Category Archives: War

Dr Gillespie’s nautical absence

musket ball

The fatal shot (Science Museum, London)

At around 1.15 pm, on 21st October 1805, a small projectile (shown in the above engraving), fired at a range of about 50ft, passed into Admiral Horatio Nelson’s left shoulder and, ricocheting against bone, tore a path through his upper body before passing into his lower back.  The musket ball took with it fragments of the his coat and its epaulette which remained attached after it came to rest.

Nelson died a few hours later as the Battle of Trafalgar drew to a close, and after prolonged preservation, in first brandy and then distilled wine, and after much public procession and fanfare, his body was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral on the 9th January 1806.


The invitation (Science Museum, London)

Here is an invitation to the funeral from our collections.  The recipient was Dr Leonard Gillespie, “Physician to Lord Nelson”.  Indeed Gillespie had actually been assigned to the post of Physician-General to the Fleet by Nelson whilst abroad HMS Victory – the ship he was officially attached to.  But while Nelson was attended by the Victory’s surgeon William Beatty on that fatal day, where was Gillespie?


Dr Gillespie's tourniquet, carried on HMS Victory (Science Museum, London)

Dr Gillespie had overseen an enlightened approach to on-board health, which just prior to Trafalgar he described as “unexampled perhaps in any squadron heretofore employed on a foreign station”.  He had also written an influential pamphlet on the Preservation of the Health of Seamen, which put particular emphasis on a good diet, but in October 1805 Gillespie himself was not a well man.  As Nelson was taking that fatal shot, Gillespie was ashore, laid low with gout!

While scurvy is the dietary complaint traditionally associated with life at sea in the early 1800s, gout was not uncommon.  Linked in part to diets rich in meat, seafood and alcohol, the naval officer class was prone to the condition.  Although Gillespie missed his masters final moments, his gouty absence was no cause for shame.  Indeed, according to William Beatty, it was only through “abstaining for the space of nearly two years from animal food, and wine and all other fermented drink; confining his diet to vegetables, and commonly milk and water” that Nelson overcame his own bout…of gout.

As for Gillespie, he outlived Nelson by nearly three decades, dying at 83 after a long retirement in Paris.  However, in a curious postscript, ‘Dr Leonard Gillespie’ emerged a century later in a very different context.  Firstly in books, then on cinema and TV screens, as the elderly mentor to the titular young medic in the hugely successful Dr Kildare.  In this clip Gillespie (played by Lionel Barrymore) is the one pooh-poohing the idea of  ‘socialised medicine’.  Hmmmm.


An interesting post about boring machines (for making tunnels)

Whenever I go to London by train I see the civil engineering works outside Paddington Station for the new Crossrail link. There is a big hole ready to take the giant German-made tunnelling machines which will soon start work boring the Crossrail  tunnels under London.

These amazing pieces of engineering are often scrapped after their job is done. They are far too large to fit in any museum, so we have a model of the similar machines used to bore the Channel Tunnel in the 1990s. 

However, at our Large Object store at Wroughton in Wiltshire we have one of their very much smaller ancestors, the Whitaker Tunnelling machine.

The Whittaker Tunnelling Machine (Credit: Peter Turvey)

Ours was built about 1922 and used for early Channel Tunnel exploratory work.

Like modern machines it has a revolving ‘cutter head’ at the front to chew through soil or soft rock, and is gradually inched forward as the tunnel is excavated.

Whitaker Tunnelling Machine - Cutting Head (Credit: Peter Turvey)

How it came to the Museum is a fascinating story. Abandoned for nearly 70 years outside the short tunnel it excavated near Dover, the machine was rescued in the 1990s, restored, and presented to us.

Yet there is a sombre side side to its history – the Whitaker Tunnelling machine was originally developed to drive tunnels under the German lines during the First World War, so that so that huge caches of explosives could be fired under them to break the stalemate on the Western Front.

The forthcoming anniversary of that destructive conflict reminds us how conflict is often a driver for technological change for good or ill.

A Royal Execution – Part 2

My post on January 21st marked the anniversary of the execution of King Louis XVI. Clearly, January was a bad month for European monarchs historically, as the 30th marks the anniversary (the 362nd!) of the be-heading of another flamboyant ruler – Charles I of England – in 1649.

Charles I pendant

Pendant with a portrait of Charles I (Science Museum)

The battered little heart-shaped jet pendant amulet above commemorates this particular royal execution. It would have been worn as a piece of mourning jewellery and, like other memento mori, a reminder of death and the transience of one’s own life. But in featuring an image of Charles I the wearer was also making a political statement in perpetuating the memory of the king and the royalist cause. Such pieces, in a range of designs and materials, began to be produced and worn by loyal supporters from around the time of his death on into the Restoration period.

