Hello, History: The London (Part 3)
In our Hello, History series, we turn back the clock to look at significant periods for the emergency services.
Laura Blott is an MA student in Public History at Royal Holloway, University of London.
She’s agreed to take us on a whistle-stop tour of The Royal London Hospital during the Second World War, detailing the impact of the Emergency Medical Service from 1939 to 1941. Catch up on Part 1 and Part 2!
An observer wrote a detailed account of the evacuation for ‘The London Hospital Illustrated’ detailing the professionalism of the staff. It evidences the great effort put into planning such an operation. The evacuation began at nine o’clock on September the 1st and, “The work of evacuation was completed by five-thirty pm. There were no untoward incidents, and whether on a stretcher, or in a wheelchair…patients bore their journeys very well.” There is reason to believe that ‘The London Hospital Illustrated’ might be particularly kind about the operation, but the detail behind it is enough to convince one that it did, in fact, go to plan unhindered. Coloured labels were attached to the diet rack above each patient’s head in order to categorise them according to evacuation. In addition, “one-hundred-and-fifty patients were taken to a railway terminus where ambulance trains awaited them. At the station, doctors, nurses and stretcher-bearers received the evacuee-patients, who were conveyed by rail to an inland town.” Not only did evacuation by rail occur all in one day, but thirty students accompanied by four doctors transported a further one hundred –and-fifty patients by motorcar while, “Under the supervision of two or three doctors a company of fifty students from the Medical School began to take stretcher cases from the wards, and then to wheel them on trolleys through the great quadrangle to the waiting bus-ambulances.” Three-hundred-and-fifty patients were dispersed in one day’s efforts which was a very commendable act performed by the staff and students to ensure that the evacuation to Sectors I and II went according to plan.
With fewer beds but no greater ‘emergency demand’, it seemed sensible to those at ‘The London’ that they might open the out-patients department on a much larger scale. The number of beds was reduced and many dispersed to sector hospitals found that only part-time work was necessary and that they might continue their ward rounds back at ‘The London’ itself as more patients began to trickle back to Whitechapel. The emergency of war that the Emergency Medical Service had been created for was, in reality, not particularly visible until the July of 1940.
‘The London’ had been encouraged to expect war during 1939 and many personnel were dispersed as the sector governor and ministry deemed fit. It caused particular problems for the medical school whose students were far flung and without the necessary facilities. It was becoming clear that the mass evacuation to cater for air-raid casualties was not immediately necessary to solve the problems at hand. The sick and poor of East London still relied greatly on the services provided at ‘The London’.
In an interview with ‘The London Hospital Illustrated’, Sir William Goschen, Chairman of The London Hospital, understood that:
“We were required to close the Hospital and Out-Patient Department for a time when war came, but the needs of the civilian sick were very real: and soon we were permitted to re-open. Remedial work, therefore, continues in a limited way, and I know, in the case of the very poor, it has been a God-send to them.”
As the article continues, Sir Goschen defends ‘The London’s’ scaled back services. He prepares readers for the reality of an attack on London. He states, “Only one-third of the Hospital, under war conditions, is now available for urgent cases for which we keep open a certain number of wards.” Goschen continues to describe the current state of the Hospital, “Our once large staff now consists of only thirty doctors and about one-hundred-and-forty sisters and nurses. The rest are scattered among numerous other hospitals in two counties. Other wards are stripped, or else are in readiness, fully equipped, for civilian casualties.”
The London’s’ Chairman and advocates of the Emergency Medical Service were right to have taken precautions. Although attacks were not immediate, they came in full force once the Luftwaffe began a full-frontal raid on London and its resources. By the 6th of September 1940, the Luftwaffe attacked in broad daylight with a force of two-hundred bombers. It is then that the sector hospitals served their purpose. As a consequence of the attack, casualties were admitted and, “So much water, too, had been used for putting out the fires that the hydraulic lifts went out of action and all patients were carried down to the ground floor.” ‘The London’ had to stand to attention tending to casualties and coping with the difficult circumstances that war posed. So much of the hospital’s resources were used that day in September that, “Orders were issued to the effect that, if further casualties were admitted during the night, a corresponding number of patients must be evacuated.” The Emergency Medical Service was finally to come into its own and relieve, as was to be expected, the efforts of ‘The London’ and keep its casualties safe.