Lock-Down Reviews: The Lives And Work Of Two Garrett Cousins: ‘Endell Street’ and ‘Margery Spring Rice’

Serendipitously, lock-down has given me the opportunity of making closer acquaintance with two cousins, products of that ever-interesting family – the Garretts.

Louisa Garrett Anderson and Margery Spring Rice, members of the generation that came after the pioneering Garrett sisters Elizabeth, Millicent and Agnes, are each the central figure in new books spotlighting aspects of ‘women’s work’ that, although not forgotten, have hitherto not received detailed attention. The books differ in concept in that one is a study of an enterprise and the other is a straight biography, but central to both is evidence of a steely Garrett determination.

Endell Street by Wendy Moore is a study of the military hospital opened in London during the First World War by Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson and her companion, Dr Flora Murray. The hospital was exceptional in that it was the first in which women doctors were able to treat male patients. In fact, the entire staff (with the exception of a few orderlies) consisted entirely of women. Although Dr Murray recounted the work of the hospital in Women as Army Surgeons, published in the immediate aftermath of the war, it is certainly time, a hundred years later, to look at it with fresh eyes.

Louisa Garrett Anderson (1873-1943), daughter of Britain’s pioneer doctor, Elizabeth Garrett, and Flora Murray (1869-1923), daughter of a retired Scottish naval commander, had both studied at the London School of Medicine for Women, with Murray finalising her degree at Durham University. At the turn of the 20th century women doctors still faced considerable difficulty in advancing their careers and Garrett Anderson and Murray, denied positions in general hospitals, were restricted to treating women and children. The professional difficulties with which they had to contend forced them away from the constitutional suffrage movement, led by Louisa’s aunt Millicent, and into Mrs Pankhurst’s  militant WSPU. Garrett Anderson even spent time in prison after taking part in a 1912 protest.

Medal issued by the Women’s Hospital Corps. For sale 0 see item 512 in my Catalogue 202 Part 2 

The outbreak of war in August 1914 offered an opportunity to escape the medical cage, an opportunity seized by Garrett Anderson and Murray with both hands. Their offer to help in the war effort having been repudiated by the authorities, they struck out on their own. travelling to France in September 1914 to tend wounded soldiers in hospitals they set up themselves, first in Paris and then in Wimereux. They named their outfit the Women’s Hospital Corps and It was the success of these first, small, French-based operations that led them in 1915 to be invited by the War Office to run a military hospital in London. They opened it in an old workhouse in Endell Street, Covent Garden, convenient for the trains bringing the wounded back from France. All involved with the Endell Street hospital were aware that they were operating on sufferance and that any lapse of standards would damage the professional chances of future women doctors

The author has researched diligently, enlisting the aid of diaries, letters and family memories of both staff and patients to paint a more inclusive picture of the hospital and its occupants than that depicted by Dr Murray. These reveal how demanding the work was of all the women. Stretcher bearers and surgeons alike tackled situations they had never previously encountered. Louisa Garrett Anderson was the hospital’s main surgeon and Flora Murray its anaesthetist. Obviously neither they, nor the other women doctors on the staff, had any previous experience of the types of wounds – and patients – they were now treating, but proved very competent in developing the necessary skills. From mid-1916 the hospital trialled  the use of a new antiseptic paste, known as BIPP, which proved very successful when used on men sent back to them from the Somme battlefield.

As neither Garrett Anderson nor Murray left direct descendants or private papers it is difficult to get close to them. The image they presented is the one that survives and suggests that both were reserved, with Murray the more resolutely aloof and Garrett Anderson slightly more approachable. These characteristics, while perhaps natural, were also necessary in giving the women the credibility with which to operate such an establishment. Yet it is clear they were greatly appreciated by both staff and patients. Endell Street appears to have been comfortable and sociable, the male patients soon becoming entirely at ease with the idea of being treated by women.

