When Virginia Woolf demanded a room of one’s own, she knew that women already possessed minds of their own. Men disparagingly spoke of ‘the woman question’ as if the other half of the population were all of one mind, but that was no more the case in the early 20th century than it is now: it was perfectly possible for independent women to be at odds not only with men but also with each other. The leaders of the two main campaigns for female suffrage in England, Emmeline Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett, fundamentally disagreed about the value of using violent means to achieve political ends and encountered dissension even within their own families. Pankhurst’s two younger daughters deserted her cause (she packed one of them off to Australia), while Fawcett’s sister and niece, both medical pioneers, joined the ranks of her rival’s militant suffragette movement.
Wendy Moore’s riveting new book focuses on two female doctors: Fawcett’s rebellious niece Louisa Garrett Anderson and her lifetime partner, Flora Murray. After pitching a stone through a Knightsbridge window during a suffragette protest in 1912, Anderson spent six weeks in Holloway Prison and emerged strongly committed to improving the lives of the impoverished prisoners she had met inside. Women normally separated by class were united by captivity, on one occasion joining together for a jubilant rendition of the ‘The March of the Women’, its composer, Ethel Smyth, leaning out of her cell window to conduct the singing with a toothbrush.
At the beginning of the First World War, the British government was adamant that women should stay at home, but its allies were far more sensible. Within a couple of weeks, Anderson and Murray had raised sufficient money from women’s suffrage supporters to set up a temporary hospital in a smart Parisian hotel, which they ran for five months. By the end of that period, the War Office – or at least, a few enlightened members of it – had recognised that national survival depended on recruiting female medical staff, so the two surgeons were invited to convert a grim Dickensian workhouse in Covent Garden into a fully functioning military hospital. Overcoming deliberate obstructiveness, they had somehow accomplished that task by May 1915, just in time to help cope with the influx of 15,000 wounded soldiers being transported home from Boulogne.
Staffed entirely by women, this unique hospital rapidly acquired a reputation for stellar medical standards as well as a caring atmosphere. After the Battle of Gallipoli, the Sydney Daily Telegraph reassured its readers that Australian servicemen were being cared for at ‘the best hospital in London’. Several hundred soldiers a month were admitted to its bright and cheery wards, which were filled with flowers and named alphabetically after female saints. For occupational therapy, these physically and mentally wounded men learned how to sew and knit, while the volunteer librarians ensured that many of them discovered the equally unfamiliar joy of reading books. Famous entertainers visited the wards, while more mobile patients staged performances in the hospital theatre or were taken out to concerts nearby.
While emphasising the jollity of life there, Moore constantly reminds her readers of the horrific conditions outside the hospital. Staff treated many thousands of life-changing injuries, especially during the Somme offensive of 1916, when London was inundated with stretcher cases. Enterprisingly, Anderson and her medical colleagues seized the opportunity to try out a new antiseptic paste, which proved an enormous success, not only helping to restore soldiers with shattered bones and mangled limbs back to health but also decreasing the number of painful and time-consuming bandage changes.
Only too aware of the constant suspicion threatening their venture, the suffragists maintained high disciplinary standards. One orderly reported, ‘We had this drilled into us … you not only have got to do a good job but you have got to do a superior job.’ Both patients and staff found Murray rather intimidating, but Anderson was more empathetic in her approach, introducing morning meetings with her fellow doctors to discuss the day’s ward rounds and at one fundraising event telling donors that running a military hospital was like looking after several hundred large babies – the trick was to find out ‘what toys they like, what they like for tea, and what frightens them when going to an operation’.
Moore has scoured archives and diaries to produce a meticulously researched history of this extraordinary institution. She also writes vividly, describing one suffragette as ‘tall, slim and erect’ and another as being blessed with a ‘pretty, impish face, striking blue eyes and profusion of coppery hair’. But her upbeat tone shifts into a more melancholy gear towards the end, when she describes how the hospital was forced to close down in the autumn of 1919.
Murray paced the empty wards, finding them ‘miserable in their loneliness’. Sadder still, she reflected that recent patients had behaved unusually aggressively, as if reflecting the national switch of sentiment towards women: whereas during the war, their work had been gratefully appreciated, now the returning men resentfully sought to reclaim male territory. Even well-qualified women found it hard to obtain jobs and were forced into accepting low wages. Once again, female applicants were excluded from London’s leading medical schools, the consultants of which worried that they might outperform the men.
Today the only physical vestige of the hospital is a slate plaque on a block of council flats that carries the suffragette motto ‘Deeds Not Words’. By writing this splendid book, Moore has ensured that the efforts of these pioneering women will never be forgotten.