Tag Archives: home front

The Other War Dead: Asylum Patients during the First World War

In this guest blog, Caroline Nielsen describes how vulnerable patients were displaced from hospitals to make way for the casualties of war.

In a recent post for this blog, Dr Jessica Meyer discussed how wounded and sick soldiers were evacuated from the frontlines to large specialized hospitals in Britain. Images of these war hospitals and their military patients have appeared in publications as part of the centenary commemorations. These institutions have even been the subject of popular TV dramas, such as Downton Abbey, The Wipers Times, and The Crimson Fields. But the creation of these life-saving institutions had a hidden cost: the forced displacement of around 12,000 of the most vulnerable people in British society. This was because twenty-four of Britain’s largest war hospitals were requisitioned asylums for the mentally ill and those with learning disabilities.

Asylums and the War
The British military authorities were under considerable pressure in late 1914. There were simply not enough hospital beds in Britain to accommodate the ever-growing number of allied war casualties. Numerous patriotic individuals and organisations voluntarily opened their doors to soldier-patients, donating their time, money, and property to the war effort. But it was simply not enough. A drastic and ambitious scheme was developed to ensure that the nation remained fighting fit. Recovering soldiers needed beds but they also needed spacious grounds, recreational areas and sports fields to aid their recovery. Only a small number of institutions had all of these facilities already in place: residential schools, workhouses and the largest of them all, lunatic asylums. There were only two problems: the pre-existing large population of vulnerable patients and the stigma attached to them.

Every county in England and Wales had a lunatic asylum. Run by local committees overseen by the Government’s centralized Board of Control, these institutions offered residential care to a large population of men, women and children. There were over 102 psychiatric asylums in England and Wales in 1914. Over 108,000 men, women and children lived permanently in these institutions. This meant that each county and borough asylum cared an average of 1000 patients at any one time (Sarah Rutherford, The Victorian Asylum, 2011).

Asylum patients had a wide range of conditions, many of which would not fit with modern understandings of mental illness. As well as caring for those with depression, anxiety and delusions, asylums nursed those with long-term or degenerative conditions like epilepsy, tuberculosis, liver disease, alcoholism, and syphilis. A significant proportion of patients were elderly and frail, moved from out of their homes when they started to experience the disorientating symptoms of dementia. It was not uncommon to find those with learning disabilities living permanently in asylums (for example those with Down’s syndrome or who would now be placed on the autistic spectrum). It is important to stress that the majority of those with learning disabilities in the early twentieth century continued to live with their extended families. While some patients were sent by their families to these institutions, others were referred there by social welfare authorities: by doctors, charity workers, the Board of Education, or by the Guardians of the Poor who oversaw workhouses. Going into a workhouse or insane asylum carried a huge social stigma. But for the most impoverished, sick and desperate, they offered the only chance of free medical care.

The Asylum War Hospital Scheme, 1915-1919
Faced with mounting casualties, the British War Authorities approached the Board of Control for permission to empty a small number of asylums. Patients were either to return to their families or be transferred into different institutions. 9 asylums were initially selected, with others gradually added into the scheme whenever more beds were needed. All selected asylums were swiftly renamed as “war hospitals” so that soldier casualties would not be tainted with the stigma of receiving treatment in a lunatic asylum.

The most incredible aspect of the scheme was the speed with which it was carried out. Within 5 weeks of the scheme being confirmed, the selected asylums had been emptied of all but a few of their patients. The official estimate was about 12,000. Only the “gravely ill” [dying] and a few “quiet useful insane” men were allowed to stay on. The “useful” patients were to work as gardeners. (Board of Control, Official History of the War Asylum Hospitals, 1920). The insane were not even given the reassurance of familiar staff. Asylum nursing staff were requisitioned for the war effort along with the furniture.

Unsurprisingly, the immediate effect on the patients was severe. The official report of the Medical Officer of Norfolk County Asylum (later Norfolk War Hospital) is so shocking that it is worth quoting at length;

The scenes on departure aroused varying emotions in myself, my medical colleagues and the nurses. It was all interesting, some of it most amusing and much sadly pathetic. To not a few the asylum had been their home for many years, some for over fifty years, some since childhood; many even had never been in a railway train … so it will be readily believed that the whole gamut of emotion was exhibited by the patients on leaving, ranging from acute distress and misery, through gay indifference, to maniacal fury and indignation.

Casualties of War
That the Asylum War Hospitals Scheme saved lives is beyond dispute. By 1920, the hospitals had offered specialist care, pioneering treatment and friendship to over 440,000 men from all over the world. Approximately over 38,000 (9%) of these men were psychiatric cases; those suffering from shell-shock, nervous breakdowns, delusions, and sheer terror.

But the War Hospitals came at a terrible cost to the mentally ill and their families. Within 1 year of the first transfers, the Board of Control noticed that patients were dying at a higher rate than usual. Overcrowding had resulted in some of the remaining asylums, facilitating the spread of influenza, pneumonia and tuberculosis. The asylum patients were also subject to rationing and food shortages, weakening an already sickly population. A series of cold wartime winters and a shortage of psychiatric medical professionals only exacerbated the problem.

