The Power of Craft: Occupational Therapy in WW1

embroidery ww1
One of 60 squares on a sheet made at the Royal Staffordshire Infirmary in 1917. Each square is embellished slightly differently, and bears the man’s name and regiment. This one was worked by Sydney Frederick Hudson, who survived the war.

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.

Chapter 9 - Joe Deverill circa 1915
Sailor Joe Deverill, early in the war

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.

trench art alice rapley wood
A set of four trench rings collected by nurse Alice Rapley Wood. © IWM (EPH 4364)

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.

walter john cressey necklace

 

Sources

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.

Lives of the First World War: Joe Deverill; Alice Rapley-Wood; Walter John Cressey

With thanks to Kevin Dance for sharing his photo of the Staffordshire Infirmary embroidery square.

 

The Canary Girls of WW1

cardboard ww1
A cardboard collecting box used by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Imperial War Museum. © IWM (EPH 4196)

Despite the years of research that went into creating The Cowkeeper’s Wish, we still have many unanswered questions. The brick walls rise up especially around women’s stories, for women all too often disappear behind their men. This seems particularly true of the working class. In our family, in London, England, many of the women were factory workers or cleaners or laundresses; or they did piece work like book folding or sewing at home, where they could earn a living and look after little ones at the same time. It struck us that during WW1, these were the types of women who contributed anonymously to the war effort, with little remaining now to show the part they played.

Chapter 11 - Ethel Deverill circa 1920
Ethel Deverill worked at a cardboard box factory during the war. What were the boxes used for?

If they’d sewn clothes before the war, perhaps now they sewed any of the many parts that made up uniforms. If they’d made boots, perhaps now they made army boots. If they’d worked at a box factory, as did our grandmother’s sister, Ethel, perhaps now the boxes they made would hold ammunition, or gifts for men at the frontlines, or medical supplies. Other jobs opened up for women too — women became postal workers and bus drivers and farmers; they assisted the police and wore uniforms and blew whistles; they tended the wounded as doctors, nurses, and VADs; and they stepped up in droves to work in munitions factories.

One of our relatives married a male munitions worker in 1916. Her own occupation is not listed on the certificate, but as the 23-year-old daughter of a widowed cleaner, it’s likely she had to contribute to the household income. Did she work at the same factory as her beau? Is that how they met? No one can say now. Often the female munitions workers known about are the ones who died tragically, in an explosion or of TNT poisoning — the ones who survived are lost to history.

1916, wedding party Clara and Bert
The December 1916 wedding of munitions worker Bert Morel and Clara Donnelly. Clara’s cousin, our grandmother Doris, is seated far left. Just a few weeks after the wedding, the Silvertown Explosion took place at a TNT factory in east London. With 73 deaths and more than 400 injuries, the event must have been especially frightening for those connected to such a dangerous industry.
Margaret Silcock
From the Women’s War Work portrait collection at the Imperial War Museum, WWC M5

Even during the war, there was an attempt to recognize women’s contributions. Beginning in 1917, a group of women working for what would become the Imperial War Museum began gathering documentation — photographs, ephemera, written accounts — that showed the varied roles women were playing in the war. In preparation for a women’s work exhibit at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in October 1918, they wrote to the families of women who had died in service, and asked for photographs of them so that the exhibit could honour both the living and the dead. These wonderful photos remain in the IWM collection to this day, and some of the letters still exist too, and hint at the massive loss people suffered on a personal level. When 22-year-old Margaret Silcock died of trinitrotoluene (TNT) poisoning from her work at a munitions factory, her mother willingly sent a photograph, apologizing for its smallness. “It is the only one I have,” she explained, “and I can’t afford to get a bigger one as I only get 7/6 a week.”

alice post
Alice’s mother sent this photograph in response to a request from the Women’s Work committee. Her letter reads: “I should be pleased to hear further if there is anything more I can do, also will you kindly let me know if the museum is open to the public as either my daughter or myself should like to come….” IWM, WWC M11

