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Motorcycling nurses

March 16, 2015

mcphee 2Meet district nurse Elizabeth McPhee with her rather splendid BSA motorcycle in 1926. She is the headline image in a stunning online collection at the US National Library of Medicine. I’m not sure where in Scotland it was taken but the castle at the back should be a good clue. The exhibition, curated by Julia Hallam, of Liverpool University, who talks about it here, is based on 2,500 postcards collected over the years by American nurse Michael Zwerdling.

Tricky problems for an Italian nurse in 1915 - keeping the halo out of the wings

Tricky problems for an Italian nurse in 1915 – keeping the halo out of your  wings

Postcards would, as you’d expect, provide the usual sex or saint stereotypes of nursing but there is much more to it than that…..

Lincoln nurses 1930

Lincoln Nursing School 1930

You see how race shaped nurse education from the African American nurses at the George A. Brewster Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida set up after the great fire in 1901 and the Lincoln School for Nurses established in New York the following year. There are  Japanese  Red Cross nurses from 100 years, various members of European royal families in nurse uniforms in World War One and a Nazi people’s welfare nurse helping folk at a train station in the 1930s.

Flora Ferguson, the first motorised nurse in the Highlands, 1926. Courtesy of Am Baile

Flora Ferguson, the first motorised nurse in the Highlands, 1926. Courtesy of Am Baile

Patients don't look that smiley with Czarina and family in nursing attire

Pretty  glum patients  with the  Czarina and family in nursing attire

It also goes into the modern era with a more accurate depiction of nursing, including the work of male nurses.  It’s a real treat… Which brings us back to Elizabeth. The association of Scottish nurses  with motorcycles is probably due to the work of the Highlands and Island Medical Service which provided grants to nurses and doctors for essential means of transport so they could do their jobs. Many nurses recruited to the Highlands and Islands were Queen’s Nurses – specialists trained in district nursing.

Yet more motorbikes.. location unknown

Yet another motorbike . location unknown

There is another brilliant online collection produced by the Queen’s Nursing Institute in 2009 to mark 150 years of district nursing.  Here you’ll find real life images of nurses and midwives from London’s East End as portrayed in Call the Midwife. But my all time favourite is Queen’s nurse Mary MacAskill, weighing a baby on North Uist in the 1950s. Sheer joy….

North Uist 1950s

Nurse MacAskill and not so tiny tot. I guess this would be net weight!  Courtesy Queen’s Nursing Institute Scotland

Whiz-bangs on the web – digital history and WW1

November 30, 2014
Scottish prisoners of war enjoying a bowl of soup. Courtesy, Great War in Color

Scottish prisoners of war enjoying a bowl of soup. Courtesy, The Great War in Color

What did you do in the Great Centenary, Daddy/Mummy?

It is already the UK’s most expensive commemoration in history thanks to £50 million of Government funding.  War was actually declared in August but the centenary started much earlier: broadcast and publishing schedules had already been awash with it for months.

Much has been spearheaded by Imperial War Museum (IWM) but virtually every school, library, and university  and  is hosting its own exhibition.

So anyone not knowing who Gavrilo Princip was or that the Kaiser was Queen Victoria’s favourite grandson must have just arrived from a different planet.

The most remarkable feature has been the level of public participation. A vast array of primary sources has been made available online – film, photographs, service records, newspapers and diaries.

French troops from North Africa on the Western Front. Courtesy The Great War in Color

French troops from North Africa on the Western Front. Courtesy The Great War in Color

Instead of passive consumers of history, ordinary people have become active creators of their own narratives, applying the historiographical principles developed by Lewis Namier at Manchester and WG Hoskins in Leicester to the internet age.

What this has done is to humanise history. We now know the stories behind the names on war memorials. World War One is no longer the school dinner menu of great powers and generals with a seasoning of Sasoon and the Somme.

The evidence for this is in the explosion of social media where hundreds of local groups are using Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest not only to disseminate digitised archive material but to share and learn from others with similar interests.

Exploring and harnessing the potential of digital history had already gained momentum, particularly in genealogy, but the centenary has elevated it to quite a different scale.

Two shining examples for me are Alan Cumming, not the actor but a landscape gardener, who has championed the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and Sue Light  who has opened up the history of military nursing to a vast new audience.