Although it is perhaps difficult to bring the principals to life, Endell Street is characterised by the more personal stories of young women who, travelling from all parts of Britain, Australia, Canada and the US, had the foresight to record their experiences. These are enlivened by the revelations of all-too-human work-centred discontents. The novelists Beatrice Harraden and Elizabeth Robins clearly managed to wring a good deal of drama out of running the hospital library.

Endell Street was decommissioned in the autumn of 1919. During its final year the hospital treated victims of the three waves of the ‘flu pandemic, in February 1919 experiencing more deaths than it had in any month during the war. These deaths included a significant number of staff members.

But, as the author comments, as far as women in medicine were concerned, ‘The war had changed everything, and nothing’. After the war, while some professions were opened up to women for the first time, it was once again made very difficult for women doctors to build a hospital career and young women were again barred from many medical schools. Sadly, after a brief effort, Murray and Garrett Anderson were unable to continue running the hospital for children that they had founded before the war. In the final chapter the author assuages our curiosity and details the ‘afterlives’ of Garrett Anderson and the other women with whom we’ve kept company during the war years in Endell Street.

In the summer of 2017 I very much enjoyed taking part in a a performance of ‘Deeds Not Words’, an immersive drama staged by Digital Drama in the Swiss Church in Endell Street, opposite the site of the hospital. Belief was suspended, and I really felt myself walking through the hospital wards, encountering staff and patients. You can watch a Digital Drama film about the Endell Street hospital here. This is based on some of the material used by Wendy Moore in Endell Street.

See also a post on this website  Women and the First World War: the work of women doctors

Apparently Louisa Garrett Anderson’s one venture into print, a biography of her mother, was prompted by learning  that a cousin, Margery Spring Rice (1887-1970), was considering Elizabeth Garrett Anderson as a suitable subject for just such a work. Now Margery, in her turn, has had her life placed under the spotlight-  by Lucy Pollard, a grand-daughter. And what a rewarding subject she is. Here all is drama – love, death, affairs, court cases, divorce, blighted lives – set alongside the achievements of a life spent working to improve the lot of working-class women.

Margery Garrett was the daughter of Sam Garrett, a favourite brother of Elizabeth and Millicent. He seems to have been easy going; his daughter was rather more volatile. She was educated at Girton, married in 1911 and had three children before her husband was killed on the Somme in 1916. A disastrous second marriage produced two more children. Equipped with an abundance of energy Margery Spring Rice, as she now was, chanced on the cause of birth control as the subject of her life’s work. This was a subject shunned by the medical profession but one which she recognised as an imperative if poor women were to retain their health and any ability to care properly for the children they did bear.

In 1924, with two friends, she founded a ‘contraception clinic’ in north Kensington, a notoriously impoverished area, retiring only in 1957. It proved very successful with Margery ‘wholeheartedly encouraging and supporting the liberal attitude prevalent among its staff’. In 1939 she wrote Working-Class Wives: their health and conditions (Penguin) which has become a classic, re-published by Virago in 1981.

Margery Spring Rice is a delight to read. Well-written and Impeccably referenced, this is no hagiography, Lucy Pollard making clear that Margery Spring Rice was a difficult woman ‘not much given to self-reflection or self-doubt’, ‘full of contradictions’, and, to my mind, all the more interesting for it. She spent much of her life in Suffolk and for a time was close to Benjamin Britten, although, rather poignantly did find herself dropped in later years. I love the cover illustration showing ‘Margery pushing a young friend along the Crag Path in Aldeburgh, New Year 1968’ (Christopher Ellis).

Wendy Moore, Endell Street: the trailblazing women who ran World War One’s most remarkable military hospital, Atlantic Books, 2020, £17.99.

Lucy Pollard, Margery Spring Rice: pioneer of women’s health in the early twentieth century, Open Books Publishers, 2020.

Free download: https://www.openbookpublishers.com//download/book/1204 

Hardback: £29.95

Paperback: £19.95

For full details see here


All the articles on Woman and Her Sphere and are my copyright. An article may not be reproduced in any medium without my permission and full acknowledgement. You are welcome to cite or quote from an article provided you give full acknowledgement.

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