Sphagnum moss and female agency

Published in Features, Issue 6 (November/December 2018), Volume 26, World War I

The Irish War Hospital Supply Organisation.

By Monika Barget, Pádraig MacCarron and Susan Schreibman

On 28 February 1919 the Irish war hospital depot in Dublin closed its doors. This voluntary organisation, mostly run, staffed and funded by women, played a significant role in the vast supply chain of goods shipped overseas to hospitals, sending much-needed surgical supplies. Opened on 6 December 1915, the depot was the central Irish node for the collection and dissemination of items that were manufactured by up to 6,000 Irish women and men in over 300 work groups across Ireland.

Myriad of voluntary supply organisations
The purpose of the central depot (and smaller depots in large towns) was to coordinate the myriad of voluntary supply organisations formed in response to the huge need that official channels could not fill. War hospital supply depots existed throughout the British Empire. Prior to 1915, charitable organisations such as the ladies’ needlework guilds or field force funds had provided British army units and hospitals with garments and other necessities upon request.
By 1915 it was clear that the coverage was uneven, and so the Army Council decided to centralise local work groups. By late September 1915 the Department of the Director-General of Voluntary Organisations, under the leadership of Col. Sir Edward Willis Duncan Ward, had been established. Although war hospital supply depots reported to it, they remained flexible self-governing organisations throughout the war. Local work groups were knitted together via a network of sub-depots.

Above: Female volunteers and committee members at the Waterford war hospital supply depot in January 1916. (NLI)

Sphagnum moss
One of the largest voluntary efforts within the Irish War Hospital Supply Organisation was the collection and production of surgical dressings made from sphagnum moss, a fibre that could compensate for the increasing shortage in cotton surgical dressings. Utilising sphagnum moss as a cheap and locally available wound dressing was not new; it had been employed in popular medicine since the Middle Ages, but the first scientific experiments into its absorbent qualities were carried out by German surgeons in the 1880s. In 1895 sphagnum dressings were adopted by the French war department but it was the First World War that stimulated a large-scale production in the British Empire.
According to J.W. Hotson’s ‘Sphagnum as a surgical dressing’ in Science (30 August 1918), sphagnum moss was plentiful in Scotland, Ireland and Canada, not only by the sea but also in bogs. The entire supply chain was dependent on volunteers (predominantly women and children), however, who collected the moss and fashioned it into dressings, itself an extremely labour-intensive activity. Following the example of the Scottish War Dressings Supply Organisation in Edinburgh, a committee within the Royal College of Science for Ireland (RCScI) Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) was formed to establish an Irish sphagnum moss depot. Mabel Crawford Wright (née MacDowell), a botanist at the RCScI, was a founding member of this sphagnum moss committee. With her cousin Elsie (Alice Helen) Henry (née Brunton, daughter of an influential London physician and married to an RCScI professor) and another female colleague, they contacted their Scottish colleagues to learn their wound-dressing techniques. In September 1915 the marchioness of Waterford opened a moss collection centre for the south of Ireland. In November 1915 all local moss collection efforts were centralised under the control of the Irish War Hospital Supply Organisation. This established a sphagnum depot for all of Ireland at the RCScI (located in the Royal Dublin Society) and registered it through the Director-General of Voluntary Organisations in London.

‘A tradition of which we are proud’
While Elsie Henry served as quartermaster of the Central Sphagnum Moss Depot, Mabel Crawford Wright became one of three honorary secretaries. The workrooms were staffed by female members of the St John Ambulance Brigade and the RCScI nursing division, and supported by occasional female helpers (many of them clerical workers or shop assistants). The RCScI men’s VAD contributed by constructing the boxes needed to ship the bandages. According to the Depot’s first annual report for 1915–16:

‘200 voluntary helpers have worked up the present output, and their tireless industry, unselfish devotion, and readiness to fall in with all suggestions towards efficiency have founded a tradition of which we are proud. The work has been constantly assisted by the unfailing kindness of the Royal College of Science staff, and also by the goodwill and helpfulness of the College servants.’

The honorary secretaries’ tasks included appealing to ‘Irish women and children to collect, dry, pack and send the moss to Dublin’, both in personal letters and in public advertisements. Women from almost every county throughout the island responded to the call. The number of local moss collection depots increased steadily.
In February 1916, volunteers in fifteen Irish depots across Ireland collected, washed and dried moss gathered by local work parties. By the end of the war the Central Sphagnum Moss Depot had coordinated up to 50 moss collection depots, with approximately 200 associated work parties in the southern provinces of Ireland. Moss collection in Ulster had been managed separately since July 1916.

