Editor’s note: This is first article in a two-part series on the history of Endolite.
Queen Victoria was on the throne when Charles Albert Blatchford founded his artificial limb company in London.
The year was 1890. Since, Charles A. Blatchford & Sons Ltd. has gone global.
Headquartered in Basingstoke, southwest of London, the firm is one of the world’s largest designers and manufacturers of artificial limbs and prosthetic components. The company also operates prosthetic and orthotic facilities attached to hospitals throughout Great Britain.
In addition, Blatchford includes companies and joint ventures in the United States, France, Germany, India, Malaysia, Norway and Russia and employs more than 580 employees worldwide. The U.S. branch is Miamisburg, Ohio-based Endolite North America.
Blatchford started his firm 4 years after he wed Mary Campbell. The couple had two sons, Tom and W.A. — hence the company’s name.
The company’s beginnings hardly could have been humbler or its future been more uncertain. Ten years before the 20th century turned, the limb- and brace-making trade was fiercely competitive in London. Apparently, Blatchford was working alone in 1890, “but not until 1992 does his name appear in the Post Office London Directory, registered at Penton Place as an artificial limb maker,” wrote Gordon Phillips in Best Foot Forward: Charles A. Blatchford & Sons Ltd. (Artificial limb specialists) 1890-1990, a company history published in observance of Blatchford’s centennial.
“…There were never less than 13 and often as many as 19 firms dabbling in the manufacture of surgical appliances and artificial limbs, all struggling for a portion of what constituted a small business generally,” according to Phillips.
Blatchford started in a three-story building with a narrow entrance hall, steep stairs and several bedrooms.
“This suggests that both his sons had rooms of their own, or that a ‘tweeny’ (teenage) maid was kept, but most likely there would have been lodgers, whose remittances would have been welcome additions to the company purse,” Phillips wrote.
Blatchford probably began doing subcontract work for established limb- and brace-making firms, “not necessarily selling directly, but subdividing production processes into simple component parts,” Phillips explained. “He emerges as a typical example of the Victorian enterprise culture, one of thousands of small masters who took advantage of a large metropolitan market and pool of useful labor to pioneer their own revolution in production, using very little capital but a lot of human ingenuity and toil, for the operation of inexpensive hand-driven machinery.”
By 1895, Blatchford could “describe himself with some conviction as an ‘artificial leg, arm, hose and crutch manufacturer to the trade,” with a satellite office close by.
In 1906, the firm’s headquarters shifted to Clapham Road. Publicity was a must, Phillips wrote, and a year after the move, Blatchford was prompted “to take the unprecedented step of having a whole-page advertisement in the London County Suburbs Directory.” The ad bragged that Blatchford & Sons had earned “the ‘highest award given in this country for artificial limbs,’” but such a boast was “diffident by comparison with other firms, most of which Chas., as a ‘maker of surgical appliances,’ was to outlast.”
In his catalogues Blatchford proclaimed “the ‘self satisfaction of supplying a limb superior to our competitors,” according to Phillips. The booklets contained no fewer than 200 line drawings, which suggested Blatchford “was prepared to tackle anything and everything by way of modifications, adjustments and improvements,” but few claims were “made as yet for originality of design.”
War leads to expansion
Though the family firm opened a branch in Cardiff, the Welsh capital, it remained a relatively small operation until World War I began in 1914. The global conflict turned Blatchford into a major designer and supplier of artificial arms and legs to grievously wounded British veterans.
The largest and bloodiest conflict in history to date, the “Great War”, created an enormous demand for artificial limbs.
“It was not until the war that special amputee centres were established where surgical and prosthetic care could be given to the wounded,” Phillips wrote [sic]. “In these centres surgeon and limb maker met at the ‘bedside’ of the patient, prior to the amputation, to discuss optimum sites and the post-operative management of the patient [sic].
“No one wishes to profit from pain, but it can be readily appreciated that as the first crescendo of casualties reached British shores, horizons opened for anyone prepared to capitalise upon a situation which, as it unfolded, grew worse,” Phillips wrote [sic]. “Nothing in history had conditioned the nation for the stream of shattered men, and it is almost impossible, looking back now, to understand how deep the shock of war was to go.”
