Endell Street Military Hospital | The WWI Hospital Run by Women
Along Endell Street, just north of Covent Garden, it’s easy to miss this fairly simple plaque that celebrates the former Endell Street Military Hospital.
It commemorates an inspiring story of courage, defiance and dogged determination.
The two heroines are Louisa Garrett Anderson and Flora Murray.
The former might sound familiar. She was the daughter of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, first women to qualify as a surgeon and doctor in the country.
Although Elizabeth (born in 1836) had made extraordinary headway for women in medicine, they still faced barriers from respected jobs in prestigious hospitals. In reaction to this Elizabeth established her own hospital; The New Hospital for Women on the Euston Road in 1890.
It was the first hospital in Britain with only women appointed as staff. In 1918 it became the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital and you can still see her name along the facade. It’s now part of the Unison HQ.
Louisa (born 1873) would prove as determined as her mother in carving out a career for herself, whether she was welcomed by her male peers or not.
After completing her training she worked at the New Hospital for Women. From 1907 she became an active member of the WSPU and in 1912 would be one of many suffragettes to be imprisoned whist campaigning for the vote for women.
It was through the suffragette movement that Louisa met Flora Murray. Born in Scotland in 1869, Murray trained at the School of Medicine for Women and was also a member of the WSPU, specifically helping to treat the victims of force-feeding, including Emmeline Pankhurst herself.
The pair would become life-long partners, both professionally and personally.
Outbreak of WWI
With the outbreak of the First World War, Flora and Louisa saw an opportunity. Here was a chance to showcase the talent of female doctors on a par with men.
Knowing they’d probably be turned down through official British channels (the War Office had rejected all women volunteering as Doctors) the pair offered their services to the French Red Cross.
8 days later, having raised £2,000 from friends and family they were heading to Paris to establish a military hospital, a group of 14 women and 4 male nurses.
The women would set up two exemplary military hospitals, in the Hotel Claridge, Paris and Chateau Mauricien, Wimereux.
They had so impressed the War Office that in February 1915 they were invited to set up an official hospital in central London, entirely staffed by women.
Endell Street Military Hospital
The location for the military hospital was off Endell Street, based in the old St Giles workhouse.
Founded in 1725, the entrance to the work house was via a tiny alley called Vinegar Yard.
An infirmary had been added in 1844 but the whole institution was notoriously badly equipped and its patients did not receive the care they deserved.
In 1865 there had been a damning case where Richard Gibson had died of neglect. Dickens published a scathing essay highlighting the shocking condition of Gibson “covered with vermin and without proper nourishment or medical attendance” and by 1912 the infirmary was taken over by the Metropolitan Asylums Board.
Thankfully this was all to change with the arrival of Louisa, Flora and their team.
Imagine the scene, you’re a young man – perhaps not even 18 – who has been injured on the front, most commonly a fracture or shrapnel damage.
Barely conscious, you’ve been travelling for 24 hours by rail, sea and then a bumpy ambulance ride. You arrive on a narrow street in front of two intimidatingly tall doors.
Blinking, you realise that the two people carrying your stretcher into the yard are women, the nurse that comes to assess your condition is also female. You’re sent to the radiography department (later patients called this “going to the pictures”) where a woman takes the X-Rays.
You need surgery and this is also performed (expertly) by a women.
Flora Murray recalled in a letter that often the wounded men were ‘speechless with astonishment’ when they realised their stretcher was being carried by two ‘flappers’. But within an hour or so of arrival they had not only grown accustomed to the idea of the “flappers’ hospital’ but were lauding its praises.
From letters, diaries and records that the staff kept over four years, we can get a tantalising insight into the lives of ordinary patients who were treated here.
Like the 5ft 4” East End cabinet maker who tripped over a brick on the front, was treated at Endell Street and got to enjoy ten days leave before returning to fight. Clearly his leave was used wisely as 9 months later his wife gave birth to twins.
Or on a more tragic note was William Bolton who fought in the Somme. He recovered from bullet wounds at Endell Street only to die 10 months later, his health in tatters thanks to bronchial pneumonia.
In total they had a staff of 180, including 14 doctors, 29 nursers, 80 orderlies (all women). They did have around 20 male staff, usually working as security but this was later reduced to 6. All the surgeries and medical care was undertaken by women.
Today none of the former buildings survive and the site is occupied by Dudley Court, a mix of private and sheltered housing.
Thankfully you can find this plaque, allowing any curious passerby a glimpse into the extraordinary history that happened between 1915-1919 here on Endell Street.
As for Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson, they were both appointed Commanders of the British Empire (CBE) and there’s a picture of them leaving Buckingham Palace hand-in-hand in 1917.
They are buried together in the churchyard of Holy Trinity, Penn, Buckinghamshire. Where they lived together in retirement.
Their gravestone reads their extraordinary achievements and at the end;
“We Have Been Gloriously Happy”
I highly recommend Wendy Moore’s book, Endell Street if you’d like to read more about the hospital and women who worked there.
If you’d like to discover more surprising history within Covent Garden and Seven Dials, I run a public walking tour which you can read more about here.
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