Women like Margaret were known as Canary Girls because the explosive chemical they worked with often turned their skin yellow. Usually the effects wore off, but many died from exposure to TNT, which could cause anaemia and toxic jaundice. One of the early casualties was a young woman named Alice Post, who died in January of 1916. A newspaper reporting on the inquest into her death stated that she had begun working at a factory about five weeks before Christmas 1915, and walked a distance of 10 miles each day to get to the works and then home again. She ate well at first, but soon lost her appetite, and often complained of headaches and tiredness. The skin on her hands and forearms turned blotchy. She saw the factory’s doctor, but when she failed to get better, she was reluctant to seek medical help again — and by the time she did, it was too late. The post-mortem confirmed Alice had died from TNT poisoning, but the doctors interviewed also felt “the state of absolute tiredness” was a contributing factor, since she had such a long walk to and from work, and very little nourishment to energize her. “People in such a condition, below par, would absorb the poison very readily. The jury returned a verdict that death was due to poisoning by TNT, and added a rider that attention should be given to the washing of the overalls, and that sugar and milk should be provided with the cocoa given to the girls on their arrival at the works in the morning.”

gladys pritchard
IWM, WWC M27

As the war went on, safety regulations increased; but there were still fatalities, and the losses were often not the first a family had suffered. When a Welsh munitions worker named Gladys Irene Pritchard died in November 1916, the letter from the IWM’s women’s work committee must have been addressed to “Miss Pritchard,” for the response from Gladys’s sister reads:

“Please excuse me writing to say it is Mrs Pritchard and she was a widow before she died, her husband being killed on the 10th July 1916 leaving two children.”

A bit more searching reveals that Gladys Pritchard’s husband David, a private with the Welsh Regiment, was killed in action during the early days of the Battle of the Somme, and that the children, Joseph Henry and Victoria Lillian, were just five and two years old when their mother and father became two of the war’s mounting casualties.

lottie meade
Lottie’s husband wrote “Please return her photos has I have not got anymore … thanking you very much for what you are doing.” IWM, WWC M15

Likewise munitions worker Lottie Meade was the mother of three young ones when she died of TNT poisoning in Kensington Infirmary in October 1916. Her husband wrote to the women’s work committee that the death occurred “whilst myself was serving in France and [I] got home to late to see her alive.” The photograph he sent along for the Whitechapel exhibit shows Lottie posing proudly in her munitions coveralls; one can imagine it was a photo taken for him, and sent to the frontlines, and then brought home again, memento of a wife no longer alive. Did it surprise him to see her turned out this way, in pants and cap, making the ammunition that fed the weapons he used? How would the war have changed her future had Lottie Meade survived the poisoning? What was it like to live through a time that produced so much tragedy but also so many profound changes in women’s lives?

Lottie Meade’s death certificate lists the cause of death as: “coma due to disease of the liver, heart and kidneys consequent upon poisoning by tri nitro toluene,” and the verdict at the inquest was “death by misadventure.” An awful waste. But the picture suggests there was adventure in Lottie’s life too. The hand on the hip, the raised chin, the subtle yet confident smile — the stance of a woman making her own way in the world.

The women’s work exhibit at the Whitechapel Art Gallery opened on October 7, 1918, and by the time it ended six weeks later, 82,000 people has passed through. The most popular part of the show was the “war shrine,” dedicated to the memory of more than 500 women who’d died in some form of service.

Sources:

Charlotte Meade, Lives of the First World War

Alice Post, Lives of the First World War

Gladys Irene Pritchard, Lives of the First World War

Margaret Silcock, Lives of First World War

The Silvertown Explosion, Lives of the First World War

A Closer Look at the Women’s Work Collection, Imperial War Museum

Lives of the First World War also contains 23 alphabetized “Wives and Daughters” communities as an attempt to document female deaths related to WW1.