1930 poster for All Quiet on the Western Front

1930 poster for All Quiet on the Western Front

There are precedents for this.  All Quiet on the Western Front set a new benchmark not just for talkies but Hollywood’s portrayal of war.  For those who remember the crackling print shown on TV, the newly restored digital film and soundtrack evokes the full shocking impact it must have had in 1930 when it won two Oscars.

What do we want with eggs and ham?

What do we want with eggs and ham?

Similarly, Joan Littlewood’s Oh What a Lovely War transformed musical theatre as well as public perceptions of the conflict.

The centrepiece of the 50thanniversary was The Great War which became a landmark in television documentary production with 26 weekly programmes featuring interviews with actual survivors.  It was the brainchild of Alasdair Milne, future BBC director general, and colleagues on the Tonight programme.  The series also gave the first job to an 18 year old whipper snapper who didn’t fancy going to university – Max Hastings.

This year the range of inquiry has known no bounds.  We know far more about the contributions of nurses, civilians at home, and soldiers from across the British Empire.

Otto Lais - self portrait  15 years after his time on the Somme

Otto Lais – self portrait 15 years after his time on the Somme

Each country tends to view the conflict through its own prism but much wider understanding has been opened up by collaborations like Europeana 1914-1918 and Centenary News offering masses of primary source material from other nations.

Beware – perspectives can change.  For me, this came in a particularly moving account of how the Somme was viewed from the other side where  Otto Lais recalls the piteous slaughter of the advancing Tommies, and how the Germans had to use their own urine when machine gun coolant water ran out.

Another poignant moment was seeing a British Pathé clip (just 40 seconds) showing the expressions of William Angus VC back home in Carluke sharing a smile with James Martin, the man whose life he saved.


So what are the downsides of this Great War fixation? Have other, and just as worthy, areas of study been marginalised or forgotten?  There may be some merit in this argument, although it is founded on the appetite for history being inelastic, which it clearly isn’t.

Is the extra funding this year ephemeral? Yes; museums and libraries still face drastic budget  cuts– witness the petition to save the IWM library. And there is a wider danger of digital becoming a substitute rather than an adjunct of physical collections which are the prime treasures.

Will the public be turned off by Great War overload and then history in general? I don’t detect any signs of that.

It won’t be over by Christmas. We have four more years ahead, like it or not.  But we can at least switch off, a choice not open to any of our forebears 100 years ago.

Here’s how the Armistice was celebrated:



The first hams for heroes

November 2, 2014
Longniddry Piggery

Still standing – the Longniddry Piggery nearly 100 years on

Unlikely as it sounds, the Longniddry Piggery provided Britain’s first purpose-built homes for heroes.

The idea came from a group of concerned individuals early in 1915 who set up the Scottish Veterans’ Garden City Association.

They drew inspiration from Letchworth in Hertfordshire and  Bournville in Birmingham where high quality, low-rent housing was provided in semi-rural settings.  It wasn’t just about offering a roof – disabled servicemen also needed help to promote self-sufficiency and rebuild their shattered lives.

Two cottages in the original settlement

Two cottages in the original settlement

So Longniddry, then a tiny village 15 miles east of Edinburgh, was chosen, sufficiently green in open country  but with a railway station on the doorstep for easy access to the city. The Piggery scheme included 30 houses with gardens, beehives, allotments, a shop and a village hall.

Remarkably, it is virtually intact nearly 100 years later – minus the piggery although the Filling Station café (part of the original settlement, but I’m not sure what) still sells a mean bacon roll.

Alastair Sim

Alastair Sim

The key driving force behind the SVGCA was its secretary, Alexander Sim, a prosperous Edinburgh tailor. His younger son Alastair just missed active service because of the Armistice but went to become the celebrated actor, probably best known as the headmistress in the St Trinians films. Both were  modest and intensely private men and were the first father and son to successively turn down knighthoods.

The veteran’s image is still largely the cosy old codger stereotype dating back to the 17th century when the first institutional provision was created in Les Invalides in Paris and the Royal Chelsea Hospital in London.

