East Grinstead Museum: A History of the Town That Didn’t Stare

Artificial skulls at the East Grinstead Museum

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In my opinion, dark tourism doesn’t always have to be full of tragedy, or leave you feeling hopeless. In fact, sometimes that is the very point of dark tourism – to show us that even at the worst of times, humanity can prevail. Which is why the town of East Grinstead is the perfect addition to our dark tourism portfolio.

Have you ever heard of East Grinstead? For most people, my guess is probably not. Or, if you’re like me, you’ve heard of it, even been through it, but thought nothing of it. Just another small, quirky British town on my train route. What about plastic surgery? What do you picture? For me, it was boob jobs and ass lifts. What I can say with certainty, though, is that I had never heard of Archibald McIndoe.

Strap in everyone; this post is history heavy, full of facts and may contain sensitive images. It may also help restore your faith in humanity.

This is the story of Archibald McIndoe, plastic surgery and East Grinstead – the town that didn’t stare.

RELATED: Why Dark Tourism Matters (According to a Dark Tourist)

THERE’S SO MUCH TO SEE AT THE EAST GRINSTEAD MUSEUM

It’s true, the permanent exhibit on Archibald McIndoe and the Guinea Pig Club detailed below, definitely took up most our attention. However, that is only half the museum. The other half details the history of East Grinstead itself. The museum chronicles’s the town’s history all the way back to the dinosaurs. Did you know you can even see footprints left by the Iguanodon not far from the town?

The museum is full of fascinating facts and interesting connections to the UK’s long history.

We learned that East Grinstead was once even an important staging post during the 17th century due to bad roads. In 1855, the first railway came through East Grinstead. This brought continued great prosperity to the town until the end of the 18th century when better infrastructure took traffic away from East Grinstead and directly through London.

In 1943, the town was devastated by bombings that killed 108 people at the Whitehall Cinema and surrounding areas. It was the worst attack in Sussex.

Today East Grinstead remains entirely off the beaten path.

Fun fact: In addition to the fascinating East Grinstead Museum, we found out (after our visit), that the town is in fact the home of the Scientology headquarters.

How random is that?

You can learn even more fun facts and history about East Grinstead on The Town That Didn’t Stare podcast, one of our favourite Dark History Podcasts!

A Brief History of Queen Victoria Hospital: 1863 – 1930

Today, the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead is world famous due to McIndoe and his team. It remains the regional centre for excellence in facial reconstruction and burns. However, in the hospital’s infancy, it was a small building capable of housing no more than six patients. The hospital opened in 1863 as one of only five cottage hospitals in the country. Since then, it has been housed in multiple buildings at four different locations.

East Grinstead Hospital 1, 2, 3
© East Grinstead Museum

Unfortunately, the first hospital was closed 1874 due to, as the head surgeon John Henry Rogers stated, “the meanness of the wealthy and too often the ingratitude of the poor.” You can still see the original building on Green Hedges Road. There remained no East Grinstead hospital until 1888 when a local stable boy suffered a severe (but unspecified) accident. It was gruesome enough, however, that locals Mr and Mrs Oswald Smith decided to fully finance a new cottage hospital. This one housed five patients.

As demand increased, an additional hospital building was opened in 1902, again care of the Smiths, who generously donated their holiday home on Queen’s Road. Inspired in part by its location, as well as a national movement to name new establishments after the queen, the new hospital became known as Queen Victoria Cottage Hospital. Incidentally, this made it more popular and increased its funding.

A Brief History of Queen Victoria Hospital: 1930 – Present Day

Current East Grinstead Hospital (Queen Victoria Hospital)
© East Grinstead Museum

However, demand continued to grow. In 1930, Sir Robert Kindersley donated 4.3 acres of land to East Grinstead in order to build a larger hospital. The new hospital opened 8 January 1936, and was the foundation of the current Queen Victoria Hospital. It housed 24 people (six men, six women, six children and six private patients). These original buildings are still in use today.

In the late 1930s, the government became acutely aware that facilities would be needed to accommodate burn victims of the war. During WWII, thousands of surviving soldiers suffered severe burns and loss of limbs due to bombs and air warfare. The hospitals were filling up, and the British government knew they needed a contingency plan. To support the overwhelming need, East Grinstead’s Queen Victoria Hospital was converted into a specialist facial reconstruction centre.

Present day Queen Victoria Hospital & McIndoe Centre, East Grinstead, UK
Present day Queen Victoria Hospital & McIndoe Centre

Meet the Team

Leading the specialist team was Dr Archibald McIndoe, a New Zealander, and civilian plastic surgeon for the Royal Airforce (RAF). He arrived in East Grinstead on 4 September 1939. He was responsible for running the new Centre for Plastic and Jaw Surgery. McIndoe studied under Harold Gillies, another New Zealand citizen, who is considered to be the father of plastic surgery, and responsible for revolutionary burn treatment during WWI.

