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The Emergency Response: the Grantham Hospital and Medical Team


Today we are, thankfully, accustomed to a level of emergency healthcare which the victims of the railway disaster of September 1906 could only have dreamed of.  Here we look back and admire the spirit of the medical and nursing staff, both at the scene and in the hospital.  Their expertise and dedication served the casualties well during the critical hours after the accident when they were at their most vulnerable. 

First Aid at the Accident Scene

On arrival at the scene the local medical practitioners set up improvised bases in nearby sheds and houses, where they rendered first aid and organised transport to the hospital for those in greatest need.


The rescue. work was entered upon with as little delay as possible, and proceeded throughout the morning. Nearly the whole of the medical gentlemen in Grantham, including Dr. James Eaton, Dr. R. Wilson, Dr. Frier*, Dr. Poole-Berry**, Dr. Philips, Dr. Robbs***, Dr. Paterson, Dr. Shipman, and Dr. Firth went to the scene and gave attention to the wounded, while others who rendered willing help included the Rev. C. Elsmere, vicar of Spittlegate, Miss Poyser, of Nottingham, who was waiting on the station for her train; Miss Musson, Grantham; and Nurse Sneeth, of Grantham.

(from The Nottingham Evening Post Thursday 20th September 1906, page 6)

*  This was Charles Frier (1871-1958), a GP who established his medical practice in Grantham in 1896 and continued into the 1950s.

**  Harry Poole-Berry (1859 -1922).  In October 1893 the Great Northern Railway initiated Ambulance (First Aid) Classes for railway staff at Grantham in association with the St John Ambulance Association and instructed by Dr. Poole-Berry.  This initiative by the railway companies was in response to a growing awareness nationally of the responsibility they had for the wellbeing of their employees, many of whose occupations exposed them to serious risk of injury or worse.

***  Charles Haldane Denny Robbs (1874-1947), physician and surgeon, who was born in Grantham.  His father and grandfather had also been physicians and surgeons in the town.  Dr. Robbs was the physician on duty for that week and the local paper reported that  Dr. Robbs has remained with the utmost devotion at his post since the night of the accident, and it is owing to his unceasing care that the patients are making such satisfactory progress.

There is more on the ambulance training of railway staff at Grantham on two of our other pages:

Transport to the Hospital

There was no standing provision for the emergency removal of seriously injured casualties to a hospital.  Once first aid had been rendered by one of the doctors at the scene, transport had to be improvised on the night.  Here is the testimony of a local man, one of the first on the scene:

A little further on, there were two men underneath a coach, and one of them shouted, "There's a woman here; come and help me to get her out." I crawled down to where they were and helped her out.  She, too, was pinned down by the wreckage.  I broke a door of one of the carriages off, and we-carried her under the shed, where she was attended by a doctor.  Later, she was carried up to the Wharf, placed on a dray, and afterwards taken to the Hospital.

(from The Grantham Journal Saturday 22nd September 1906, page 8)

Grantham Wharf was the operational base of the local coal merchants so the drays there would have been similar to this one, photographed at Wisbech, Cambridgeshire. The hospital was over a mile distant.  Imagine being carried, injured, to hospital over cobbled streets lying on one of these vehicles.
Photograph from the Cambridgeshire Community Archive Network.

Another brief report:

The wounded were treated as soon as they were brought in [to a shed at the accident scene], and sent off by omnibus to the Hospital...

(from The Grantham Journal Saturday 22nd September 1906, page 8)

A typical horse-drawn omnibus of the period. We know that in 1905 a two-horse omnibus was owned by Mr J. Lewis of The Angel Hotel in Grantham.

Reception and Treatment at Grantham Hospital

At the time of the railway disaster of September 1906 Grantham Cottage Hospital was a voluntary hospital with a capacity of around 25 to 30 patients.  Opened in 1876, like many in towns throughout the country it was an independent charitable institution managed by a committee of volunteers, mainly people who were prominent in local society.  The hospital was funded by subscriptions, donations and the proceeds of fundraising activities; no regular government grants were available to support the running costs.

The 'in house' medical staff  were mainly the local general practitioners, some of whom specialised in one or more branches of medicine.  When necessary they could call on the services of specialists from elsewhere.  The nursing staff were led by a matron.  

The reception and treatment of the casualties brought up from the station was considered worthy of a write-up in the nursing section of The Hospital, a London-based weekly publication which promoted good practice in the medical sciences and hospital administration.

Here is the article, which appeared in the issue published only 10 days after the date of the accident:

(downloaded from The US National Library of Medicine)


The cost, and the Great Northern Railway's contribution

As a voluntary institution Grantham Hospital relied upon subscriptions, donations and fundraising events to cover running costs.  There was great pride in the hospital and over the years since its foundation the community had been generous in its support, but there was concern about how the extra expenditure incurred by the treatment of the casualties would be met.

