I recently watched a news piece about a quilt that had been made by wounded soldiers in 1917. The men were convalescing at the Royal Staffordshire Infirmary, and each had been given the task of embroidering his name, his regiment, and some decorative swirls on a small square of fabric. The 60 squares, all rendered in shades of pink and blue, were then stitched together into a single sheet. A picture exists of two men standing on each side of the finished piece, wearing their “hospital blues,” and looking out at the camera with war-weary expressions.
The stitching of the squares can be seen as a form of occupational therapy, which was quickly gaining recognition from the medical field because so many men had physical or mental injuries, or both. Working on some form of craft could potentially help patients in a variety of ways: it might encourage movement of specific muscles; it might distract the person from the pain he felt; it might give him a sense of purpose and accomplishment; and if done in a group, as with the embroidery sheet, it may foster a sense of community.
The same year the quilt was made, our great uncle, Joe Deverill, was a 19-year-old Able Seaman on board the Mary Rose, a destroyer that escorted ships from Scotland to Norway and back across the North Sea. It was routine work, and the trips were rather dull until one day in October, when the entire convoy was attacked by German light cruisers. Almost everyone on board the Mary Rose perished, as well as many from other ships traveling with her, a tragedy recounted in detail in The Cowkeeper’s Wish. Amazingly, Joe survived, despite his youth and inexperience.
Family lore says that afterwards he took up rug-hooking, and that it soothed his nerves to pull the wool strands through the heavy fabric and watch a pattern emerge. It seems likely that someone gave him this task, and showed him what to do, just as someone showed the men embroidering their squares at the Staffordshire infirmary.
That someone was likely a woman who worked as a “ward aide.” Canadian women did groundbreaking work in this field, and according to Judith Friedland, author of Restoring the Spirit: the Beginnings of Occupational Therapy in Canada, many were either artists or teachers, well suited to helping the men learn simple craftwork that would build their self esteem and keep their minds and hands busy. The tasks turned out to be a crucial part of their recovery. A 1921 New York Herald article raves about the ingenious work going on at Fox Hills Base Hospital, lead by “a competent woman instructor.” The author describes walking through the wards and coming upon “men with powerful big frames except for a missing leg or a twisted arm or a hole in the neck. Each one has his head bent over the bed picking up little beads and stringing them out endlessly into something that looks as though it was going to be a shopper’s purse.” He asked one of the men if the work was hard on the eyes, and the man answered, “It’s only hard on one of them. … The other’s glass.”
England’s Imperial War Museum holds some lovely examples of work made by soldiers as a form of therapy. There are hand-painted fretwork figures of politicians and nurses and soldiers; embroidery samplers; and decorative envelopes pieced together from newspaper. There are haunting pieces in the collection as well. The rings below were considered “trench art” and incorporate a fragment from a German aluminum nose cone and an eagle cut from a German button. They were collected by Alice Rapley Wood, who served as a nurse in France from 1914 to 1916 and later worked at Summerdown Convalescent Camp at Eastbourne, which treated occupational therapy cases. It was here that the rings were made. So far I haven’t unearthed much about Alice herself, but she seems like a woman ahead of her time. She had artistic leanings and painted miniature portraits. On the 1911 census, she is listed with her second husband (having divorced the first), who was a piano manufacturer’s manager several years her junior. She makes a point of noting her own occupation as “artist.” In the decades following WW1, she appears in the Physiotherapy and Masseuse Registers, so she definitely continued with her work long after the war was over. The war had brought an incredible amount of suffering, but also profound and wonderful changes in the lives of women like Alice.
Among the most beautiful examples of occupational therapy in the IWM collection are the intricately beaded necklaces made by Walter John Cressey, a private with the Middlesex Regiment who convalesced at Queen Alexandra’s Military Hospital in London. Cressey was blind and had lost four fingers as the result of gassing. What painstaking work it must have been to make these necklaces, with their tiny beads strung into a long waving pattern, and how sad to never be able to see them. And yet: how brilliant to construct something as a means of healing from so much destruction — to stitch, string, mould, weave, paint, paste, and knit in order to put things together again after such a painful time in history.
Imperial War Museum: occupational therapy souvenirs and ephemera
Restoring the Spirit: The Beginnings of Occupational Therapy in Canada, 1890-1930, by Judith Fern Friedland, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011.
“Ingenious work is done by wounded veterans.” New York Herald, 25 September, 1921.
With thanks to Kevin Dance for sharing his photo of the Staffordshire Infirmary embroidery square.