By the turn of the 20th century, there was more effort to meet actual needs. The squalid plight of Boer War veterans sleeping rough in Edinburgh led to the establishment of the Scottish Veterans Residences  in 1910 with the first residence at Whitefoord House on the Canongate.

The Scottish War Blinded charity was set up in early 1915 to look after soldiers and sailors, initially in a hostel in Grange Loan. Edinburgh.

By this time it was clear that casualties would be on a far greater scale than anyone had imagined. The Longniddry scheme was originally for 60 homes costing £300 each but only half that number were built, possibly because of Government wartime restrictions on materials.

Funds came from across the world – particularly from Caledonian societies  and First Nation tribes in the USA and Canada.  The London Road School in Edinburgh and the Caledonian society of Bangkok also provided cottages

Two plaques still bear witness to the generosity of New York State communities – Troy, Albany and Cohoes.

"Erected by Friends of Scotland in Alban, Troy and Cohoes to mak’  a happy fireside clime to weans and wife that’s the true pathos and sublime of human life"

Lincoln Cottage “Erected by Friends of Scotland in Albany, Troy and Cohoes to mak’ a happy fireside clime to weans and wife
that’s the true pathos and sublime
of human life”

Robert Ross Cottage  Presented by a member of the Troy Burns Club

Robert Ross Cottage
“Presented by a member of the Troy Burns Club”

The foundation stone for  the Piggery was laid in September  1916 by which time the full horrors of losses at the Somme were well-known. The first cottages completed and occupied by late 1917.

Curiously, the first branch of the Scottish Women Rural Institute (based on the model first developed in Ontario) was also established in Longniddry two months earlier.

The driving force behind it was the redoubtable Catherine Blair whose home at Hoprig Mains Farm had been a refuge for suffragettes on the run.  As with the SVGCA, the SWRI was also a product of the exigencies of war and the need to maximise food production in time of rationing.  It is likely that they overlapped in Longniddry – jam making and fruit preserving were both mutual interests.

One century on and there are still parallels.  Young soldiers are sent off to war on the promise of excitement and adventure but no-one really wants to know those who return, broken in body and mind. We routinely depersonalise them with euphemisms like army personnel and boots on the ground.

Last post

Last post

First call

First call

The work of the Garden City Veterans has expanded and it is still largely run by team of local volunteers now providing 600 homes across Scotland at affordable,below-market rents. Its prime focus remains on younger veterans from recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Replicating the original aims of 1915, it has launched a fresh appeal to build a further 60 homes. It is depressing that we seem to have come full circle and have learned so little. Going to war is easy – picking up the pieces and dealing with the human cost of the aftermath is quite a different matter. We should all be thankful that some folk are still committed to doing it.

At least some good has come from the rapacious greed of bankers – the appeal has received a £2 million donation from the UK Government’s fine on banks who were involved in fixing the Libor interest rates.


The excellent Scotland’s War website has the best account of the Longniddry Piggery  It also has good pieces on Alexander Sim and the contributions of first nation volunteers in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

More here on Catherine Blair and the origins of the SWRI

Henry Dundas – lofty hero or lowlife crook?

August 2, 2014
Melville Monument

Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville – no-one stands higher in Edinburgh

He’s the man I walk past every day but never get to see up close. That’s because he’s 140 feet up in St Andrew Square – easily the tallest statue in Edinburgh. Far, far above His Royal Highness (William IV) down in George Street and even Sir Walter Scott – at eye level in his monument in Princes Street.

He was the man who opposed Wilberforce and delayed abolition of the slave trade for nearly 20 years. And his own career ended in the stench of corruption as the last British politician to face impeachment.

So why does Henry Dundas, the first Viscount Melville, have such prominence?

No great surprise that he was a lawyer turned politician – a very capable and ruthless one, commonly known as the Governor General who effectively ruled Scotland for over thirty years.

But the power he exercised as William Pitt’s fixer in London was much greater.  He was variously Home and War Secretaries, First Lord of the Admiralty and Treasurer of the Royal Navy. Above all, he was the critical figure in the expansion of  British trading empires in India and the West Indies through “pillage and patronage” as Canning described it.

My interest in him was triggered by an engrossing talk given by Geoff Palmer on the Jamaican panels he and his daughter had stitched for the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry.

