Queen Victoria Hospital Archive Project: Introduction to the Guinea Pig Club

It has been described as the most exclusive club in the world, but the entrance fee is something most men would not care to pay and the conditions of membership are arduous in the extreme.’

Archibald McIndoe on the Guinea Pig Club

One of the most remarkable legacies of the war years at Queen Victoria Hospital was the formation of an organisation with which the hospital – and East Grinstead – have since become inextricably linked: the Guinea Pig Club. It seems particularly apt to talk about the club at the time when the Royal Air Force is celebrating its centenary as of course the club was comprised in large part of servicemen from the RAF, (in addition to a number of Alllied aircrew) who were treated in Ward III* at QVH for burn injuries sustained in active service. Although it is sometimes assumed that the club was devised by plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe as part of his programme of patient rehabilitation, it was in fact initiated independently by a group of these patients themselves.

The process of treatment and recovery from severe burns was long and demanding, involving multiple operations which took place over many months and even years. Lengthy periods of hospitalisation with time to fill, together with the sense of connection created through shared experiences quickly helped to create strong bonds between many of the injured airmen of Ward III. These were enhanced further by the informal, sociable atmosphere which McIndoe very deliberately cultivated in the ward.

Cartoon of Ward III, nicknamed ‘The Sty’

The normal strict rules and rigid daily routine which prevailed in the rest of QVH (in common with other hospitals of the period) were entirely dispensed with. Formal relationships between patients and staff were relaxed, there were no set mealtimes, and patients were given a considerable amount of freedom. A large part of McIndoe’s therapeutic model, which will be discussed in more detail in later posts, meant helping to boost his patients’ morale by allowing these still active, energetic young men to amuse themselves and let off steam to a large extent as they wished; drinking, practical jokes and ribald humour often being the order of the day.

Founding members of the Guinea Pig Club – standing from left to right are Tom Gleave, Dr Russell Davies (an anaesthetist at QVH), John Hughes, Michael Coote, and at the right hand side, Archibald McIndoe. Seated are Geoffrey Page and Peter Weekes.

 

It was in such an environment that, on a Sunday morning in June or July 1941 (accounts differ on which), a group of the airmen, sharing a bottle of sherry in a hut in the hospital grounds set aside as an entertainment space, concocted the idea of forming a ‘grogging club’. Those present drew up a set of rules, settled on a subscription and shortly afterwards wrote a letter to McIndoe asking him to be their President. The patients’ characteristic dark sense of humour was evident in the roles which different club members were assigned; Pilot Officer Peter Weekes, for example, confined to a wheelchair due to the severity of the burns to his legs, deliberately being chosen as treasurer as he could not escape with the funds. The club was originally called ‘The Maxillonians’, in reference to the maxillo-facial unit at QVH in which the members received their treatment, and the club’s founding is recorded in the 1941 annual report of the unit, which reads that:

Its object was to promote good fellowship and to cement the many friendships which were formed not only between the patients themselves but with the Medical Staff.’

Excerpt from the QVH annual report for 1941 recording the founding of the Maxillonian Club

Membership of the club was confined to those who had been ‘mashed, boiled or fried’ on service in the air force and subsequently operated on at QVH, in addition to many of the surgical and medical staff who treated them (although not including the women). By the time of the club’s first reunion dinner in January 1942 (which was to become an annual event, continuing every year until 2007), the club members had renamed themselves the Guinea Pig Club in reference to the pioneering nature of many of the surgeries they had undergone.

A Guinea Pig receiving treatment in saline bath – many of the Guinea Pigs underwent numerous procedures and support from their comrades in the Club was essential.

This is the first of two posts on the Guinea Pig club, and will focus on the background and circumstances of its formation. The second post, which will go online on 13th April, will cover its long-term role in providing a support network for the injured aircrew of Queen Victoria Hospital.

*Ward III at QVH was the ward set aside for treating burns patients, primarily from the RAF and Allied air forces, and was presided over by Archibald McIndoe.

