On Dover’s Seafront is a seat dedicated to Dr. Gertrude Toland, there is also a plaque to her memory at Buckland Hospital. These are both in commemoration of her tireless work during the evacuation of Dunkirk, which although generally known was not acknowledged until these tokens of appreciation were erected.
Born in Edinburgh on 27 November 1901, Gertrude Morgan was educated at Edinburgh Ladies College, Newnham College – Cambridge and St. Mary’s Hospital – Paddington. She was the first woman ever to gain the qualification as a medical doctor from Cambridge University and came to Dover in 1932. This was following her marriage to fellow doctor Patrick Toland at Eastry, East Kent.
A year later Dr. Toland, as she was always referred to, was appointed honorary surgeon at Dover’s hospital, which was at that time, the Royal Victoria in the High Street. At the outbreak of World War II (1939-1945) in 1939, it was felt that the Royal Victoria was vulnerable and the patients were moved to Waldershare, northeast of Dover. The fate of Buckland workhouse was in the balance so it was decided to turn it into a Casualty Hospital. It remained so until 1943 when it became the County Hospital.
As a Casualty Hospital, a massive under ground concrete bunker was created in the grounds under what eventually became the car park. Within it was an operating theatre with two operating tables, so that procedures could be carried out regardless of might be going on outside. The main hospital was equipped with 110 beds that could be moved to the underground bunker if needs necessitated.
Initially very few patients were admitted then in spring 1940 there was an outbreak of influenza and 800 army personnel being given treatment. A few weeks later, on 26 May 1940, things changed dramatically. The harbour was crammed with ships as men were being evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk. It was at this time that Buckland Casualty Hospital received its worst cases as many of the men were suffering from Gas Gangrene.
The two operating tables in the underground bunker were brought into action and Dr Toland operated on one. Teams of doctors and nurses from further a field, including Guys Hospital, London, joined her and they all worked continuously day and night. In all approximately 350 wounded men were dealt with in the nine days of the evacuation and 300 survived. Most of those who died were buried in St James Cemetery on Copt Hill.
In July that year, at the start of the Battle of Britain, 122 naval casualties were dealt with following a dive-bomb attack on the harbour. In August the first cross-channel shells fell on the town bringing civilian casualties to the hospital. Then on the 19th, a bomb was dropped on an Army-v-Navy football match on Northfall Meadow, behind the Castle, killing all the players and some of the spectators. Those who survived kept the hospital theatres busy for over twenty-four hours.
Throughout the next three years, Dr Toland and her colleagues coped with numerous casualties both at Buckland and at the Royal Victoria Hospital, where surgeries were held. Accounts of how problems were dealt with were written up in at least two medical books and her own publications that included ‘War Surgery in Dover England’ published in the American Medical Women’s Journal.
In this, she wrote of her experiences during the Dunkirk evacuation, ‘Some having survived the ordeal, came in still wearing their bloody and dirty field dressings … Those who died were laid out in sacks, together with those who were brought in dead, and taken to the hospital chapel to await burial. The operating theatre had two operating tables … Every effort was made to save limbs, but unfortunately many had to be amputated.’
Following the war, in 1948, Dr Toland was appointed Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist at Buckland Hospital, as well as continuing in general practice at Clyde House, in Maison Dieu Road. She was also active in local politics, serving as a Conservative town councillor between 1960-1963 and was appointed deputy Mayor in her last year of office. Dr Toland also served as governor to a number of secondary schools and was active in youth services. She was awarded the Serving Sister of the Order of St John of Jerusalem and was the president of Dover’s Business and Professional Women’s Club.
The Tolands retired in 1968 and went to live in Kingsdown, to the east of Dover. However, when Dr Gertrude Toland died in May 1985 he had not received any official recognition, in the town, for her wartime work.
In 1989, Councillor Arthur Husk and Mary Hutchinson launched a fund to provide the Seat, mentioned at the beginning, in her memory on the Seafront for the 50th anniversary of Dunkirk. This was unveiled by the then Mayor, Cllr. Bill Newman, on 27 May 1990. The dedication reads, ‘… to Dr Gertrude Toland in recognition of her outstanding medical services rendered to the people of Dover, especially during the evacuation of Dunkirk when she operated day and night at Buckland Hospital on the many casualties rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk.’
At the same time, the Dover Rotary Club thought it would be appropriate to have a lasting memorial in the place where Dr Toland operated. In February 1991 Fr. Peter Sherred, then President of the Rotary Club, unveiled a plaque in her memory outside what was then the operating theatre at Buckland Hospital. Dr Toland’s son Gordon was in attendance and the plaque was blessed by Canon Allan Simper.
As noted above, the area above the massive underground theatre at the wartime Casualty Hospital eventually became Buckland Hospital’s main car park. When Buckland Hospital cease to exist as an in-patient facility, what had been the main hospital closed. A new Community Hospital – without inpatient beds, operating theatres etc. – was built on the site of the car park and the East Kent Hospitals University National Health Service Foundation Trust who own the site, feigned surprise when the wartime complex was rediscovered!
- First Published:
- Dover Mercury 12 November 2009