by Louise Bell
Around 41,000 British servicemen returned from the First World War missing one or more limbs. With hospitals opening solely with the task of helping these limbless men, it was important that workshops for the production of artificial limbs were set up in Britain, in increasing numbers than there had been previously.
One of the most well-known of these was the Princess Louise Scottish Hospital for Limbless Sailors and Soldiers, at Erskine House. Speaking at a public meeting in March 1916, Sir William Macewen, the eminent surgeon, stated that the object and purpose of the hospital at Erskine would be to ‘receive and treat men who have lost their limbs, or who have faulty use of their injured limbs, after their discharge from the general Hospitals, and to fit the limbless with artificial limbs and teach them how to use them.’ That he mentions teaching these patients how to use their new limbs is of great importance as rehabilitation was an area in which Erskine strove to excel.
The owner of the Mansion House at Erskine, Mr. Thomas Aikman, offered the committee free use of the house and the surrounding gardens for the duration of the war, and for 12 years after peace was declared. The option was also given that if it was believed desirable to make the institution a permanent one, then the house and the grounds surrounding it could be purchased for the total of the agricultural value of the land. This was immediately deemed a generous, and desirable, offer and Mr John Reid, the Vice-President of the hospital, purchased the house, gardens and around 360 acres of land, and presented them to the hospital. The house itself was well adapted for the conversion from stately home to hospital. The room originally used as a picture gallery was turned into a recreational hall for the patients; the drawing room and library were swiftly changed to dormitories, as were many of the rooms of the first floor; accommodation for the Matron, housekeepers and doctors was also provided for. The main staircase of the house had to be altered, in order to allow access to the upper floors for the patients that would be catered for within the building. A large passenger lift had to be erected within the stairwell, too.
The announcement of the plans for the hospital was met by an eager response from the public, and, within a few weeks of the announcement, the Scottish public had donated £100,000 towards the hospital. The generosity of the public did not stop there. Hundreds of gifts flooded in to the hospital; ranging from pianos, to a billiard table, to typewriters, as well as numerous articles of furniture.
On the 10th October 1916, Erskine Hospital opened its doors to the war wounded. However, by November 1917, it was realised that this house would not be big enough to accommodate all those who required aid. Huts were erected on the grounds, in order to allow for more beds to be made accessible to those in need.
In 1916, Britain was almost wholly dependent on foreign limb makers. Sir William Macewen felt that this was an intolerable situation to be in and, with a determination that was so characteristic of him, set out to change this. Speaking at a public meeting, in March 1916, Macewen expressed his dissatisfaction at this apparent dependence on foreign makers and stated that, even if Scotland was left without any professional limb makers, he had every confidence in the ‘potentiality of Glasgow, and in the capacity, youth, and vigour of her sons’ that ‘we would still get, in such a case, those who would make artificial limbs sufficient for the demand.’ It was upon the shipbuilders that Macewen and the staff at Erskine called, in order to help aid them with the manufacturing of prosthetic limbs. Not just aiding by giving practical and valuable advice, these men were to help with the production of ‘artificial limbs of sufficient quantity and of quality to satisfy our requirements by employing home industry alone.’ The hope was to continue this practice of employing native limb makers, by training some of those who received such limbs, so that they could aid in the making of limbs for those who would follow. Harold Yarrow, in particular, was of great assistance to the Erskine cause. He lent his yard’s technical assistance, as well as some of his best craftsmen, to help with the manufacturing of new limbs. Later, in 1918, two more firms, the Anchor line and Sir William Arrol and Co. joined Yarrow in the manufacturing.
Workshops were erected in the grounds of hospitals in order to try and aid these men with finding employment, and decent employment at that, once they had left the wards. Not just intended as a forward-looking scheme, the workshops were detailed with the task of employing the spare time of those waiting for treatment at the hospital in ‘useful and remunerative work.’ The wait for the stump to heal enough for attachment of an artificial limb, and learning to use the limb, could be a long one.
A large, substantially built building located to the south west of the house at Erskine was turned into a workshop. Within, the building was split into three sections, which housed rooms of different trade themes. Everything from shoemaking to hairdressing to gardening and tailoring was taught at Erskine. The east section of the workshop was dedicated to the making and adjusting of artificial limbs. In the west section stood equipment meant for the practice of wood work. This included a band saw, circular saw, benches, a turning lathe, planing machine and benches for wood carving. Within this section you could also see various examples of model yachts, chicken coops, and various kinds of cabinet and wood work, all of which had been made by patients. Basket making was also undertaken in this section of the workshop, and appears to be something that was very popular amongst the patients. The central section of the workshop was dedicated to teaching the art of weaving, and contained two weaving looms for this very purpose. Beekeeping was also something that was introduced to those patients who were interested in undertaking such a task.
By the end of 1918, Erskine had admitted more than 3700 men, and had fitted 2810 of these with artificial limbs. This is just a very brief overview of the work that was undertaken there, and is something that still continues to this day.
Bourke, Joanna, Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War (London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 1999)
Calder, John, The Vanishing Willows: The Story of Erskine Hospital (Bishopton, Renfrewshire: The Princess Louise Scottish Hospital (Erskine Hospital) 1982)
Johnstone, Anne, Cunningham, Jennifer and Leadbetter, Russell, A Century of Care: Erskine 1916-2016 (Bishopton: Erskine, 2016)
Reznick, Jeffrey S., Healing the Nation: Soldiers and the Culture of Caregiving in Britain During the Great War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004)
Erskine Archive Project: https://www.gla.ac.uk/myglasgow/library/collections/medicalhumanities/erskine%20archive%20project/
‘Maimed and Not Fit for Manual Labour?’: https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/maimed-fit-manual-labour/
About the Author:
I am a AHRC CDP funded PhD researcher at the University of Leeds and The National Archives, looking at British state provision of prosthetic limbs in the two world wars. This continues my research interests in disability history and history of medicine, as well as military history. My MSc (from the University of Strathclyde) was titled: “Broken in the War: Prosthetic Limbs for British Soldiers During the Great War.” I spent a great deal of the centenary period working as the First World War Diverse Histories Researcher at The National Archives. And, on the back of this, my first book was published (with Pen and Sword) in November 2018, called: Images of The National Archives: Armistice.