Queen Victoria Hospital Archive Project: the Guinea Pig Club and the people of East Grinstead





Today’s post is a guest blog from Katie Kettle, a volunteer at East Grinstead Museum, who provides us with a special insight into the relationship between the Guinea Pig Club and the town of East Grinstead.

Archibald McIndoe was one of Britain’s few plastic surgeons at the beginning of the Second World War. Over the course of the war, the work he performed on airmen with severe burn or crush injuries made him famous. His patients created the Guinea Pig Club, one of the world’s most exclusive clubs, so named because McIndoe was often trying out entirely new techniques and operations as part of the process of returning them to ordinary life. East Grinstead became the home of the Guinea Pig Club, and the townspeople formed close and important ties with both McIndoe and his patients. This relationship earned East Grinstead the nickname of ‘The Town That Didn’t Stare’.

Interior of the Whitehall, set up for a dance © East Grinstead Museum, reproduced with their kind permission

McIndoe took over what is now Queen Victoria Hospital on 4 September 1939, a day after war was announced. From the beginning he raised the importance of the psychological recovery of his patients, not just the physical recovery. Many of his patient received “Airmen’s Burns”, full thickness burns to the face and hands, some of whom had been burnt to the point of being unrecognisable. He was determined that his patients should not be excluded from society and asked for the help of the townspeople – he talked about the work of the hospital and the situations of his patients to the townspeople he met, encouraged donations and gained the cooperation of the local police and publicans, the latter of which would play a large part in the recovery process. He encouraged the town to invite the airmen to local events – meals, dances, sporting fixtures – and visited all the shops in town to persuade the shop assistants not to react with horror at the first sight of his patients; to treat them as ordinary young men with temporary problems. His efforts to familiarise the townspeople with the work the hospital was doing meant that it was probably much easier for them to accept the patients into the local community.

Surviving members of the Guinea Pig Club at their last official reunion, 2007 © East Grinstead Museum, reproduced with their kind permission

The attitude of McIndoe and his staff at the hospital started the physical and mental recovery of the patients, while the camaraderie from the Guinea Pig Club meant they felt that they were not facing the consequences of their injuries alone. Combined this gave them the confidence to leave the hospital, but it was the acceptance into the town community, which encouraged the belief that they would be able to return to the outside world without being outcasts. This acceptance retained its importance even well after the war ended – many Guinea Pigs gladly returned to East Grinstead every September for the Annual Dinner until the last was held in 2007.

Exterior of the Whitehall, c1949 © East Grinstead Museum, reproduced with their kind permission

The acceptance of the townspeople was, unsurprisingly, not immediate, but swiftly developed over the first couple of weeks of exposure as the patients ventured out of the hospital and the trips into town helped build up the confidence of the airmen. In particular, the Whitehall complex on London Road became a haven for the Guinea Pigs. Bill Gardiner, the manager, gave pride of place to the Guinea Pigs when they came in to the Restaurant and was very quick to deal with protests from other customers. He became a member of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Guinea Pigs (part of the Club made up of those who aided the welfare of the Guinea Pigs), and, for many patients, as soon as they were mobile, the first step to recovery was a trip to the Whitehall. Seats were reserved for them in the cinema, and there was a standing invitation for Club members to take part in the dances at the Rainbow Ballroom.

The relationship between the townspeople and the Guinea Pigs only grew closer following the bombing of the town in July 1943. The cinema, with a full audience for the afternoon matinee, took a direct hit, resulting in 108 deaths. McIndoe and the other hospital staff finished operating on casualties at eleven the next morning, and continued to deal with injuries days later. This event tightened the bond between the hospital and the town further as they worked together to deal with the aftermath.

In addition, the owners of large houses in the area opened their properties as convalescent homes, giving another place for the Guinea Pigs to meet the townspeople. McIndoe also encouraged the townspeople to come to the hospital, visit the wards and talk to the patients there, aided by the lack of formal visiting hours that were in place in other hospitals. Local ladies in particular were encouraged to visit the patients often and to bring fresh flowers to decorate the ward.

A Reader’s Digest article in November 1943 wrote that ‘’His face is the job of the hospital, but his will to live is a job that is in the hands of the townfolk’. The relationship between the patients and the people of East Grinstead was a lifeline to the patients, and enabled them to begin to reintegrate back into the society of the home front.

Katie Kettle, East Grinstead Museum volunteer

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