In 1915, the war on the Western Front in France and Belgium settled into deadly stalemate as the British and their French allies and the German enemy dug an almost continual line of trenches, bristling with barbed wire and machine gun nests, that stretched 400 miles from the Belgian coast on the North Sea through France to the border of neutral Switzerland. In between was the dreaded “no-man’s land.” Tens of thousands of men died or were horribly maimed in savage fighting, notably at the Marne in 1915 and at Verdun and the Somme in 1916, and later battles. Verdun and the Somme came to symbolize the horror and futility of World War I.
Essential to the war effort
The first limbless British “Tommies” who returned from the Western Front had no choice but to go home to family or friends and wait for their prostheses to arrive by train or in the mail. “In the meantime [they had to] manage as best as they could,” Phillips wrote. “Humanity dictated that this haphazard process should not be allowed to last.”
Blatchford braced itself for the flood of amputees in dire need of artificial limbs. The company had a competent, experienced staff led by Charles, Tom and W.A. The sons were of military age but exempt from service because their jobs were considered essential to the national war effort, Phillips wrote.
Blatchford and other limb makers teamed up with surgeons at Queen Mary’s Hospital, Roehampton. Named for King George V’s consort, the hospital was founded in 1915 for treating wounded soldiers and sailors, primarily amputees. It soon became Britain’s center for limb fitting and rehabilitating amputees, though similar hospitals opened in Cardiff, Dublin and Edinburgh. Today, Roehampton hospital is part of the British National Health Service.
Regular refitting needed
Because company records were lost, it is unknown how many legless veterans Blatchford & Sons provided with artificial arms and legs.
“Of these, a large proportion had to return for re-fitting within 6 months or a year, not because the limbs were defective or fitted prematurely, but because the stump altered both naturally [and/or] as a result of pressure from the socket,” Phillips wrote.
Legs made by Blatchford and other firms were supposed to last about 7 years, with their recipients coming back for a re-fit within 8 months.
“The longest an arm had been in use was 1 year, and many of the men destined to come back to Roehampton [for a refit] within the normal 6 months were those who used them for extraordinarily hard work,” the author added.
Blatchford, of course, still made artificial limbs for civilians who lost arms or legs to disease or accidents. Although they had to arrange payment for their prostheses, the British government guaranteed a free “full artificial leg” to every soldier or sailor who lost a limb to injury or disease while on active duty, Phillips wrote.
The Admiralty, War Office and Greenwich Hospital supplied the limbs at state expense, up to a price of approximately 15 pounds sterling. If the cost of a limb was more than the government allowance, a case for a subsidy or partial payment could be made, according to the author.
Because of the great demand for limbs, early war patients received only one arm or leg. As a result of pressure from Roehampton officials and doctors and sympathetic members of parliament, the government started funding spare limbs.
“The value of the provisional limb lay in its acting as a kind of ‘slipper,’ and as a reserve in case of accident to the mechanical one.”
Besides free legs, amputee officers got a wound pension of 100 pounds a year, from which they were expected to pay leg repair and renewal expenses, Phillips wrote.
Lacking company records to go by, Phillips speculated that Blatchford’s home office, plus the Cardiff branch, made 65,000 pounds supplying artificial limbs and components to the government in World War I. The sum would be approximately 1.6 million pounds [about $2.5 million], today. Yet “taking all other factors into consideration, a figure double that might be nearer the mark,” Phillips wrote, adding that Blatchford applied for at least five patents in 1916 and six in 1917. The firm, too, received honors for its innovations in prosthetics.
Though the Blatchford Leg made the company’s reputation, the Blatchford Arm earned the firm high praise, as well. A July 26, 1916, letter from the major general in charge of the Chelsea Royal Hospital, also in London, to the secretary of the War Office declared, “the majority of artificial arms have been supplied by Mr. C.A. Blatchford, an English maker, who gave up the supply of legs expressly to enable him to cope with the supply of arms.” Blatchford ended up turning out nearly 20 times as many artificial arms as legs, Phillips wrote.
Phillips G. Best Foot Forward: Charles A. Blatchford & Sons Ltd. (Artificial limb specialists) 1890-1990. Cambridge, Mass.: Granta Editions, 1990.