Reverse side of Charles I pendant

Reverse side of Charles I pendant (Science Museum)

But take a closer look at the back of the pendent and there seems to be a clear error. Atop a crudely engraved skull is the date “JANUARY : THE : 30 : 1648 :” – which is a whole year too early.

This discrepancy can be easily explained. In England, prior to 1752, while January 1st was considered by many to be ‘New Year’s Day’, the start of the civil or legal year was actually… March 25th.  As such, under this ‘Old Style’ of dating, his January execution date was recorded as having taken place in 1648. However, following the formal adoption of the ‘New Style’ of dating through an Act of Parliament, the date is now generally referred to as 1649.

An unwelcome post-Christmas diet

Many of us will start the new year pledging to eat (and drink?) a bit less after the indulgences of Christmas. We should spare a thought for Britons in January 1940 when, after the first Christmas of the Second World War, food rationing was introduced on January 8th

Ration book

Wartime ration book with supplements (Science Museum)

Originally restricted to favourites such as bacon, butter and sugar, other products were added to the list as the war dragged on. Issued nationally in October 1939, ration books became an indispensable – if increasingly loathed – feature of Home Front life.

But for many of those queuing up that January for their weekly 4 ounces of bacon (or 12 ounces of sugar!) the experience was not totally new. The Christmas and New Year period of 1917-1918 had also seen the introduction of targeted food rationing. In both wars, attacks on merchant shipping by German U-Boats played a key part in creating food shortages. But while in the earlier conflict Britain avoided compulsory rationing until the final year, in the Second World War it came in very early.

Food tins

Tins of powdered milk and egg sent from the U.S during the Lend-Lease arrangement (Science Museum)

Citizens had already been encouraged to improve food productivity through the Dig for Victory! campaign. They would also be tempted with new foodstuffs – such as whale meat. But there were limits to this self-sufficiency. As such, food formed a significant part of the Lend-Lease arrangements made with the U.S and Canada from 1941.

Despite the privations of rationing, it’s generally accepted that the nation’s health improved under it – particularly amongst the poorest sections of society. 

The end of sweet rationing

Children celebrate the end of sweet rationing, East London, 1953 (Science & Society / Science Museum)

Still, few mourned its passing - when eventually it came. Rationing was actually stricter in post-war Britain. For a time even bread and potatoes were controlled, neither of which had been rationed in wartime. Food ration books could only finally be torn up with the end of meat rationing in July 1954.

Soldiers armed with lucky charms

Armistice day 1918

Trafalgar Square London, 11th November 1918 (NMeM / Royal Photographic Society / Science & Society)

Today is Armistice Day, more recently known as Remembrance Day. An event that always brings focus to the simple and terrible reality of the First World War – and of all subsequent wars – the overwhelming loss of human life. 

I recently posted about the remains of a frontline medical unit I saw on a trip to Belgium. While such wartime remnants can be found, the most prominent features across that scarred landscape today are the numerous memorials and cemeteries.

WW1 cemetery

Hooge Crater Cemetery, Belgium (Stewart Emmens)

In the First World War, soldiers were killed on an industrial scale – an average of over 6,000 each day of the conflict. But they were not just killed by bullets, explosives and poison gases, they succumbed to numerous diseases, they drowned and they died in accidents when apparently safe, far away from the trenches. Who lived and who died could seem incredibly random to those serving their country.

When in the frontline, trenches and underground bunkers offered some protection. As did a soldier’s helmet, gas mask… and his common sense. But some took extra precautions. They might wear body armour,  sometimes supplied by the military but occasionally sent by worried relatives back home – like this example advertised mid-page in an Australian newspaper from 1917. But their powers were limited, as the description of this soldier’s injuries suggests.

Leaving aside more conventional protection, many soldiers carried lucky charms or protective amulets. We have a number of them in our folk medicine collection. 

Black cat charm

Good luck charm (Science Museum)

This lucky black cat belonged to a soldier in the London Regiment. Such traditional symbols of good luck are common. We also have examples of horseshoe and shamrock designs. 

Tin medallion

Medallion of St Anthony (Science Museum)

Others have explicitly religious associations. The original museum label for the medallion above says it was provided by a Roman Catholic nun, for a soldier fighting in France. 

We have no record of the fates of the original owners of these charms. One can only hope that come November 11th 1918, their luck had held out.

Preparing for the worst

Seventy years ago, the bombing Blitz on Britain was into its second week.

London remained the main target and amongst landmarks damaged on the night of September 18th 1940 were the world famous Lambeth Walk and the John Lewis department store on Oxford Street. While across the city, around 200 civilians were killed and 550 injured.

Bomb damage 1940

Bomb damage in central London, 1940 (Science Musuem / Science & Society)

Such daily figures were typical in a month that left nearly 6,000 Londoners dead. But although the numbers were horrific, they were a fraction of those planned for in the pre-War period. Things were expected to be much, much worse.