Geoff Palmer

Geoff, now Sir Geoff Palmer retired grain scientist and recent historian of Jamaica with his Scottish Diaspora Tapestry panel

Scotland grew very fat on the slave trade. Dundas gained from that directly through family connections but he was also the man who made it all possible through a vast network of patronage built on favours like finding posts for younger sons of the nobility. Just as Edinburgh was playing a leading role in the Enlightenment it was simultaneously also raking in enormous profits from the sugar and tobacco trades built on chattel slavery and its routine indulgence of rape, murder, and systematic torture of fellow human beings.

Henry Dundas as young lawyer

Henry Dundas as young lawyer. Courtesy Scottish National Portrait Gallery

So what was Dundas like as a person?  He married Elizabeth Rannie (when she was just 14) for her £10,000 fortune which he then lost in the failed Ayr Bank. His long absences in London probably led to her affair with an army officer whom she later married.

Vengeance was harsh from the divorce in 1778 – Dundas, as was the law then, acquired her wealth, goods and chattels. These included their four children. She never saw them again and she lived until the age of 97.

James Boswell described him as a “coarse, unfettered, unfanciful dog”  when Dundas was appointed Lord Advocate.

Lady Melville (2)

Elizabeth Rannie who married Dundas when she was 14. Courtesy Scottish National Portrait Gallery

But earlier he had praised Dundas’s advocacy skills when he represented Joseph Knight, a slave brought to Scotland from Jamaica who had the temerity to want freedom from his master, John Wedderburn.

His case was vindicated by the Court of Session. This provided the material for a novel by James Robertson.

Dundas changed his tune on slavery in his later Parliamentary clashes with Wilberforce.

Then he argued that the West Indian trade was so profitable and important to Britain, particularly in a time of war, that it could not be surrendered without consent of the slave owners. Thus was born “gradual” abolition when moral principle was sacrificed on the altar of greed.

Nor was such inconsistency unusual. Boswell was a defender of the slavery trade – so too was John Stewart the first black MP in Westminster So what’s the legacy? Slavery funded a boom in land purchase and buildings.

The slave trade was abolished in 1807 but many grew even richer when slavery itself was finally abolished in 1834 and slavers compensated with today’s equivalent of billions of pounds for the loss of their earnings.

Then there are the people. For Campbells alone we have Sol, Naomi and Joel, the wee Costa Rican striker in the World Cup.

You only have to look in the Jamaica phone book to find 2500 Campbells – four times the number listed in Edinburgh and Lothians. The Empire Café provided a focus for Scotland’s slavery legacy at the Commonwealth Games. This subject is now getting far more attention from journalists and historians, particularly in the Highlands.

Jamaican panel from the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry

Jamaican panel from the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry

Henry Dundas, meanwhile, still towers over over St Andrew Square.  His downfall arose from controls on Royal Navy expenditure he himself had introduced in 1785 but neglected to follow. The charges related to his use of fellow Scot Alexander Trotter, the official Navy paymaster, as his private agent to withdraw public money from the Bank of England and deposit it in his private bank, Coutts (also run by Scots) for speculation – primarily in the East India Company in which Dundas also had frequent Parliamentary interest.

The sums involved were astronomical – some £15 million over two decades then – beyond calculation now.  As his accusers remarked: “It was infamous that the pittance wrung from the necessities of the poor should be sported with in the hazardous game of stock jobbing”

Dundas had conveniently destroyed all his records so the case was largely based on Trotter’s testimony. Dundas was formally censured by the House of Commons on the casting vote of the Speaker. Rather than face a criminal trial, he chose to be tried literally by his peers in what became the last impeachment at Westminster. In the event, he was acquitted by the House of Lords in 1806 but the damage was done and his career was in ruins. Even if he did not trouser profits himself (highly unlikely, I think, given his earlier penchant for speculation) he was Trotter’s boss and at least had been grossly negligent.

So how come a statue after all that? It may be the only way up he saw from the depths of disgrace was to elevate his form for posterity. There are two other statues of him in Parliament Square, Edinburgh and an obelisk at Comrie near his country seat.

