of Medicine for Women. They became firm friends and founded the Women’s Hospital for Children together on Harrow Road in 1912. Both were also heavily involved in the women’s suffrage movement – not surprising, given their own experiences at the hands of the misogynistic British medical establishment.

On the outbreak of war in 1914 the pair wanted to serve in a medical capacity, but realised that any direct approach to the War Office would likely end in them being dismissed out of hand. Casting about, they soon discovered that the French Army were desperate for medical staff so approached the French Red Cross with the offer of equipping and staffing a hospital. The French quickly accepted.

Within just two weeks the Women’s Hospital Corps (WHC) had begun to take shape. Within three Murray, Garett Anderson and their new organisation were boarding a train for the continent. The 80 year old Elizabeth Garrett Anderson – Louisa’s mother and the first Englishwoman to qualify as a physician and surgeon – watched on from the platform.

“Are you not proud, Mrs Anderson?” A friend asked.

“Yes.” She answered. “Twenty years younger I would have taken them myself.”

Their first hospital, established in the disused Hotel Claridge in Paris and known to everyone as “Claridges” was soon taking wounded soldiers and quickly established a reputation as one of the foremost military hospitals in Paris. This was in no small part thanks to Murray and Garrett Anderson’s deft handling of the many military and civilian visitors the hospital attracted. A succession of critical Generals and administrators passed through Claridges and each received a comprehensive tour, their questions patiently answered, however insulting. More often than not they left with a higher opinion of the WHC than when they arrived.

In November as fighting worsened, Murray and Garrett Anderson journeyed to Boulogne to meet a hard-pressed Lieutenant Colonel from the Army Medical Service who had previously visited Claridges and been impressed. If they moved the WHC nearer the front, they asked him, would he use them?

“Yes.” He replied. “To the fullest extent.”

Acknowledgement of their services at the front did not automatically translate to recognition with the War Office back home, however. The new hospital at Wimereux soon built up its own impressive reputation though and the ability of the WHC to run an effective military hospital became increasingly impossible to ignore.

Finally, in February 1915 Murray and Garrett Anderson were invited to London to meet Sir Alfred Keogh, Director General of Army Medical Services. In Keogh they found an unexpected ally. He had read the reports on the WHC coming from those in the field in France and he offered them the chance to make history – he asked them to establish an RAMC military hospital of at least 500 beds at Endell Street in London, staffed solely by women. They agreed and on the 18th February Keogh publicly praised the two doctors and announced the plans to the press.

“He had asked them to take charge of a hospital of 500 beds.” The Times reported with some astonishment the next day. “And if they pleased, of a hospital with 1,000 beds.”

Setting up the hospital at Endell Street was a whole new challenge for the women of the WHC as much of the British army medical establishment was still actively hostile to their efforts. The location chosen for the hospital was an old work house and getting it ready required significant work. Somehow, with little assistance from the rest of the RAMC, they had the hospital ready in time for its opening.

The general expectation amongst those opposed to their work was that the Endell Street experiment would fail within 6 months. Under Murray’s capable supervision and thanks to the efforts of all of its staff it instead quickly became one of the foremost military hospitals in London. With this the hostility gradually began to decrease, replaced with a sort of lukewarm tolerance and gentle neglect.

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Francis Dodd, chalk drawing, 1917. Image: Wellcome Images.

Indeed over time the staff would turn this situation to something of an advantage as it allowed them to ignore certain standard British Army practices in favour of new ideas. Murray believed psychological wellbeing was as important as physical when it came to recovery and wards were bright with many activities laid on for the men. Garrett Anderson meanwhile, along with a brilliant pathologist called Helen Chambers, was able to carry out extensive clinical research. Together they trialled, then deployed, a new compound “Bipp” paste that dramatically reduced the frequency with which surgical dressings needed to be changed.

The quality of care delivered at Endell Street and the development of Bipp paste made their achievements impossible to ignore. In January 1917 Queen Alexandra visited. Later that year both Murray and Garrett Anderson were awarded the CBE for their war work.

“I knew you could do it.” Keogh confided to Garrett Anderson towards the war’s end. “We were watched, but you have silenced all critics.”

By that time the war ended their success was indeed there for all to see. When Parliament granted the first limited voting rights to women in 1918, Murray ordered their only ever overt political act – a suffragist flag was hoisted in the hospital courtyard, to the cheers of staff and patients alike.

Endell Street Military Hospital finally closed in 1919. To say that it changed things instantly would be an overstatement but, thanks to efforts of those who worked there, it represented a huge step in the right direction. Some of the women at Endell Street moved on to great things. One of the younger members of staff there, Hazel Cuthbert, became the first female physician appointed at the Royal Free. Many more however still found their careers limited by prejudice – despite performing over 7000 operations, for example, none of the female surgeons from Endell Street would perform major surgery again.

Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson meanwhile returned together to the small children’s hospital they had founded on the Harrow Road. Both remained active in politics until the ends of their lives. Neither woman ever married, and they are buried together near the home they shared in Penn, Buckinghamshire. The inscription on their shared tombstone reads “We have been gloriously happy.”

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Memorial Plaque. Image courtesy London Remembers.com.

On Endell Street itself, little evidence of their achievement remains. The old building that contained the hospital is long gone – replaced by Dudley Court, a red brick housing block. Look around a bit though and you’ll find a blue plaque marking the spot where it stood. It is worth hunting out – a few words to commemorate some awfully mighty deeds.


London Reconnections.
Wellcome Images.
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