Thursday, 19 May 2016

75th Anniversary of The Guinea Pig Club & Sir Archibald McIndoe

The Guinea Pig Club was formed on the grass, outside of Ward III at the Queen Victoria Hospital, in East Grinstead in 1941. A group of young men, all airmen who had received burns and were in the care of plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe decided to form a drinking club to pass the time while they were stuck in the hospital. It was to become a way of maintaining contact with one another when they were finally discharged, and annual reunions have continued to this day.

Initially, they called it the Maxillonians, after the Maxillo Facial Unit where they received treatment, but later it would change to the Guinea Pig Club when an airman announced how they were all just "bloody guinea pigs" to the Maestro. The Maestro, of course, was Archibald, who the men sometimes called Archie or the Boss. They looked up to him because when they first arrived, no matter how severely injured and disfigured they were, no matter how wretched, lost, and alone they felt, he looked into their eyes and showed them empathy. And he always said, "Don't worry, we'll fix you up." In that short sentence, he offered hope, and it was a lifeline they all grasped. Archie gave the lads confidence and helped them rediscover their self respect.

The boys present on that fine July day in 1941 included Richard Hillary, Tom Gleave, Geoffrey Page, Peter Weeks, Joseph Capka, Bill Towers-Perkins and Russell Davies, an anaesthetist. Peter Weeks had been badly smashed up, as was the phrase at that time, and was confined to a wheelchair. The boys made him their treasurer because he had no chance of absconding with the funds. The secretary was chosen because his hands were badly burned and bandaged and he was unable to take notes. Such amazing humour despite their very grave situations.

Richard Hillary had written a book about his experiences so far in the war. Hillary was a fighter pilot who had been shot down twice in the Battle of Britain. His book, “The Last Enemy,” was quite a success, and during his recovery, the RAF sent him to America, on a propaganda tour. However, once he arrived there, officials took one look at him and decided it was a bad idea to unleash him on the public. Hillary was humiliated, and when Archie heard about it, he was furious, and he vented his anger at the Air Ministry and at Washington.

However, some good came of Hillary's trip after all. Soon after he arrived back in England, Archie began to receive letters from America. In them, were kind words, offers of employment and most generous of all, money orders and notes. Strangers were sending donations to the men of Ward III. After Hillary’s success with his book, the trip to America and newspaper articles, the story of the Guinea Pig Club and the plight of the men had reached far and wide. This forged the beginning of the charity, and it is one that went from strength to strength. 

Over the years, it has helped the “Guinea Pigs” at times when they needed it most, such as with buying suitable accommodation, and helping them to establish their own businesses. There’s probably no other club in the world like it, and of course, the price you paid to join was rather high. To qualify for membership you had to have been "mashed", "fried" or "boiled" by the war in the air and sent to the Queen Victoria Hospital, in the care of Archie McIndoe.

Nothing was too much trouble for Archie, and he was determined that "his boys" as he called the men, would have the best of care. He needed to patch them up. He had to reconstruct faces, treat burns, carry out skin grafts and much more. But beyond the physical problems, a larger dilemma persisted. The psychological scars were unseen yet buried deep within each man, and some sank into depression while some became suicidal. 

In the early days of the war, while burned pilots of the Battle of Britain were recovering, Archie was horrified to hear of their treatment by the public in cities such as London. People would be openly shocked and react quite badly at the men's disfigured faces and they would be subjected to comments such as "They ought to be locked up.". 

Archie was not going to put up with that. He made it his mission to involve the local town of East Grinstead in the care of his boys. With that, he spoke with friends and other prominent people within the town and devised a plan. Families nearby generously offered invitations to tea to groups of Archie's boys. Nurses and volunteers chaperoned them to the pub and the cinema. They received invites to parties and dances, and locals frequently visited the hospital, delivering library books, or to read or write letters for them. The boys learned to socialise while they tried to come to terms with their altered images and any resultant disabilities, and in groups, they had camaraderie and support. Together, they were stronger.