In its official 1920 inquiry on the War Hospital’s Scheme, the Government reported that the transferred insane should be viewed as quasi casualties of war. Their suffering during the war was immediately and irrefutably comparable to that of “normal” military casualties. The insane deserved respect and sympathy irrespective of the stigma attached to their condition.

This was never to be. In spite of the report-writer’s best efforts, the wartime experiences of the civilian insane were almost immediately forgotten by their communities. The stigma surrounding mental illness and disability meant that discussing their experiences became taboo. No war memorials were raised in the name of these men, women and children. But as the centenary passes, they too should be remembered.

 

The AHRC and BBC “World War One at Home” project will explore the asylum transfers further in the autumn. Detailed descriptions of the individual asylums can be found in the Board of Control’s official report, entitled “History of the Asylum War Hospitals in England and Wales”, 1920. Regional asylum death statistics can be in Lewis Krammer’s article “The Extraordinary Deaths of Asylum Patients, 1914-18” in the journal Medical History (1992).

The Shock of the New: Women in Trousers?!

In this guest blog, Caroline Nielsen explores how war changed the lives of women on the home front not just in terms of their daily work, but in the clothes they wore to do it.

One day in early 1915 in the pit village of Horden, County Durham, 22 year-old Elizabeth “Lizzie” Holmes set off to post a letter for her father-in-law. She was on her way home from work, and the Post Office was on the way. This seemingly innocuous errand ended with her being mobbed by children.

Two female bag fillers use two short poles to assist a female coke heaver as she hoists a large sack of coke onto her back. © IWM (Q 30859)
Two female bag fillers use two short poles to assist a female coke heaver as she hoists a large sack of coke onto her back. © IWM (Q 30859)

Why did Lizzie inadvertently become the centre of attention that day? Lizzie was wearing men’s work clothes. Her heavy shirt, leather trousers and boots was the standard gear of all above-ground pit workers. Along with a number of her friends and neighbours, Lizzie had taken a labouring job at the local pit operating the coke ovens. For the first time, the children were confronted with a woman wearing an outfit that they had previously only associated with their fathers, grandfathers and older brothers. For one brief moment, Lizzie reminded all who saw her that the war had changed fundamentally changed British industry as they knew it. Women were taking men’s jobs in all industries, including in the male-dominated coal industry.

That the simple act of wearing men’s work clothes was evidently so shocking seems odd to modern audiences. But in 1915, trousers were an exclusively male garment. That doesn’t mean that women did not periodically wear trousers albeit in very limited contexts. Women’s fashion had toyed with the idea of trousers for at least three decades before Lizzie set off on her errand. A small number of Victorian and Edwardian ladies adopted baggy trousers and “bifurcated skirts” (long culottes) as part of their campaign against the restrictive fashions of the time. In spite of their efforts, trouser-wearing was not widely adopted until the late 1920s and 1930s when masculine tailoring became a staple of haute couture. Even the sportiest Edwardian lady pilots and racing-car drivers preferred to tie their long skirts modestly around their ankles.

This caricature of the 'new woman' as a mechanical toy shows a version of 'rational dress', which evolved in protest against the tyranny of traditional physically-restricting fashions for women. National Archives: COPY 1/174 no.312 (16 Jan 1901)
A caricature of the ‘new woman’ which shows a version of ‘rational dress’, which evolved in protest against physically-restricting fashions for women. National Archives: COPY 1/174 no.312 (16 Jan 1901)

Male impersonators were also a regular feature on British music hall circuits where performers like Vesta Tilley drew large audiences. These women performed risqué songs while dressed as young men. Part of the thrill was that audience could see their legs! Lower-class women had, of course, been wearing work trousers for centuries. During the Victorian era, leather trousers were associated with the “pit brow lasses” of Lancashire. Women who chose to wear “men’s clothes” outside of these contexts risked a more negative response from their communities. Cross-dressing was a moral issue. By the early twentieth century, dressing in masculine clothes was gradually being associated with lesbianism. Trousers were associated with clear contexts: politicised fashion and distinct regional trades. They were not associated with respectable miner’s wives, at least not in the Durham area. The fact that it was Lizzie, a woman who may have already attracted negative comments from her community, probably added to the children’s response.  She was an extrovert and in her own words, “a bit rough and ready”. She had tattoos, liked a drink, and on at least one occasion ended up in a fight, an event which she enjoyed describing when she was interviewed in her mid-80s.

Lizzie revelled in the notoriety of being proclaimed “the first woman in Horden to wear trousers!”. We will never know if this title was truly deserved. However, her story demonstrates how the First World War expanded the employment opportunities available to women. Lizzie was offered the opportunity to work in a trade that had previously been barred to her as a married woman in a County Durham village. The Northern Coalfield was almost exclusively male.  The 1911 census shows how shocking the arrival of female coke oven workers would have been in Horden: officially there were only 13 female coke workers recorded in the entire Durham area. While this figure was definitely an under-estimate, it explains why the children were so surprised!

