The story of Queen Victoria Hospital (QVH) begins in 1863 with its founding as a cottage hospital on Green Hedges Avenue, East Grinstead, in the home of Dr John Henry Rogers. It was only the fifth cottage hospital to be established in England – from its earliest days the hospital was a pioneer.
This original hospital had just seven beds and was run and funded almost entirely by Dr Rogers himself with help from a few local residents – possibly the reason for its closure a few years later in 1874. The hospital re-opened in 1888, moving first to Lansdowne House, and then in 1902 to an old coffee house in Queen’s Road, when it was named the Queen Victoria Cottage Hospital in honour of the recently deceased monarch. In 1931 a plot of land was donated by Sir Robert (later Lord) Kindersley and so began the building of the current hospital in Holtye Road, which was opened on 8th January 1936 with 36 beds and a team of trained staff.
Whilst there is very little in the QVH archive which dates from before the Second World War, the hospital’s annual report from 1939, the earliest annual report that we have, includes a list of subscribers which runs to several pages demonstrating the extent to which the hospital had the financial, as well as the moral, support of the local community.
The looming threat of the Second World War radically changed the course of the hospital’s history, with the arrival of New Zealand-born plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe. His appointment was announced with little fanfare in the 1939 annual report – there was little indication quite how great an impact McIndoe would have on the hospital. At the end of the 1930s, with war imminent, the British government had set up the centralised Emergency Medical Service which took responsibility for employing additional staff and arranging for treatment of the inevitable casualties in hospitals across the country. Mindful of the horrific nature of the disfiguring injuries suffered by soldiers in the First World War, there was recognition of the importance of plastic surgery. ‘The Great Four’ (Harold Gillies, Thomas P. Kilner, Archibald McIndoe and Rainsford Mowlem) – the only full-time, experienced plastic surgeons in the country at the time – were despatched to establish plastic units at various hospitals to treat servicemen from different branches of the armed forces. McIndoe was appointed as civilian consultant to the Royal Air Force and sent to East Grinstead.
The impact of McIndoe on Queen Victoria Hospital cannot be understated. His dedicated and groundbreaking plastic surgery work and the inspirational stories of his patients, the ‘Guinea Pigs’, put Queen Victoria Hospital on the map, placing it at the forefront in the field of reconstructive surgery in this country – and renowned around the world.
With the rising reputation and profile of both McIndoe and the hospital came further physical expansion. 1943 saw the start of the construction of the Canadian Wing, paid for by the Canadian Government, to treat the many Canadian airmen who ended up at East Grinstead. This Canadian wing was at the forefront of treatment at the time with elaborate saline baths, one of McIndoe’s innovations to aid the healing of burns, and space for 50 patients. 1943 also saw the decision to drop the word ‘Cottage’ from the name of the hospital. With 230 beds, the ‘Cottage’ denomination hardly seemed appropriate!
The hospital’s ongoing expansion saw the opening of a new surgical block in 1946 and new wards opening throughout the 1950s. In the post-war years Queen Victoria Hospital has continued to go from strength to strength, building not only on the areas of expertise developed by McIndoe and his team in burns treatment and in maxillo-facial surgery but also making a name for itself in fields such as orthodontics and corneo-plastics thanks to other distinguished innovators such as Sir Benjamin Rycroft.
The strengths of the archive also lie in the Second World War and post-war period. Key among the records are over 650 files relating to the Guinea Pig Club which provide an important insight into the revolutionary work undertaken by McIndoe and his team. The story continues with nearly 14,500 patient case files which demonstrate how the practice of plastic surgery has changed and developed over the decades.
The administrative records of the hospital, which include House Committee minutes from 1948, shed further light on the hospital’s story, recording its expansion and growing reputation. The annual report for 1941 even features a reference to the foundation of the Guinea Pig Club! Significantly McIndoe’s own papers form part of the archive, including plans for his revolutionary saline baths and notes and correspondence concerning the rehabilitation of some of his RAF patients. WSRO also holds copies of the Guinea Pig Club magazine for the 1940s-2002 (with gaps) which record the activities of club members during and after the war. Illustrated with cartoons and photographs they make interesting, and at times amusing, reading!
The hospital has come a long way from its humble beginnings more than 150 years ago, and many of these important changes are recorded in the archive. Despite the success and prestige, it remains firmly rooted in its local community of East Grinstead.
If you would like to know more about the Queen Victoria Hospital Archive project, Archibald McIndoe and the Guinea Pig Club, please come along to Joanna McConville’s illustrated talk to be given at the Record Office on 27th March at 7pm. Tickets are priced at £8.00 each and include light refreshments. Telephone 01243 753602 to book a ticket.
Tickets for the end of project event at Queen Victoria Hospital on 2oth April will shortly be available to purchase via Eventbrite, full details and a link will be published on this blog in the near future.