Distribution of depots
A contemporary map and the figures published in the annual reports of the Irish War Hospital Supply Organisation suggest that most moss collection depots and work parties were situated in the vicinity of depots that collected other medical supplies. Ulster included, we have thus far identified 325 nodes active in Ireland at some point between 1916 and 1919 (see map, p. 33).

Moss collection and general supply depots were situated on the coast or on major transport routes (e.g. the Royal Canal and railway lines). At least sixteen centres fulfilled both functions. Dublin and Belfast were the most important harbours for the shipping of all war hospital supplies to the British Red Cross and allied organisations such as the Anglo-Belgian Committee of the Belgian Red Cross.

The women and children collecting moss locally were given a printed leaflet with detailed instructions on what moss to look out for, and how to clean it and dry it. Bandages themselves (sterilised upon request) were then produced in the central depot in Dublin. No moss that was collected was wasted. Three varieties of bandages were made according to its grade. The finest moss, which was thicker and most absorbent, was used to make surgical pads. The next grade, which was thinner and somewhat less absorbent, was used for dysentery pads. Lastly, the poorest grade, which was thin and hence the least absorbent, was used for limb pillows, stretcher cushions and the like.

The number of surgical moss dressings manufactured in Ireland increased from 1,300 in January 1916 to 11,444 in August 1916. Natalie N. Riegler has calculated that Irish women ‘made 58,957 simple dressings and 325 dysentery pads for eighty different hospitals in England, Ireland, France, Belgium, Egypt, and Greece’ between November 1915 and May 1916. Other hospitals and military barracks supplied were in Italy, Palestine and India. In 1917 there was a total Irish output of 323,136 wound dressings.

Above: Map of general war hospital supply depots (green), sphagnum moss depots (blue) and local work parties (red, activities not always specified) active between 1916 and 1919. Sixteen places (yellow) functioned both as sphagnum moss and general supply depots. (Pádraig MacCarron)

Intergenerational multiplier effect
The three copies of the annual reports of the Central Sphagnum Moss Depot held in the National Library of Ireland may well be the Depot’s own. The 1916 report was clearly used to compile the 1917 one, as several names were struck through and pencil notes in an unknown contemporary hand indicate that women removed from the list stopped working for the organisation by 1917, although new names were added. It is clear from this list that an intergenerational multiplier effect was at work. Many unmarried women (‘Miss’) collaborated with married relatives (‘Mrs’) of the same name. In Recess, for instance, a Mrs Willcox managed a collection party in 1916 and 1917. She was joined by ‘Miss K. Willcox’, who may have been her daughter or niece, in the second year.

The volunteers’ work was a necessary component in the vast supply chain infrastructure of the war effort and highly valued. One ‘letter of appreciation’ published in the third annual report reads:

‘The Medical Units of the 33rd Division wish to return your Organization most sincere thanks for box of Sphagnum Dressings received. These dressings are most useful, and in addition are the means of valuable saving in cotton wool, which is now very difficult to procure. We return hearty thanks for your kindness in sending them to the Division.’

The reports contain many other notes from commanding officers and hospital matrons, thanking the volunteers and praising the quality of the goods as well as the personal sacrifices of the ‘skilled workers’ who gave many hours of their time in making the supplies: ‘One much appreciates all the thought and care these must have cost those who made them’.

The supplies manufactured by the Irish War Hospital Supply Organisation were critical for the survival of wounded soldiers. Although the majority of voluntary wartime organisations were dissolved when soldiers were demobilised in early 1919, the work of the war hospital supply depots had given a lasting example of efficiency and reliability. The British government did not hesitate to revive them when Britain went to war with Germany again in September 1939.

Monika Barget, Pádraig MacCarron and Susan Schreibman are members of Letters 1916–1923, an on-line public engagement project that explores what life was like in Ireland at this time through the words of those who lived through it.

Read More
Sphagnum moss collection in Galway

C. Cullen, ‘War work on the home front: the Central Sphagnum Depot for Ireland at the Royal College of Science for Ireland, 1915–1919’, in D. Durnin & I. Miller (eds), Medicine, health and Irish experiences of conflict, 1914–45 (Manchester, 2017).
Irish War Hospital Supply Organisation, Third annual report of the Sphagnum Department of the Irish War Hospital Supply Organisation (Dublin, 1919).
E. Reilly, ‘Women and voluntary war work’, in A. Gregory & S. Paseta (eds), Ireland and the Great War: ‘a war to unite us all’? (Manchester, 2002).


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