And whatever his considerable failings, Dundas was the boy who’d done good – easily the most powerful Scottish politician in Westminster since the Union.  Prime Ministers and Kings were frequent visitors to Cannizaro House, his mansion in Wimbledon. He did have friends and supporters – a public subscription for a memorial had already raised £3000 five years before his death in 1811.

melville monument (2)

An inscription by the monument says it was paid for by members of the Royal Navy.  Dundas had overseen many naval reforms including building new ships used at Trafalgar. But I can’t really see many jolly jack tars emptying  from the Pompey pubs and putting their pennies towards it.

And it was truly monumental.  Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather even had to design a new crane to build it with 1500 tonnes of stone. The final cost was £8000.Stevenson

Yet there is still doubt about whether his statue was intended to be put on top. It may have been an afterthought.

What would have tickled Dundas is that Melville Monument liability  came before the Court of Session nearly two centuries later in 2010 in considering what constitutes a contract.

The original case of 1823 was about a complaint from owners of another site in Edinburgh where the monument was due to be erected. More answers may yet come from historians looking at Melville’s papers.

We are stuck with the historic monuments and statues left by past generations – unless it is a living memorial like the hospital for mothers and children for Elsie Inglis which was just blithely flogged off. As the Damned Rebel Bitches history group points out, there are more than 200 hundred public statues in Edinburgh but only two are of women and another two of dogs.

Looking up at the Melville monument, you can’t really see his features clearly, even with a long lens. But in a final irony Auld Reekie’s sooty revenge after two hundred years has turned him……. unmistakably black.




Further reading

An excellent resource from David Alston on Slaves and Highlanders in Guyana

Two very good academic projects: UCL’s project on the legacies of British slave ownership  and Northeastern University’s Caribbean Digital Archive

An Enlightenment Abolished by Geoff Palmer, Henry Publishing, Penicuik, 2007.

Henry Dundas biographies: in the History of Parliament and DNB (by Michael Fry)

Steve McKenzie of BBC Highland chronicles here outstanding black African and Caribbean contributions to Scotland, including Robert Watson the first black international footballer. On his debut in 1881 he captained Scotland to a 6-1 win over England at the Oval, England’s heaviest defeat on home soil.

Hansard report on Melville’s impeachment and fuller account of the process.

Scotland goes tapestry bonkers (3)

July 27, 2014

GuelphNumber three of the great tapestries to come out of Prestonpans is the one stitched by the Scottish communities across the world.

As such, the Diaspora Tapestry  offers a very different historical perspective than the previous two – for the 1745 battle and the Great Scottish Tapestry

They see Scotland from the prism of early explorers and settlers and those forcibly exiled or seeking escape from lack of opportunity at home.

It’s well worth a visit – catch it from August 6 at St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh. I liked the strong representation of nurses – including Mary Seacole (Jamaica) Kate Cumming (America) and the women of Royamont (France). There is good accompanying information in leaflets


Kate Cummings2SeacoleBut that is only a tiny part of it.

What is remarkable is this tapestry’s capacity to shed light on hidden history – sometimes the nasty stuff we’d prefer to forget.

Among the Italian panels is one of the torpedoed liner Arandora Star which went down with nearly 800 souls, more than half of them Italians civilians interned after Mussolini joined the war in June 1940 triggering  wave of anti-Italian riots and looting in Britain.

As my old colleague and pal Simon Pia has chronicled the violence meted against innocent Italians was far greater and more sustained in Edinburgh than in London, Liverpool or Glasgow. Leith Street and Leith Walk looked like they’d suffered heavy bombardment.


We got lucky on our visit – a chance to hear a talk by Geoff Palmer on the Jamaican panels he had stitched with his daughter. This recalled a shameful period when Scotland grew fat on slavery. More on this in a later post.

Meanwhile, catch it if you can (take grannies and kids) in Edinburgh.  It will be touring around the country and next year is  heading around the Diaspora countries.  And if that whets your appetite, the Great Scottish Tapestry is also back on show at the Scottish Parliament.

Further reading:

Simon Pia, The Scots Italians, a forgotten tale of wartime persecution, The Scotsman S2 Weekend, June 9, 2001.

Wendy Ugolini demonstrates a master class in this IHR podcast about Scots Italians on how oral histories can strip away layers of historicism. Her book “Experiencing war as the ‘enemy other – Italian Scottish experience in World War II”, Manchester University Press, 2014 which I got a Christmas present, is just as good.


