853‘s special correspondent MERCURY MAN meets the SE London author behind an acclaimed war story with a difference…
Ain’t it great when a writer unearths a true and important story that might otherwise have gone totally AWOL? A writer like Wendy Moore and a true story like Endell Street.
It’s Wendy’s fifth book and it’s being launched in paperback at Eltham Library on Tuesday, September 7, at 7pm. As with the first four tomes, “all my books relate to true stories from history which have been lost or forgotten”.
So Endell Street is about the military hospital run almost entirely by women in Covent Garden during the First World War. Wendy says: “I came across the story of Endell Street when I saw a painting at a library – the Wellcome Library for the History of Medicine in Euston Road.
“It showed an operating theatre in which all the doctors were female. That’s rare enough today but then I learned that this was a military hospital in the heart of London in the First World War which was set up and staffed almost entirely by women. I had to find out more and so began my research.”
Endell Street treated roughly 26,000 patients throughout the war and then stayed open for a further year to treat the victims of the 1918 “Spanish” flu pandemic. It closed at the end of 1919, when it was no longer needed, and the building was later demolished.
“When it closed, all the women doctors who had worked at Endell Street – and saved so many lives – had to return to their old jobs, treating women and children,’ said Wendy. ‘Before the war female doctors were kept out of mainstream hospitals and it was taboo for them to treat men.
“Exactly the same situation was imposed after the war. Women doctors were turfed out of jobs in general hospitals and most medical schools closed their doors to women. It was basically protectionism by male doctors.”
Wendy describes writing Endell Street as “a joy and an incredibly emotional experience. I wanted to tell the story of the pioneering women who contributed so much to wartime medical care but have been largely forgotten since.
“Endell Street Military Hospital was founded by Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson, both qualified doctors, suffragettes and also life partners. When war broke out they wanted to help treat the wounded just like their male colleagues. But they also realised that war gave women doctors an opportunity to prove their worth, that they were equal to men.
“At first they took a unit of women to Paris and ran a hospital in a hotel there under the auspices of the French Red Cross. Medical chiefs in the British Army, which had originally refused the help of women doctors, were so impressed by their work they invited them to run a major military hospital in London, at Endell Street.”
The hospital, with 570 beds, was one of the ten largest military hospitals in London. “Apart from a handful of male orderlies, all its 180 staff were female,” said Wendy. “It was described in the press as the most successful hospital in London.
“The women pioneered medical advances but also ensured their men were cared for in a homely environment. Louisa believed the men were often ‘more wounded in their minds than in their bodies’, so they made sure the wards were bright and colourful.
“They turned the courtyard into a green haven and staged hundreds of entertainments to keep the men occupied. My book follows several of the women who worked there and some of the men who were treated there. As part of my research I met people whose grandmothers and great-aunts worked there and talked to families whose grandfathers had been treated there. It was a privilege to tell this story and I hope I’ve done the women justice.”
Wendy has lived in Eltham for 25 years, moving from Greenwich, and set up Elthamread six years ago to promote books books and reading in general, having heard about Cityread across London. She told me: “I approached Eltham Library and SE Nine magazine, who were both very enthusiastic about the idea.
“The aim is that everyone living in SE9 reads the same book in October each year then we come together at various events to discuss it. We always have an author talk. Previous Elthamread authors have included Bernardine Evaristo and Stella Duffy.
“This year’s book is Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers and for the first time we have introduced a Junior Elthamread, This Wonderful Thing by Adam Baron. There are details about the events on the Elthamread website.”
Book number six? “I’m currently sticking with the First World War and researching two women who went to Serbia and then to Russia to help treat wounded soldiers. They were adventurers and lovers who got into a lot of scrapes.”
“Lockdown meant libraries and archives were closed for long periods so the research was quite frustrating. I’m so pleased they are all open again now. I love the research trail of writing a book. The actual writing is the hard bit.’
All are welcome to the free Endell Street launch on September 7. Just ring 020 8921 3452 to book. Wendy gives lots of talks about her books. Details on www.wendymoore.org.
What my mind conjured up straight away was a Spielberg/Scorcese film about Endell Street. “Watch this space!” replied Wendy. “The book has been optioned for a film or possible TV series. We’re working on how that might develop at the moment.”
Mercury Man talks to SE Londoners with interesting tales to tell. Read his past stories.
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