Lizzie’s time in the coal industry was short-lived. Like most women who joined heavy industry during the First World War, Lizzie saw her wartime job as a temporary expedient. She expected to leave the job once her miner husband came home from the front. The majority of married women never entered the labour market during the war, believing that their place was at home with their families. The Government, trade unions and employers similarly saw women’s employment only as temporary. The end of the war saw the mass withdrawal of women from the labour market. Some went voluntarily like Lizzie. Many others were summarily dismissed. Some trade unions began lobbying for a ban on the employment of married women, concerned that the war had all too readily demonstrated that women were able to compete with their male counterparts. Women were encouraged to return to more “gender appropriate” trades like domestic service. Lizzie spent the rest of her working life as a charwoman, raising her family and caring for her wounded husband Jimmy.

Click here to view an image of Lizzie (front row, far right).

Lizzie was interviewed in 1976 as part of the Peterlee Development Project, a collaboration between the artist Stuart Brisley, Peterlee Council and the Artists Placement Group. Some of the materials from this are now available on through Durham County Records Office and their People Past and Present Archive.

World War One at Home – Launch Day Highlights

Across the BBC, stories from the home front were shared on local radio and news programmes to mark the launch of the World War One at Home programme. Some selected highlights of yesterday’s broadcasts included:

Professor Jane Chapman appearing on the BBC Look East to discuss the legacy of the war not only for women in the workplace, but as the birthplace of the modern twentieth century as we now understand it.

Jenny Agutter narrating the story of a child, Joan Burbidge, who corresponded with a ‘Chocolate Soldier’. After writing her name on a box of chocolates posted to British soldiers in France, Bombadier Edward Hassall exchanged letters with Joan throughout the war, although the pen pals never met.

Making traditional clothes for uniforms on BBC Radio Wales. Welsh homespun cloth used for Welsh Army Corps uniforms which was made at mills in Carmathenshire. As the war progressed, demand for the ‘brethyn llwyd’ (grey cloth) outstripped supply.

Fergus Keeling, BBC Northern Ireland’s Head of Radio, marked the launch of the programme in Northern Ireland by saying that the stories “shed light on familiar places we know and love, places right on our doorsteps”.

BBC World War One at Home Launch: Broadcast details 24-28 February

ww1athomelogoWorld War One At Home reveals how the momentous events of the war affected life on the Home Front. Around 1400 stories will be broadcast throughout 2014 and beyond, on BBC local and national radio and television, and online.

Academics and historical experts supported by the AHRC have provided time and expertise to BBC journalists and researchers, giving historical context, research leads and enabling access to local museums, organisations and specialists, who have also generously provided assets and valuable insight from their own collections.

Each World War One At Home story will be published online, and remain available indefinitely, providing an unparalleled digital archive. The stories will be organised by place (a BBC local or national radio station) or by theme (such as War in the Air, Women, Medicine, Working for the War, Sport or Animals). A range of BBC News features will bring additional insight and historical context.

Listen out for the stories from your area on your local TV and Radio stations. Find stories from across the country online, or by following #WW1AtHome. Find out more about the AHRC researchers involved in this initiative on the AHRC website.

Broadcast Details

All BBC Local Radio stations across England will broadcast a World War One At Home story at 8.15am each weekday morning, and at various times throughout the day from Monday 24 February to Friday 28 February. More World War One At Home stories will be broadcast in April and through the rest of the year.

BBC regional television news programmes in England will broadcast a World War One At Home story each weekday from 24 – 28 February at 6.30pm on BBC One. Many of the stories will feature never before seen footage of life on the Home Front.

In Scotland World War One At Home stories will be on Good Morning Scotland, the John Beattie Show and Newsdrive on BBC Radio Scotland from Monday 24 to Thursday 27 February

In Northern Ireland World War One At Home stories will be at 8.50am, 11.55am and 11.55pm on BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Radio Foyle from Monday 24 to Friday 28 February.

In Wales World War One At Homes stories will be on Eleri Sion’s programme at 3.30pm Monday 24 to Thursday 27 February and Friday 28 February on Wynne Evans’s Big Welsh Weekend at 3.30pm on BBC Radio Wales.

Changing Women’s Lives

Womans Hour WW1 GuestsProfessor Maggie Andrews appeared on BBC Radio 4 Women’s Hour, on Wednesday 5 February to discuss her research on how the war shaped the lives of a generation of women. While women in their thousands volunteered for war service and the number of women employed went up by more than a million by 1918, what power did women really achieve outside the home and how lasting was it?

Professor Andrews is a Cultural Historian at the University of Worcester is currently acting as an AHRC-funded adviser to the BBC in the West Midlands on its World War One at Home project while completing, with Janis Lomas, an edited collection entitled The Home Front: Images, Myths and Forgotten Experiences.

A full recording this programme is available on iPlayer.

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