Carlos Drummond

War, whisky and well being

February 26, 2014
Usher Hall

The Usher Hall

Man walks into jewellers and writes cheque for £100,000. Leaves with nothing and is very happy.

This was the unlikely beginning of the Usher Hall in Edinburgh in 1896.

The man was whisky distiller Andrew Usher and the jeweller was his friend James Aitchison, goldsmith to the Queen and also a town councillor. His shop was at 80 Princes Street (now Clarks Shoes – the original is behind the later additional frontage).

Andrew Usher

Andrew Usher

Usher was reported to have said “I have so much money, I don’t know what to do with it” to which Aitchison replied “I never thought I would live to see the day when anyone would come into my shop and tell me that.”

Two years later Andrew was dead. This being Edinburgh,  actual building took nearly two decades  and the Usher Hall finally opened in March 1914.

Usher was no ordinary distiller. His family effectively created Scotch whisky as a global brand, first by marketing the Smith’s Glenlivet single malt, then revolutionising mass production of blended whisky.

He was one of founders, along with John Crabbie and William Sanderson (of VAT 69 fame), of the North British Distillery in Gorgie. It was astonishingly profitable, aided by spectacularly successful brand marketing campaigns which enabled Scotch to replace Irish whiskey and French Cognac as the most popular spirit in the Empire and the world. Dewar’s probably made the world’s first advertising film in 1897 -showing some daft dram-inspired dancing which you can watch here.

The Usher Hall wasn’t solely a philanthropic gesture. Usher’s Presbyterian faith had strong views on alcohol. So although built on the proceeds of hard liquor, there were strict conditions banning its sale at the Usher Hall.

It was to be an entertainment venue for the people of Edinburgh, a diversion from the evils that drink could also bring. Usher imposed the same on conditions his benefactions to his local village, St Abbs in Berwickshire.

There was also a wider movement at this time to make drinking respectable. Lavishly decorated new pubs opened (like my local the Guildford Arms in 1897) to offer something more than the dingy hovels that tended to pass for public houses.

Day at Races

A day at the races with a dram box

Concerns about the dreadful physical state of recruits for the South African War promoted much debate on public health.

Promotion of well being of his fellow citizens also prompted Andrew’s brother, John Usher, to fund firstly a professorial chair and then in 1902 an institute for the teaching of public health in Edinburgh.  Other distillers made huge contributions too  – without Sir John Dewar there would have been no Highlands and Islands Medical Service, the forerunner of the NHS.

Such individual contributions by whisky families stand in stark contrast to the corporate nature of distilling now where the Scotch Whisky Association remains bitterly opposed to the Scottish Government’s plans for minimum alcohol pricing.  Although this would have relatively little impact on whisky, the Association fears the impact of any precedent for its international sales. Somehow, I don’t think Messrs Usher, Dewar and others would approve – their priorities were for the health of their fellow citizens.

Patrick Manson

Sir Patrick Manson

Whisky families also provided inspirational leaders. Sir Patrick Manson was the father of study of tropical medicine, a key concern for the British Empire.  He founded the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine but grew up in Oldmedrum in Aberdeenshire where his family owned the Glengarioch distillery.

Field Marshall Douglas Haig came from the Haig whisky dynasty. He was born in Charlotte Square in Edinburgh. Perhaps surprisingly, given his social awkwardness, he was a member of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford University.

His image was used to promote Haig whisky and he was awarded a cash sum with his earldom after the war – £100,000 the same as Usher’s original bequest for the hall.  It was also a prominent venue for recruiting volunteers – particularly Sir George  McCrae’s battalion made up of Hearts players and supporters.

Douglas Haig

Sir Douglas Haig

On November 27  1914, McCrae addressed a packed audience:  “ I would not – I could not – ask you to serve unless I share the danger at your side. In a moment I will walk down to Castle Street and set my name to the list of volunteers. Who will join me?”

Hundreds followed and many of these young men were among the casualties in the battle of the Somme when the battalion suffered colossal losses.

War brought horrors that Usher could not have imagined when he wrote that cheque twenty years earlier.