The town of East Grinstead took these boys under their wing; they loved them and were thankful for their devoted service to their country, and now, it was the turn of the people to show their devotion to the select few who had given up so much of their youth. East Grinstead became known as "the town that did not stare."
Ward III Christmas 1941 Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Step back in time to the early 40's, and pay a visit to Ward III. It's not like any ward you've seen before, I can assure you. The beds might line each side in regimental rows, but you'll see a beer keg on a table and a gramophone. There's a piano, and someone will belt out a tune if you ask. There's a young lad down at the end, encased in bandages from his head down. He has slits for eyes and a gap for his nose and mouth, and when he wants to smoke, he'll let you know.

A nurse is asked to flick the radio on and duly does so. A Glen Miller tune swings out, and a young man in RAF blues springs up and grabs her by the hand. She blushes and laughs, sneaking a glance towards Sister's office just in case she's looking. She's not. They dance, as others watch with eager eyes. Another airman is snoring. He's out totally, having rolled in around four o'clock that morning, completely drunk. There are flowers everywhere, blooming from vases on every man's bedside table with bright silken petals and the fragrance of sweet summer drifts on the still, stagnant air.  
Archibald McIndoe at the piano. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Above the sound of the radio, voices can be heard, laughing, shouting, and occasionally swearing. Nurses must endure the flirting and slaps on the bottom from a few of the men, but it’s all part of the job. They must be pretty to nurse here. Archie wants his boys to be able to talk to beautiful girls. He doesn't want them to become shy, retiring recluses. It’s so vital they leave here in a positive frame of mind, with the vision to see they can lead a full life; they can marry and have children and work for a living. That vision is so important and yet there are a few men here who have lost their sight. But thanks to their Maestro and their brothers in arms, they have developed that extraordinary vision to realise that they too can have a real life if they want it badly enough.

And one final note about the doctor-patient relationship. There was nothing stuffy or pompous about Archie. He was a New Zealander, and when he first arrived in London in the early 1930's, he was treated as a colonial. So, in a sense, he knew a little about being singled out, being different. However, with his competent surgeon’s skill, and his vibrant, bubbly personality, he won people over. He certainly had the adoration of his boys, and he spent time with them. He’d join them for a pint on the ward or at the pub, play the piano and have a sing-a-long. He’d be at the same house parties, and even invited groups of them to his home for drinks. Richard Hillary called him “Mac,” which is so informal and just shows the level of familiarity they had. But in doing so, Archie helped them to see they mattered, each and every one.

Sadly, Richard Hillary was tragically killed in a flying accident while carrying out a night training exercise in his Blenheim Bomber in January 1943. Archie was due to see Richard and perform further surgery on his eye, which had become increasingly problematic. The truth was that Hillary could have had this seen too much sooner, but he hadn't wanted to make a fuss at his base, RAF Charterhall, and didn't wish to be seen as shirking his duty or cowardly. Night flying, it seemed, was just too much for him with his physical problems. Archie was devastated and angry at what he saw as an unnecessary death.

Archibald McIndoe developed his own health problems and on April 11th, 1960, he passed away at the age of 59. Today, the Guinea Pig Club remains, although its members have declined from the original 649 to 17. Sandy Saunders, is one of the fittest members at the age of 93, and recently launched an appeal to raise funds for a memorial to the Guinea Pig Club and its members. That appeal has now ended and I believe the funds have been raised. The memorial is to be unveiled November 2016 at the National Arboretum.

As this is the 75th Anniversary of the Guinea Pig Club, please can I ask you to visit and leave a message in the Book of Gratitude for the veterans who are still with us today. They will most definitely be so appreciative to see the support, and to feel the support of their nation, and it's such a small gift for us to give, spending a few minutes writing a thank you note, a note that will undoubtedly deliver such beauty and warmth. Please go there and sign the book. Thank you so much for your kindness. 

My debut novel, The Beauty Shop, is based on the true story of the Guinea Pig Club and features Sir Archibald McIndoe as one of the main characters. For anyone wondering about the origin of the title, the men referred to their ward at the Queen Victoria Hospital as the 'beauty shop', the place they were sent to be 'made up'.

The book is available in both paperback and e-book format and can be ordered from most retailers such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository, and other retailers. It's also available free on Kindle Unlimited.
Buy here: Amazon

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