New exhibition takes fresh look at medicine and welfare in the British Civil Wars

Surgeons who could remove a bladder stone in 50 seconds, military hospitals run with stern hygiene standards and a complex system of war pensions for the maimed, widowed and orphaned. 

Hardly sounds like the mid-17th century, but a new exhibition on medicine and welfare in the British Civil Wars will open eyes on what experts believe was a ground-breaking period. 

The six-month show at the National Civil War Centre in Newark, Nottinghamshire, which opened on Saturday 19 March 2016, is being curated by Dr Andrew Hopper, from the Centre for English Local History at the University of Leicester, and Dr Eric Gruber Von Arni, once the most senior nurse in the British Army. 

Glyn Hughes, from the National Civil War Centre, explained: “We think of this period as backward in its treatment of wounds and welfare, but in fact the opposite is often true. The British Civil Wars were the deadliest in this nation's history so there was no shortage of wounded personnel to practice on. Muskets cannons, typhus and dysentery took their toll, but it's surprising how many people lived through horrific injuries.” 

The conflict claimed six percent of England's population and saw Parliament establish the very first permanent military hospitals (The Savoy and Ely House in London, 1642). It also assumed an unprecedented obligation for the welfare of its troops and their families. Nurses – many the widows of fallen soldiers – understood enough about health outcomes to change patients' linen and towels weekly and deep clean their hospitals. Trips to take the waters in Bath were prescribed for some. This regime continued until the restoration of King Charles II in 1660. 

On display is a chilling array of surgical instruments including bullet extractors, bone saws and skull elevators, all used without an anaesthetic, together with medicine books such as Gerard's Herbal. While some 'cures' offered real practical relief, even for dysentery, others such as those for venereal diseases – ingesting mercury - worsened the condition of sufferers. 

But it was away from the battlefield where the conflict's legacy lingered. Powerful testimony is included in the exhibition from pension petitions to Parliament from ex-servicemen, widows and orphans. 

Dr Andrew Hopper, from the Centre for English Local History at the University of Leicester, added: "Maimed ex-soldiers, widows and orphans were everywhere - the bitter memory of this conflict hung over the nation for decades. The pension system instituted by Parliament would not be bettered for two hundred years and in its scope broke new ground. It wasn't a universal system - pension rights were not extended to those who fought for the King. But the state assuming greater responsibility for the citizenry marks a major milestone.” 

Dr Hopper is applying for funding with the National Civil War Centre to digitise up to 5,000 of these period documents spread throughout England and Wales to make them more accessible to researchers. 

Also on display are replica prosthesis from the period and the wheelchair used by the Parliamentarian army's commander-in-chief Sir Thomas Fairfax. Visitors can additionally attempt to remove a bullet from a dummy using only civil war style equipment. 

News Source: University of Leicester 

The National Civil War Centre is open daily 10am to 5pm. Admission is £7 adults, £6 concessions and £3 children. A season ticket is just £11. English Heritage members half price.