The legacy of Elsie Inglis – Edinburgh’s shame

February 6, 2014
Elsie's in better times in the 1930s

Elsie’s in better times in the 1930s – note the sheep in foreground, long since removed from Holyrood Park along with the maternity hospital. Courtesy of Lothian Health Services Archive

Recent controversies over the centenary of World War One sometimes overlook a key factor – how the survivors wanted it to be remembered by future generations.

Elsie and colleagues captured in Austria - courtesy The National Archives

Elsie and colleagues captured in Austria – courtesy The National Archives

In the case of Dr Elsie Inglis, this was quite simple – build maternity hospitals to continue the work she had dedicated her life to before 1914.

Two were constructed – one in Belgrade reflecting the huge sacrifice she and the Scottish Women’s Hospitals Unit (SWHU) volunteers made in Serbia. The other was in Edinburgh, where a public appeal supplemented the remaining funds raised in wartime for the SWHU.

The Hospice in the High Street

The Hospice in the High Street – from Elsie Inglis by Eva Shaw McLaren (1920)

The hospital in Edinburgh was to replace the Hospice which Elsie had set up in 1904. The name a bit of misnomer – it was a maternity hospital run by all-female staff at 219 High Street (part of the Royal Mile) which sounds grand but it was there to serve the poorest families in the Old Town. Inglis’s intentions were clear – she visited the USA in 1913 and at Muskegon, Michigan, found a small memorial hospital as the model she wanted for midwifery in Edinburgh.
The final hospital was completed in 1925 with a glorious outlook across the Holyrood Park. It was incorporated into the NHS in 1948 but forty years later was deemed surplus to requirements along with the Bruntsfield Hospital for Women.
The building was sold and became a nursing home for older people. I should declare an interest here – I and my siblings were all born at Elsie’s and I also covered the closure protest as a Herald reporter. We were repeatedly assured that Elsie’s name would continue to be preserved in a working maternity unit in the city
These pledges were not honoured. Instead, the nursing home has now closed in the wake of the deaths of two patients.
I don’t think this is quite what Winston Churchill had in mind when he praised the women of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals: “….the record of their work, lit up by the fame of Dr Inglis, will shine in history.” Another part of the site us occupied by a private nursery “Bright Horizons family solutions.” It may well be a wonderful nursery but its website merely uses Elsie’s name – there is no further reference to her.
Contrast this with Belgrade where the other Elsie’s is still going strong, despite a NATO air strike in 1999 which killed several patients. It now bears the name of a Serbian doctor Dr Dragiša Mišović but its website fully acknowledges Elsie Inglis and her colleagues who founded it.

Elsie Inglis with hat in the Great Tapestry of Scotland

Elsie Inglis with hat in the Great Tapestry of Scotland

Back in Edinburgh last year even Elsie’s grave in the Dean Cemetery lay neglected and unmarked. Thankfully, some good blokes at Scot Mid funeral directors have since restored it.There are several plaques in and around Edinburgh and the Clydesdale Bank put her on their £50 note. She also has a prominent place in the Great Tapestry of Scotland. And that’s great.

But what is there that fulfils the original wishes of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals volunteers for a living embodiment of their founder? Something that connects with the present, not just the past.
Involvement in the suffrage struggle made them more determined and resourceful. They hated the propaganda film made in 1917 and contemporary artistic portrayals were also derided by their sisters at the Endell Street Hospital near Covent Garden.
For these reasons alone I am pretty sure they would judge Edinburgh’s attempts at commemoration of Elsie’s legacy as shoddy, shameful … and an utter disgrace.

Their answer now would be in deeds not words.

Update (March 2015) And full marks in that department to the British diplomats who have named the embassy residence in Belgrade after Elsie. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s neglect not just of her memory but also of the wishes of  her SWH colleagues and the public who wanted it to shine on in a living memorial hospital continues…….

The new Embassy plaque in Belgrade

The new Embassy plaque in Belgrade


Easily the best short biography of Elsie Inglis is in the Oxford DNB by the late, and much-missed Leah Leneman.

Alan Cumming’s excellent Scottish Women’s Hospitals website is a growing and valuable resource particularly with biographies of SWH volunteers.

Campaign banner from the 1990s  - courtesy of Capital Collections

Campaign banner from the 1980s – courtesy of Capital Collections


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