However, McIndoe could not have done it without his dedicated and specialist staff. Including his first in command, Sister Jill Mullins. It is said they were so in sync, words were not needed during surgeries, and implements were passed back and forth without prompting.

Archibald McIndoe and his team at the Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, UK
© East Grinstead Museum

The Most Exclusive Club in the World

The burn victims treated by McIndoe and his team at Queen Victoria Hospital became known as the Guinea Pigs. The name came about because McIndoe was very open about the fact that as plastic surgery was still in its infancy, every procedure was therefore an experiment – and the patients his guinea pigs. While this might sound appalling to some, for McIndoe’s 649 patients, it gave them a sense of camaraderie. In 1941, a few of the survivors formed a drinking group, effectively starting the Guinea Pig Club. They deemed it ‘the most exclusive club in the world,’ further stating that ‘the entrance fee is something most men would not care to pay and the conditions of membership are arduous in the extreme.’

While still recovering in the hospital, they drank together on weekends. However, once they recovered enough to leave and return to their lives, the club members met up once a year. This annual reunion became known as ‘The Lost Weekends’ due to the sheer amount of alcohol consumed. The Guinea Pig Pub was opened 9 June 1957, and became their main drinking hole. Unfortunately, the pub closed down in 2007 and was redeveloped for housing. It is now known as Guinea Pig Place.

Photo of the members of the Guinea Pigs Club out drinking © East Grinstead Museum
Members of the Guinea Pigs Club out drinking © East Grinstead Museum

Over the years, the annual meetings became less rowdy, and more family oriented. The few remaining members continue to meet up when possible.

How McIndoe & His Team Helped Save the Guinea Pigs

McIndoe and his staff didn’t just save the Guinea Pigs’ bodies, they also helped save their minds and mental health. McIndoe understood the importance of mental rehabilitation as well as physical. He knew what effect disfigurement could have on the previously able-bodied men. He was also aware that the men might not fit back into society as easily as before the war. Because of this, McIndoe took a two-step approach to facilitating their social rehabilitation. 

First, he encouraged the men to laugh and socialise and drink. For McIndoe, a positive state of mind was key to successful recovery. Another member of his staff, chief anaesthetist, John Hunter, refused to wear his surgical mask during operations. His excuse was that it made him look like a chef. If questioned by a patient, Hunter jokingly bet that if they became sick afterwards, he would buy them a beer.

Cartoon by Guinea Pig Sargeant Henry Standen of the patients behaving wildly © East Grinstead Museum
© East Grinstead Museum

The Guinea Pigs were forbidden from wearing their ‘hospital blues,’ the standard outfit issued to all patients at the time. McIndoe believed the outfit made the patients look like prisoners, which decreased morale. In addition, the buttons on the uniform also proved difficult for those with severe burns on their hands.

Additionally, to ease stress about operations, McIndoe encouraged the men to observe each others’ surgeries. Many of the men reported that this proved incredibly helpful, as well as fascinating.

The Town That Didn’t Stare

For the second step in his rehabilitation process, McIndoe and his team spoke to the people of East Grinstead. They counseled the townspeople on how to understand and relate to the survivors. He requested that they not stare or point, and to treat them as if nothing was different. 

John Bubb, Bullet, East Grinstead Museum, UK
Bullet lodged in John Bubb’s jaw

As a result, once many of the men had recovered enough to go into the town, they were surprised by the warm reception. People smiled at them, asked how they were, invited them for a drink. Quite quickly, the Guinea Pigs and the residents of East Grinstead became friends. Because of this, East Grinstead became known as the town that didn’t stare.

X-Ray of John Bubb's jaw with a bullet lodged in it © East Grinstead Museum
John Bubb’s X-ray with bullet in jaw © East Grinstead Museum
John Bubb, Bullet, East Grinstead Museum, Cultura Obscura
© East Grinstead Museum

For many, their relationships back home deteriorated. The men were depressed and found it difficult to fit into society. The women struggled to accept their loved ones who were now so horribly injured. By contrast, many of the Guinea Pigs that remained, felt at home in East Grinstead. In addition to forming lifelong friendships, many married hospital nurses or local women, and settled in nearby towns.

Revolutionary Medicine

Genuinely, the history of this place blew me away. The fact that there was more to plastic surgery than cosmetic perfection alluded me. This is the world we live in. I learned so much in East Grinstead. 

Do you know what tube pedicles are? Yeah, I didn’t either. McIndoe learned the technique from Gillies and then perfected it. It involves cutting a flap of the patients’ skin, ​usually from the leg or chest, forming it into a tube and attaching it to the affected body part. Over a period of several weeks, the tube would be cut shorter and shorter from the original location to the site of injury.

Tube Pedicle Procedure, East Grinstead Museum, Cultura Obscura
Men undergoing Tube Pedicle Treatment awaiting further surgery © East Grinstead Museum

This allowed blood flow to the tissue to continue and keep the skin healthy. By using the patients’ own skin, the chance of infection decreased.

