Review of “Endell Street”

Endell Street: the women who ran Britain’s trailblazing military hospital
by Wendy Moore
published by Atlantic books, London, 2020
paperback 319 pages plus acknowledgements, notes, select bibliography and index. Illustrated.
cover price £9.99
reviewed by Chris Baker

For the last six years, my health has been monitored by a wonderful specialist doctor. She first met me in hospital, when they were carrying out tests to determine the cause of damage to my spine, which turned out to be a tumour. She is smart, caring and a credit to her profession. She is also there as a direct consequence of the hard work and dedication of female doctors and clinicials who went before her. There were few who had such an impact on the education, training and employment of female doctors as Louisa Garrett Anderson and Flora Murray. Despite the title of this book being that of the largest and longest-lived of the hospitals they ran during the Great War, it is more than that: it is their story.

I was given this book as a gift, but had I ever seen it I would probably have bought a copy. I have to say that I was slightly put off at first by the puff of the “reviews” quoted on the cover, one of which claimed it was the “best book I’ve read about the First World War since Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth“. Hmm (thinks: you haven’t read much on the war, have you?). But I found “Endell Street” to be well written, well researched, thorough and an entertaining and educational read. I can certainly recommend it to anyone interested in the period, the medical services at the time and indeed the history of women’s politics.

Anderson and Murray, life long partners, had fought their battles before the Great War and continued to so so throughout. In the face of enormous resistance and cynicism, they had medically qualified and practiced, but like all other women in the profession at that time their work had been marginalised into providing care for women and children. They were both keen feminists and deeply involved in the women’s suffrage movement. Anderson’s mother Elizabeth was a true pioneer: the first woman to qualify in Britain as a physician and surgeon, she entered the British Medical Association in 1873.

At the outbreak of war in 1914, the War Office had no interest in employing female doctors. Undeterred, Anderson and Murray went to France, where they established a military hospital at an hotel in Paris. With no experience of surgery or in the treatment of men, let alone wounded, traumatised French and British soldiers, they nonetheless succeeded to such an extent that its excellence soon came to the attention of senior decision-makers. A second hospital, established at another hotel at Wimereux, met the same high standards. The development, funding and organisation of these hospitals is described in good detail in “Endell Street”, along with many of the doctors, nurses, supporters – and indeed those who remained cynical and resistant.

Eventually in May 1915, the War Office gave support for them to develop and run a major military hospital – eventually almost 600 beds – in what was the run-down site of the former St Giles Union Workhouse in Cvent Garden in London. Its story, and theirs, is inspirational. “Endell Street” provides just about a good an account of it that we are ever likely to find.

Buy it

Update: the same work appears under the title “No man’s land: the trailblazing women who ran Britain’s most extraordinary military hospital during World War I“, published by Basic Books under ISBN 9781541672758. I assume this is for the American market.

Military hospitals in France

Military hospitals in Great Britain and Ireland