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On Track for Change – a visitor’s perspective

In this guest post, Louise Bell reflects on her visit to the ‘On Track for Change’ exhibition at Head of Steam, earlier this year. The exhibition took a look at how artificial limbs were made, used and understood on the railways, and included a creative response to the relationships between railways, prostheses and their owners – see the guest blog posts from the Head of Steam team here and here.

As will be clear from this blog, Louise is the ideal person to give us the visitor’s perspective on the exhibition. She’s actively researching disability history and the experiences of former servicemen in the interwar period – links which come out really nicely in this post. Our sincere thanks to Louise for taking the time to write this blog.

It’s also particularly good to feature this post, as the UK’s Disability History Month started a few days ago. The links between railways and disability history in the UK are really waiting to be explored – and this post, as the ‘On Track for Change’ exhibition, show the importance of doing this work.


I can’t tell you how excited I was when I saw the announcement for Head of Steam’s “On Track for Change” exhibition – something focussing on artificial limbs?! What a perfect exhibition for me. I might not work on railways, but my work does focus on men who lost limbs as a result of the First World War, and I’m always looking for excuses for museum trips, so a journey to Darlington to see this was something that I was very keen to do. And I’m very glad I did! The museum itself is full of interesting stories and objects, but this exhibition was the real standout for me. Housed in three different sections, there was just so much to see (and even my friend, who I dragged along, said that she enjoyed her visit and learnt a lot!) This blog will link into a few of the objects on display, and give an insight into my work on the First World War.


Head of Steam’s “Temporary Exhibition Room” displayed cases of prostheses, mainly ranging from the 1940s-1950s, which are a bit later than the period I usually work on, but it was really interesting to see changes in design and materials from the First World War until then. Prostheses are, naturally, a big component of my work, so I want to give some background to what was happening in the First World War, and talk briefly through what was available to men who lost limbs in this conflict.

Image courtesy Louise Bell.

Around 41,000 British servicemen returned missing one or more limbs.[1] This equated to around 11,600 cases of lost arms, and 29,400 cases of lost legs.[2] The First World War definitely made the need for a strong prosthetic limbs industry in Britain very apparent. That isn’t to say that such an industry didn’t already exist here – accidents and injuries, in the workplace in particular, meant that a well-developed market for artificial limbs had already been established.[3] However, the First World War brought with it a larger concentration of men, in a relatively short period of time, who returned to Britain requiring the aid of this industry. Hospitals were set up across the United Kingdom to help these men, the most famous being those at Erskine and Roehampton. Artificial limb makers were housed on site at the hospitals, with a variety of companies involved in manufacturing prostheses for these limbless ex-servicemen.

Wooden right below knee leg made for Erskine House. Made during the First World War. Science Museum Group. Artificial right leg, Scotland, 1914-1918. 1999-421.

The above image shows a right, below knee leg made at Erskine during the First World War. Both the socket and the thigh corset are made from 3-ply wood, which was chosen because of its thin and adjustable nature, making it easier to fit to various diameters of stumps, by means of straps and buckles, as shown in the image. A very simple knee joint is obvious. Those which contained a knee joint and a foot at the end were deemed the more elaborate of the legs; those less so just consisting of a ‘stout broomstick’ which was ‘fixed by means of a screw to the disc of wood, and this had a rubber tip, such as is used in crutches, at the lower end.’[4] In essence, this simpler limb was something akin to a peg leg. The prosthesis contains a “clapper” style foot and ankle; so called due to the noise that accompanied the wearer when he wore such a limb. This noise must have been of some annoyance to the wearer, but the limb appears to have been manufactured to give as normal an appearance to walking as possible, with springs evident at the heel and ankle. That the bucket, the section which attached to the remaining stump, of these limbs was adjustable was of great importance. It was particularly useful whilst the stump was still forming, as it meant that this one limb could be adjusted to fit the needs of the patient.

Experiments with materials such as certalmid (a mixture of glue, muslin and celluloid) and light metals were starting to be undertaken as the war came to a close. So, it’s interesting to see the change from wooden limbs in the First World War to the limbs on display at the exhibition.


Thomas Splint

Image courtesy Louise Bell.

I was also thrilled to see a particular favourite item of mine on display at the exhibition, too: the Thomas splint! Introduced in 1916 to the front lines, the Thomas splint reduced the rate of mortality from fractures (of the femur in particular) from 80% to 20%, by 1918. The splint was originally designed by Hugh Owen Thomas, considered the father of orthopaedic surgery in Britain, with the intention that it would stabilise a fracture and prevent infection. However, it was not fully appreciated until his nephew, Robert Jones, introduced it for use in the war. I’ve previously written a blog about this splint here, if you’re interested in finding out more about its uses.

The rest of the exhibition had a wonderful room which helped tell the stories of some of the men disabled on the railways, which I think was super important and really helped bring these stories to life. Naturally, they were also very harrowing – such is the nature of this work. In my own research, I aiming to centre the stories of the men who lost limbs in the First World War, but I’m still at the very early stages of that.


Louise Bell

Louise is an Arts & Humanities Research Council Collaborative Doctoral Programme-funded PhD student working with the University of Leeds and The National Archives on a project looking at British state provision of prosthetic limbs in the two world wars. During the centenary of the First World War, she worked as the First World War Diverse Histories researcher at TNA. You can find her on Twitter: @LouBell



[1] The National Archives (TNA), Hospital accounts and financial queries: contains note of the artificial limb work at Roehampton for the period 1915-1930, PIN 38/304.

[2] Ibid.

[3] You can read more about this in: Claire L. Jones (ed.), Rethinking Modern Prostheses in Anglo-American Commodity Cultures, 1820-1939 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017)

[4] John Calder, The Vanishing Willows: The Story of Erskine Hospital (Bishopton, Renfrewshire: The Princess Louise Scottish Hospital (Erskine Hospital) 1982), p.17.

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