Tube Pedicle Procedure, East Grinstead Museum, UK
© East Grinstead Museum

In addition to perfecting this revolutionary technique, McIndoe was responsible for the banning of tannic acid. For burns, tannic acid used to be applied to prevent additional fluid loss and infection. The acid formed a hard shell around the burn, which was then removed before surgery. It worked, but it was extremely painful for the patient. 

Tannic Acid Procedure © East Grinstead Museum
© East Grinstead Museum

Instead, McIndoe decided to keep the wounds open and bath the Guinea Pigs in saline. This also worked, and was much more relaxing for the patient. However, it was exponentially more labour-intensive as it involved constant care from the nursing staff. Because of this, Queen Victoria Hospital had one of the highest ratios of nursing staff to patients in the UK. This included numerous male nurses, who were integral to the process as they were required to lift the men in and out of the baths.

Saline Bath, East Grinstead Museum, Cultura Obscura
Patient after saline bath covered in vaseline and wrapped in gauze © East Grinstead Museum

deets on the east grinstead museum

We think you should definitely go to the East Grinstead Museum. It will tell you the full history of the hospital, as well as the town’s general history. I can’t recommend it enough. In fact, we voted it our favourite museum in our 2018 year end review. The staff are friendly and incredibly helpful. I think one of the volunteers might even have been a Guinea Pig (can’t swear to that!). We didn’t get a chance to speak with him as he was chatting with an older woman the whole time we were there. But we didn’t mind as they didn’t know each other, but they were certainly reminiscing!

Cost: The museum is free, but they receive no funding from any local or national authority and rely on the generosity of visitors and the local community – so please make a donation if you can! In fact, you can make a donation here.

Location: Cantelupe Rd, East Grinstead RH19 3BJ, just off the High Street. The museum is a 10-15 minute walk from the rail station.

Opening Hours: 10:00 – 16:00 Wednesday to Saturday; 13:00 – 16:00 Sunday & bank holidays, Closed on Mondays.

Facilities: East Grinstead Museum has on-site parking and is handicap accessible.

OKAY, I’m done with the east grinstead museum, now what?

Sackville College was closed while we were there (it’s only open to visitors during the summer months). But it is meant to be an impressive example of Jacobean architecture. This was the site where Revd. Dr. John Mason Neale wrote numerous hymns. No clue who I’m on about? He’s responsible for the gem “Good King Wenceslas,” which he supposedly wrote while overlooking Ashdown Forest.

Statue of McIndoe & patient outside of Sackville College, East Grinstead, UK
Statue of McIndoe & patient outside of Sackville College

By that logic, Ashdown Forest is nearby. It’s not actually in East Grinstead anymore due to development, but it’s a few miles away and we recommend a visit to go on a Winnie the Pooh adventure!

If you can find it, you can stand on the Meridian Line. That’s right, it’s not just in London! Annoyingly, we couldn’t find it, but we are prone to getting lost and confused. Plus, to be honest, we were much more keen on visiting the museum!

Beautiful Ashdown Forest
Enchanting Ashdown Forest

Or just wander around and enjoy all the old English architecture!

Sounds Good, But My Stomach’s Rumbling

One of the best things about East Grinstead is that except for a few chains, most of the shops and restaurants are family owned. They have been there for generations. We were in East Grinstead for a day, so we didn’t really eat much. But a cursory glance at Tripadvisor tells me we may have missed out on some real gems. In case you want to recreate our steps….

East Grinstead Bookshop. Yup, that’s right. My food recommendation is a bookshop. After an intense day of history learning, what could be better than a hot chocolate and some carrot cake? That’s right, nothing! To be fair, I don’t know if the carrot cake is always available, but it was very tasty, so if you like cake, I’m sure the other options are also lovely. I don’t like any other type of cake, so it’s quite fortunate this was the one available so I can report on it! Supposedly this bookshop is also world famous. 

East Grinstead Bookshop building has been there since 1535
The East Grinstead Bookshop building has been there since 1535

Getting There & Away

The easiest way to East Grinstead is via train​​​ from London. In fact, why not make it a day trip?

Driving? You’ll likely need to find your way to the A22 at some point. Either way, we recommend checking Google Maps to plot your course.

LOOKING FOR MORE FASCINATING UK TOWNS & CITIES (NOT LONDON)?
Visiting Crowland: A Hidden Gem in the UK
Fun & Historical Things to do in Coventry
A Brief History of Witchcraft in East Anglia
A Local’s Guide to the Dark Side of Norwich

INTERESTED IN HISTORICAL THINGS TO DO IN LONDON?
Unusual Dark Tourism Sites in London
London Pubs with Haunting Histories
An Incident at the Old Operating Theatre

Ever been to East Grinstead? Know of any other fascinating small towns that should be on our radar? Are you a fellow dark tourist? Tell us all about it in the comments!

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