Ten patients were admitted with injuries resulting from the accident, of whom eight remained three days after the accident occupying around a third of the hospital's capacity.

The treatment of the wounded has necessarily Involved great expense upon our free Hospital, which has always some difficulty in ‘making both ends meet’ in the ordinary way.  There is every reason to suppose, however, that the Railway Company will make ample recompense for the extra expenditure which has been incurred. The Mayor of Grantham (Theodore Norton, Esq.) has had many kind offers of financial and other assistance during the week, but in consequence of the generous attitude taken by the Railway Company, there has been no need to avail himself of them.  The Matron of the Hospital (Miss Sawle) has also had many offers of help and received many useful gifts for the patients, which she desires to acknowledge with much gratitude.

(from The Grantham Journal, 29th September 1906)



The following letter from the Great Northern Railway Company has been received by Mr. A. E. Pearson, secretary of Grantham Hospital, and was brought before the House Committee on Monday: -

King's Cross Station, Nov. 16th, 1906.

"Dear Sir, - I am instructed by my directors to ask the governing body of the Grantham Hospital to accept the enclosed cheque for five hundred guineas [£525] towards its current expenses.  My directors, at the same time, wish me to convey their sincerest thanks and appreciation to all connected with the Hospital for their care and attention to those who were unfortunately injured in the accident at Grantham, on the 19th September.  Many acts of kindness on the part of the inhabitants of Grantham have been brought to my directors' notice, and it is hoped that a contribution of this nature may to some small extent be considered to affect the general interests of the town.

I am, dear sir, yours faithfully,

E. H. Burrows, Secretary.

The Railway Company have also made a present of £10 10s. to the matron and £5 5s. to the sub-matron.

(from The Grantham Journal, 24th November 1906, page 4)

£525 represented approximately one-third of the hospital's running costs for the year 1906 and would be equivalent to around £300,000 today.

The Matron, Miss B. M. Sawle

Bertha Maude Sawle was born in St Mawes, Cornwall in 1871, the daughter of a master mariner (a fully qualified ship's captain); the family moved to Cardiff the following year.  At the age of 20 she was a school teacher in Cardiff.

Bertha Maude Sawle, a studio portrait probably taken during the 1890s.
Photograph from a family archive

During the 1890s Maude Sawle (as we think she preferred to be known) entered the nursing profession.  She trained at the General Infirmary in Cardiff and held the position of Charge Nurse at the Newport & County Hospital.  By 1901 Miss Sawle was working in the West Midlands, where she was Sister of the Children's Medical & Surgical Ward and the Women's Accident Ward at the Wolverhampton & South Staffordshire General Hospital.  She moved to the Torbay Hospital, Torquay as Sister before being appointed Matron of Grantham Hospital on 27th April 1903, commencing her new duties the following month.

On 15th November 1906, less than two months after the railway accident at Grantham, Miss Sawle was appointed matron at the General Infirmary in Hertford (perhaps she was 'head-hunted' following the above publicity?); she expected to take up her duties there in the middle of January 1907. 

Grantham Hospital.— Resignation of the Matron. 

Miss Sawle, the popular Matron of the Grantham Hospital, has been offered, and, we regret to say, has accepted, the Matronship of the General Infirmary, Hertford.  Although we congratulate Miss Sawle on her new appointment, we only express the universal feeling in saying that we are extremely sorry she is leaving the position in which she has shown so much administrative ability.  The Hospital has indeed flourished in every way under Miss Sawle's management, and she may have the satisfaction of knowing that her work has been recognised, not only locally, but also by professional critics.  Miss Sawle leaves a host of friends among all classes, and we wish her all success and happiness in her more responsible position.  Miss Sawle has been Matron of Grantham Hospital since May, 1903.

(from The Grantham Journal, 24th November 1906, page 4)

Subsequently Maude Sawle moved to Tunbridge Wells in Kent and managed a nursing home there.  However, a connection with Grantham lasted for many years because, on 23rd September 1924, Maude married the then retired and recently widowed Arthur Gompertz Gamble (1857-1940), who was formerly a chemist at 15 High Street, Grantham.  Arthur Gamble had been Mayor of Grantham in 1892-93, a Major in the 2nd Volunteer Battalion of The Lincolnshire Regiment and, in 1895, a candidate for the Grantham No. 4 ward in the Kesteven County Council election.

In retirement Maude appears to have returned, with husband Arthur, to Cardiff, where she died in August 1946.

There is more on the history of Grantham Hospital here.

Back to The Grantham High Speed Accident of September 1906: the emergency response

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