If there’s a story that defines East Grinstead, in its own terms, it’s the story of Archibald McIndoe and the Guinea Pig Club.
In essence, it’s a simple tale: McIndoe, a plastic surgeon with the RAF, is sent to East Grinstead’s Queen Victoria hospital to help with burned airmen with maxillofacial reconstruction. His practices are medically and socially revolutionary — he is a brilliant, pioneering surgeon in the operating theatre, but, even more rare, he understands the importance of social integration in his patients’ aftercare. And so he encourages these airmen out into the town, and encourages the town to embrace these heroic young men. That’s why East Grinstead is called “the town that didn’t stare”; because it embraced the opportunity to support and rehabilitate these men who had suffered a profound trauma.
The Guinea Pig Club itself was the social club — really a drinking club, tackling the sherry ration — formed by these soldiers. It’s an evocative name; a really unique piece of branding. Telling the story of the Guinea Pigs was, in a way, more of a responsibility that previous episodes of The Town That Didn’t Stare because this is a real story of tragedy and resilience. There are families all around the country who have been touched by the work of McIndoe and the bravery of the Guinea Pigs. So even though my style is quite *light* and *flippant* generally, I wanted to make sure that I treated this subject with enough earnestness.
There’s a hole at the centre of this episode, and that’s the Guinea Pigs themselves. The fact is that very, very few are still alive, and the timing of the covid-19 crisis meant that any sort of interview was really out the picture (a phone interview with someone in their 90s is often not really practical). I discussed with the RAF Benevolent Fund the possibility of licensing some existing interviews with Guinea Pigs, but in the end decided that it would be more of a distraction than really necessary. This is quite an impersonal episode, in that sense, more of a social history.
My primary resource for this episode was Emily Mayhew, who literally wrote the book on this subject. To be honest, she’s so clued up on this subject that I could’ve just published a 40-minute interview with her and it would’ve ticked all the factual and dramatic boxes for this episode. But I wanted to broaden it out and also look at a few digressions: the bombing, in 1943, of the Whitehall cinema in East Grinstead, the foundation of the order of St Margaret, and the Beeching cuts to British railways. Quite a diverse set of offshoots!
My hope is, of course, to have done justice to the depth of this story but as with so many of the threads in this podcast, there’s so much more to it than could possibly be covered in 30–40 minutes. Speaking to people like Gordon Bebb (McIndoe’s grandson) and Martin Jennings (sculptor of the McIndoe statue in East Grinstead, whose father was treated by McIndoe) offered alternative approaches to the subject. And yes, I wish that I had been able to sit down with a real, original Guinea Pig, but sadly time makes that possibility ever more unlikely. And as the episode grapples with, the Guinea Pigs’ story is in the process of transitioning from memory to history, and its important that we take the time to properly memorialise, to codify, the Guinea Pigs’ place in the story of our country.
Here are some relevant links if you want to do some extra reading:
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