Stitching Soldiers: The Whitchurch Hospital tablecloth

11 February 2024, by Ray Holman

In this week's blog post, Costume Designer and Costume Society Trustee Ray Holman writes about the insights into a history of medical treatments for WWI soldiers treated in Cardiff, unveiled by an unassuming tablecloth bought at an antiques market. The cloth is now part of the St Fagan's National Museum of History's collection.

At St Fagans Museum in Cardiff there is an unassuming tablecloth in its collection, it was bought from a Cardiff antiques market in 1981, it’s a simple, slightly dull tablecloth but it is full of faint embroidered names across it’s entire surface holding a multitude of secrets, it also has a date embroidered in its corner along with two significant names. The date I’d 1917 and the names are Lieutenant-Colonel Edwin Goodall and Matron Florence Raynes. Goodall an eminent psychiatrist trained at Guys Hospital in London was appointed the first Medical Superintendent of Whitchurch, two years before the hospital opened. He was awarded a CBE in 1919 for his pioneering treatment of shell shock. Florence Raynes was also a trailblazer in her own right. She was the first sister to have overall responsibility for the entire, male and female, nursing staff.

Here she is pictured with some of her nurses and there is evidence of Physiotherapy at Whitchurch which was introduced by Matron Raynes who was a trained masseuse. She is on the UK physiotherapy and masseuse registers (1895-1980?) between 1909-1914.









By 2014 the cloth started showing signs of deterioration as it lived in a textiles chest and so it was taken to Elen Phillips who at the time was curator of textiles at the museum. Elen started some research and what she discovered is fascinating.

The names embroidered onto the cloth included the names of British, American and Japanese soldiers who were receiving treatment in 1917. Civilian psychiatric patients were moved to other institutions, while injured soldiers receiving orthopaedic care occupied their beds and in 1917, 450 beds were allocated for soldiers with mental health conditions. The psychological trauma of warfare or shell shock, it’s symptoms ranged from uncontrollable diarrhoea and shaking to blindness and terrifying nightmares. The debilitating symptoms of shell shock undermined the widely held belief that men in combat could and should control their fear. Victims were often stigmatised, labelled cowards and even shot for desertion. As the numbers of sufferers increased, so did the understanding of how war can damage minds as well as bodies. Specialist hospitals in the new field of psychiatric medicine offered a range of experimental treatments and therapies- such a hypnotism, massage and the new “talking cure” of psychoanalysis. All were aimed at restoring men to duty as quickly as possible.

Shell shock patients also underwent “occupational cures”. Handicrafts, such as jewellery- making, embroidery or tapestry which needed a focused concentration and a steady hand- were taught inside the hospitals as therapy for shattered minds. Men often began by embroidering their own regimental insignia.

This tablecloth with the names of American, Japanese, and British soldiers appears to be a collaborative effort used for occupational therapy but also made as a memento of their stay in the war hospital, similar to the autograph books which were commonly produced at this time.

The cloth is now known as The Therapy Cloth and was exhibited at Whitchurch Hospital, Cardiff before it closed. In 1917 it was known as the Welsh Metropolitan War Hospital. Some census research by local librarian Rob Davis reveals that Florence Raynes was matron at “Cardiff Mental Hospital” in 1911 and married Thomas McClean in 1919, her death date not found but though to be 1980. The cloth ‘may’ have ended up in the antiques market in the early ‘80’s as part of a house clearance but this is speculation.

The Therapy Cloth has a new home in St Fagans Museum and will now be cared for, it gives us a glimpse into the past treatments available for shell shocked soldiers and is a memorial for all those who embroidered their names into it and the Doctors and Nurses who helped them. It brings together the social history of the time and reveals the therapeutic nature of craft and textiles.



















With thanks to Elen Phillips and Rob Davis for the research work into the history and purpose of the cloth beyond a pice of furniture decoration.

Ray Holman is a costume designer who has worked on costumes including for creatures on Doctor Who, which you can read more about in his previous blog post.

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