Joanna McConville, Project Archivist

9 thoughts on “Queen Victoria Hospital Archive Project: Introduction to the Guinea Pig Club

  1. My late Mother was employed on war service in a muntions factory during WW11, somewhere I believe in the London area. There was an explosion of some sort within the plant, as a result my Mother hard part of her hand blown off. She related that the hand was rebuilt, and saved by the Late Sir Archie McIndoe.

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  2. My father RHJ HYDE. Reg hyde

    https://www.eastgrinsteadmuseum.org.uk/patients/reginald-hyde/

    My fathers war history i will post later
    My father married my mother Jean hyde (nee Fuggle) who they met at East Grinstead Queen Victoria hospital

    My mothers war was an amazing story which i will post later ie tropical disease /japanese POW,Mcindoe etc and post war in Crawley Hospital /port health and “Aunitie” for British Caladonian!!

    My father came to Crawley for the Development corporation then later Commission for new towns (will post later)

    we lived at West green and later Ifield at Crawley

    Local guinea pigs in Crawley -Bill foxley,jack allaway,George Holloway ,Walshe

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  3. Reg Hyde RHJ hyde

    http://www.49squadron.co.uk/personnel_index/detail/Hyde_R
    49 squadron where my father served

    http://aircrewremembered.com/lamb-george.html
    My fathers crash when he was with 17 OTU (operational training unit) at Silverstone
    Took off from RAF Silverstone for a night navigation exercise.  It seems likely that the crew ran into difficulties for the Wellington crashed at 22:01, while approaching the base runway and burst into flames. 

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/24/a2424124.shtml
    BBC east grinstead

    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/260446758_Sir_Archibald_Hector_McIndoe_1900-1960_and_the_Guinea_Pig_Club_The_development_of_reconstructive_surgery_and_rehabilitation_in_the_Second_World_War_1939-1945
    Medical paper Mcindoe

    Mcindoes army
    Guinea pig club Edward bishop
    Guinea pig club Ted Harrison

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  4. My late Mother, Hilda M. Moore (Emke) was a nursing sister at East Grinsted as part of the RCAF. She was particularly proud of her service there…though it was only 6 months, she said it was the most fulfilling time of her life. She was particularly proud of how she and the other staff worked hard to help rehabilitate the burn victims’ emotional states, and help them to reenter society without shame or embarrassment.

    Here is an interview she did for the Canadian Veteran Affairs on her experience:

    https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/video-gallery/video/4595

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    1. My father Reg Hyde was a guinea pig and had 70 operations under the knife -he met my mother Jean hyde(nee fuggle ) who was a nurse at QVH-i,m assuming it was les Wilkins mentioned ?
      Its hard for people to comprehend -my father was 21 when he was badly burnt when’s wellington crash landed at OTU 17 Silverstone .As locals -we lived in Crawley we attended all the LOST WEEKENDS at EG (The felbridge) and traditionally tubby Taylor and les Wilkins would end up in the swimming pool.Mcindoe was way ahead of his time recognising the mental and physical scars these patients had -and the world was cruel at the time.The comment of the person at the bar was not a one off and I remember my aunt hitting the roof when a person on the tube said “they shouldn’t let people out like that”referring to my father

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      1. Hi Peter,

        That’s so interesting! My name is Zac and I’m an amateur historian. I have been involved in research about the Guinea Pig Club and have also spent a bit of time in East Grinstead Museum. I have also read about your father! I am currently putting together my private collection of Guinea Pig Club items including signatures, photographs, magazines, badges etc and I was wondering, if possible, I could have an original photograph of your father in uniform please if you have one spare? It’s one thing hearing about their stories but it’s another being able to put a face to them as it makes it all so much more personal. I know it’s a big ask however it would be greatly appreciated and I would treasure it, putting it on display/in a frame. My phone number is [redacted] an email is [redacted]. I would love to discuss your fathers experiences and also your own with the GPC so if you’re interested please give me a message!

        Kind regards,
        Zachary Brock

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      2. Hi Peter,

        That’s so interesting thank you for sharing that! I made a long previous reply however I don’t know if it worked sorry, but I’d love to discuss your fathers stories and your own of the GPC if you’d like to? My name is Zachary Brock and I’m an amateur historian [redacted].

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