Hello, History: The London (Part 5)

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, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 – this is the final part!

Although the Emergency Medical Service arguably aided ‘The London’ in its ability to treat the most necessary cases, there was much comment concerning the disruption it caused the medical school in particular and other departments such as dentistry, in continuing its work.  The panic and quick dispersal of staff and students did little to aid teaching comforts.

When the ‘War Stations’ notice was sent out, many of the pre-clinical students were scattered about – some were on holiday, some at home, some in the hospital grounds. Within days they had been relocated to St Catherine’s College Cambridge which was a remarkable achievement. However, once there, “The main advantage of living in College was that one could use the common-room. When the Cambridge students came up the privilege was withdrawn. Since then we have been without a Common-room.”

As students were separated, the quality of learning could not be guaranteed. Perhaps the only benefit to come from the reshuffle of war was that lecture demonstrations at ‘The London’ changed. Lectures now took place in the Bearsted Lecture Theatre rather than at the bedside, in place of the familiar ‘public ward rounds’. In their Editorial, Miln and Haggie commented that, “Although nobody would advocate the teaching of clinical medicine rather than by the bedside, in this special case advantage is gained by transfer.”

It took time for the transferred departments to settle as it was not just staff who were scattered but equipment also. “All the equipment (bodies, bones, coat lockers etc.) was brought from ‘The London’ in a lorry” but with over forty hospitals to receive equipment this also presented a struggle. The nurses found this a particular task as they were responsible for getting each hospital in order and ready for contingency. They found that equipment, “was most difficult to obtain and tended to foster a ‘beg, borrow, or steal’ attitude to meet immediate necessities.”

An example of those who found the sector hospitals of the utmost importance were those who dealt with the complicated arena of head injuries and the most complex of operations. D. W. C. Northfield noted that they needed quite surroundings and surgical supervision over a long period of time. This was something that could not be provided by, “the hospitals in the centre of London, which, it is supposed, will bear the brunt of enemy aircraft attack.”

The impact of the Emergency Medical Service on the health services of The London Hospital was great. Without the EMS, ‘The London’ would not have been able to respond to air-raid casualties as effectively as it did.  Although ‘The London’ received fewer casualties than expected, it was still a significant number.  The bombing raids came infrequently and some for nights at a time.  So many places of significance were hit that the casualties were major and frequent. ‘The London’, because of its location, was arguably one of the most important to its country during the period 1939 to 1941.

The London Hospital did not escape attack itself and the evacuation of as many patients as possible did the civilians a great service. It reduced the risk of many hundreds of lives being lost.  The numbers of evacuated staff and equipment was great and it was the Emergency Medical Service that allowed the administration to adjust carefully and accordingly. Without it, the hospital would have been a disorganised mess with a complete misallocation of vital resources.

The EMS relieved a financial burden that would have hung over the hospital as it received funding from the Ministry of Health. It also created a stable plan for the introduction of the National Health Service that to this day, aims to help those most in need of medical attention with the greatest possible ease. This was very much the tradition of ‘The London’ – a voluntary institution that catered for the needs of the sickly poor. It was the staff of institutions such as ‘The London’ who were often the guardians of morale and who wore what must have been a burden as a simple duty.

“We who are engaged in district nursing and public health service now have to undertake our greatest task. We are the army behind the fighting services. We may not be in the limelight, but we are the guardians of the morale of the civilian.”

In effect, the Emergency Medical Service in Sectors I and II was ‘The London’ and it’s ‘sister hospitals’. The needs of the EMS were met by willing and able practitioners at ‘The London’. They were able to take on the task of planning and of implementing change effectively. The EMS challenged ‘The London’ to adapt services to meet the predicted consequences of bombing on London. ‘The London’ rose to the challenge admirably providing many pathways for a more comprehensive peacetime provision of health services nationally.

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