Edward Blacksell, or Blackie, as he was normally known, played an important role assisting Archibald McIndoe’s work with the Guinea Pig Club at the Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead. He helped with rebuilding the bodies and lives of the badly burned aircrew during the Second World War. An RAF physical training instructor he carried out invaluable work boosting the moral of the burns cases, bringing hope and improved recovery prospects to many fliers.
He was born on 17th June 1912 in Eccleshall Bierlow, West Riding of Yorkshire, and attended Reading University where he gained his degree, Batchelor of Arts. He married Joan, in March 1936 at Blackburn, Lancashire. He moved to Pilton, Barnstable, in Devon and subsequently had 3 sons and one daughter. He taught at the Senior Boys School at Barnstaple but with the outbreak of the second world war enlisted in the autumn of 1940 and joined the RAF on 16th December 1940. He passed out of Loughborough as a physical training instructor with top marks and after a period of general experience was posted to the Queen Victoria Hospital in February 1943.
"Blackie" at an annual Guinea Pig Club Dinner at East Grinstead.
Second World War at East Grinstead
The arrival of Edward Blacksell was a godsend to Archie McIndoe. Edward had extraordinary wisdom and great personal charm and he became firm friends with Archie. Originally posted as a P.E. Instructor it soon became apparent Blackies talents were needed as a welfare and rehabilitation officer.
Edward Blacksell, nicknamed “Blackie” became responsible for helping hundreds of badly burnt and disfigured aircrew recuperate after reconstructive surgery carried out my Archie McIndoe and his team of plastic surgeons.
Edward Blacksell’s important job was to look after the welfare of the men during what was often years of treatment. He had a great devotion to duty and carried out work of a highly creative nature in rebuilding morale. Blackie conceived, built up and maintained a system of rehabilitation and resettlement which is widely known of the East Grinstead Plan. With his first class experience he made a profound contribution and assisted numerous serviceman with his help and advice.
He was instrumental in making Ward 3 (Burns Ward) as homely as possible, installing barrels of beer and encouraged the men not to think of themselves as patients. As part of the fliers’ rehabilitation McIndoe was determined the burnt fliers should socialise the locals and get out and about. He asked the locals to invite the fliers to their homes. At first the men were reluctant to go and McIndoe couldn’t understand why. Blackie spotted the reason. The men were wary because if they needed to go to the toilet with their injured hands they had to ask someone to undo the buttons on their flies. Blackie having identified the problem came up with the answer – after reading an American magazine, - new-fangled zip fasteners. Archie wrote to his American friends and soon enough zip fasteners arrived to fit all the trousers in East Grinstead.
Some of the aircrew formed a club, called the Guinea Pig Club and Blackie was heavily involved with assisting all the Guinea Pigs. One battle he helped win was the ‘Battle of the Blues’. 7Men wounded on air operations were proud of their uniform and brevets. Being forced to wear shapeless hospital blues was more than they could stomach. Blackie became their champion and the hated hospital blues were consumed by flames - and as stated by Edward Bishop a leading Guinea Pig, it was a fitting end to a Guinea Pig victory.
"Blackie" with McIndoe and Guinea Pigs.
"Blackie" at a Guinea Pig Club dinner with Guinea Pigs, Bob Frazer and Tom Gleave with HRH Duke of Edinburgh, May 1971
As well as the welfare of the patients he was heavily involved with assisting the men to prepare for living as normally as possible. As part of their rehabilitation he set up a full scale workshop for the assembly of air craft parts. This was very successful, in fact too successful. The patients worked speedily and efficiently and regularly exceeded their quota. The unions at the home factory objected to the ‘unfair competition’ from East Grinstead and an arrangement was made whereby the members of the therapeutic unit were paid union rates and adopted union rhythm of production.
One of the major problems arising from the war and peculiar to this hospital was the rehabilitation of the long term plastic cases, long term because in order to complete their treatment many of them needed multiple operations which could extend over many years. Blackie served on the hospital Welfare Committee which liaised with the R.A.F. Benevolent Fund, The Red Cross, the Air Ministry Rehabilitation Dept. and the Guinea Pig Club in order to coordinate the granting of resettlement allowances and other matters. The Guinea Pig Club and Blackie took the lead in coordinating all these services and it was reported that in February 1947 that no less than 85 of these long term cases were being helped in various ways for periods of up to 2½ years.
Blackie also assisted McIndoe in persuading the authorities to defer discharge for the Services of these long term patients until their treatment was complete.
In December 1945 he retired from his post at the Queen Victoria Hospital, and his retirement was described by Mr McIndoe as a major disaster. McIndoe tried desperately to get him to stay but Blackie wished to return to his first love, teaching but agreed to carry on looking after the affairs of the Guinea Pig Club and accepted the honorary position of Resettlement Officer to the Club.
July 1986, "Blackie" being awarded an M.B.E. by the Duke of Edinburgh in recognition of his wartime work.
Edward Blacksell returned to his post as a Barnstaple schoolmaster on 17th December 1945, exactly five years after leaving to enlist for the duration of the war. Six years later, in September 1951 he became headmaster. 3The school blossomed under his guidance changing from a Boys Secondary Modern into a great Comprehensive. He was also active in the local arts scene and was co-founder of the Taw and Torridge Festival in 1951. He produced T.A. Elliot’s ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ as part of Barnstable’s celebration of the Festival of Britain in 1951. He served on the South West Arts Council and the B.B.C. West Advisory Arts Council. From 1954 onwards, he was involved with The English Stage Company which brought modern authors to the London Stage producing such plays as ‘Look Back in Anger’.
After the war Blackie’s loyalty to the Guinea Pig Club never wavered. He exchanged letters with McIndoe and remained Welfare Secretary and continued to be at the beck and call of any of their number who found the going hard. An example of this was Blackie being instrumental in arranging for Bill Foxley, one of the most seriously injured man of them all, to come to Barnstaple. Bill ran a tobacconist shop with his wife, who had been a nurse at East Grinstead and coped bravely with having very badly burnt face and hands.
He continued as Headmaster until his retirement in 1974, at the age of 62. He then worked part time for Marks and Spencer for 7 years, mostly advising on the company’s sponsorship of the arts and later providing a similar service for Sotheby’s.
He died aged 75 in October 1987, followed by his wife Joan less than a month later. Edward Blacksell lived in Pilton for almost fifty of his adult years, and is remembered by hundreds of his former pupils and many Piltonians as a colourful and caring man who contributed much to his school and other interests.
Blackies 44 years of service to the burnt airmen and the Guinea Pig Club was commemorated in the Guinea Pig Club magazine on his passing. Tom Gleave, a leading Guinea Pig wrote – ‘He was a complete friend. We are the richer for having known him. He had left an indelible mark on all our lives, and will be remembered as such with gratitude and affection by each and every one of us, and at no time more than at our Annual Dinners and when we sing the Guinea Pig Anthem of which he was the Author. He will be with us.’
"Blackie with his wife Joan.