In 1938, renowned British scientist J.B.S. Haldane predicted up to 100,000 deaths in an opening raid on the capital, while the Royal Air Force expected 20,000 casualties daily once German bombing begun. Plans were made to set aside 750,000 hospital beds and stockpile up to a million coffins.

Gas drill 1934

London schoolchildren being taught how to use gas masks, November 1934 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The use of poisonous gas was also anticipated. Civilian gas drills had become increasingly common as war loomed and by 1940 around 38 million masks had been issued to the population – from babies to centenarians. 

Baby's gas mask

Baby's gas mask, c1939 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

As well as gas masks, our museum stores hold other reminders of this expected threat. For example, the small kit shown below was to familiarise Air Raid Wardens with the tell-tale odours of different gases. 

Poison gas ID kit

Poison gas identification kit issued during the Second World War (Science Museum)

As it was, the predicted civilian casualty figures for wartime Britain were wildly inaccurate. But then sustained, widespread aerial bombing of urban areas was – up until then – both an unknown quantity and a terrifying prospect. As post-war Prime Minister Harold Macmillan later remarked, “We thought of air warfare in 1938 rather as people think of nuclear warfare today”.

From Vulcan to UAV

The Farnborough Air Show is a biennial jamboree that’s actually more market place than show. It’s where you come to buy aircraft or satellites or spare parts or just about anything you might need if your business is about flying high. 

Crowds watching Vulcan XH558 landing at the Farnborough Air Show, 2010 (Doug Millard)

Crowds watching Avro Vulcan XH558 landing at the Farnborough Air Show, 2010 (Doug Millard)

But this year I abandoned the trade halls to watch the Avro Vulcan XH558 bomber take off – its Olympus engines howling like no other jet, and then land, having thrilled the crowds with a beautiful, graceful and yes – awesome flying display – the only Vulcan that is airworthy. 

Vulcan XH558 soars overhead at Farnborough, 2010 (Doug Millard)

Vulcan XH558 soars overhead at Farnborough, 2010 (Doug Millard)

I got talking to Michael Trotter, Business Development Manager of the ‘Vulcan to the Sky’ Trust whose volunteers had made XH558 airworthy once more. He was interested in the Science Museum’s Blue Steel stand-off bomb – as carried by Vulcans during the Cold War. 

Blue Steel

Trial Version of Blue Steel now in the Science Museum's Collections (Science Museum/Science & Society)

I was thinking of this the other day while reading an RAF Defence Studies booklet on UAVs – Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. According to its historical preamble the Blue Steel – which separated from the aircraft before accelerating to its target – would be classed as a form of UAV – after all, it was unmanned. But UAVs usually return to their owners – which the nuclear-tipped Blue Steel certainly wasn’t designed to do. 

Phoenix UAV shortly after launch, ca. 1990 (BAe Systems)

Phoenix UAV shortly after launch, ca. 1990 (BAe Systems)

The Phoenix UAV was designed to return – by parachute – having reconnoitred the battlefield, and the Museum recently acquired one to add to its small squadron of historic UAVs. 

The paper I was reading predicted an ever-increasing use of UAVs in the years to come. There were certainly plenty on static display at the Farnborough market place this year: 

Global Hawk, 2010 (Doug Millard)

Global Hawk, 2010 (Doug Millard)

Fire Scout,2010 (Doug Millard)

Fire Scout,2010 (Doug Millard)

Phantom Ray, 2010 (Doug Millard)

Phantom Ray, 2010 (Doug Millard)

 I wonder whether today’s market is likely to be tomorrow’s show?

Mud, blood and concrete

I’ve recently returned from a fortnight’s holiday in Belgium (….a terribly underrated destination – no, really). While there, I persuaded my family to spend time exploring the World War One battlefields around Ypres.  I was particularly interested in surviving evidence of frontline medical services.

Essex Farm Advanced Dressing Station

Remains of the Advanced Dressing Station at Essex Farm, north of Ypres, Belgium (Stewart Emmens)

This was once an Advanced Dressing Station (ADS), at a site known as Essex Farm. One of the largest surviving groups of military buildings in the area, these damp, claustrophobic structures were comparatively comfortable. Built in 1916, they replaced a more temporary station established the year before.

Close to the frontline trenches, it provided basic care for those wounded with each of the rooms having a designated function.  The largest were reserved for stretcher cases, those awaiting evacuation and for applying dressings and performing emergency operations.  Smaller rooms provided a kitchen, toilet and an area to treat the ‘walking wounded’.

Room interior - Essex Farm

Interior of Dressings room / Operating theatre at Essex Farm (Stewart Emmens)

The ADS was one of a chain of facilities that an injured soldier could pass through. From here, the wounded would be evacuated back to Main Dressing Stations, Casualty Clearing Stations and Base Hospitals further behind the lines.

Bandages and dressings

First World War British bandages and dressings in our Blythe House store (Stewart Emmens)