Nellie joined us for a week’s work experience during a school break, and wrote the following about one of the projects she enjoyed at the RCOG.
Having the opportunity to gain work experience last week working as an assistant archivist at the RCOG, I was lucky enough to be able to go down to the College’s museum store. Full of treasure, one object really caught my eye. I came across an original gas mask designed for infants in World War II, kindly donated by Paul Wood, head of Midwifery at Kettering Hospital in 2012. Having never thought about what a gas mask for babies would have looked like or how it would have functioned, I was intrigued to find out more.
In 1934, the British Government asked scientists to design a respirator which could be mass produced for a unit cost of two shillings, equal to 10p. By September 1939, 38 million gas masks had been issued to every household in the country. Poisonous gas had been used during World War I and many expected that it would be used again. However, there were not any gas masks available for babies. Since young children’s lungs are not developed enough to draw air through a standard respirator, they needed a special device for protection. It is a widely held that a respirator for infants took three years to develop and was not ready to be used until 1940.
Gas masks, such as this one held in the College’s museum store, was designed for children up to two years old. Parents placed their infant inside the mask so that the head, shoulders and arms were inside the steel helmet and the baby could see through the large window. The mask would close around the waist with a drawstring and the canvas would be wrapped around the baby’s body with the straps fastened in between their legs and their legs hanging free below. The canvas has a rubber coating which would prevent gas from seeping through the material, and the straps would be tied securely so that the mask was airtight. The metal frame (with the engraving ‘PSC 1939’) would offer back support for the infant, allowing the child to be able to sit up. There is an asbestos filter on the side of the mask which would have filtered out harmful gases. Attached to the asbestos filter is a rubber tube with a handle which was hand operated by an adult who pushed the tube back and forth to pump fresh air into the mask.
Health Visitors and Child Welfare Centres gave parents demonstrations on how to use the mask. It is likely that the pump did not push enough air into the mask as during demonstrations, there were reports that babies fell asleep and became unnaturally still inside the masks, suggesting that they came close to suffocating. Despite having instruction courses, few parents were content with encasing their child in an airtight mask. Older children were issued with ‘Mickey Mouse’ gas masks. The name and the bright colours of the mask, resembling very little the Disney character, was an attempt by the government to make the gas masks seem less terrifying. As well as the infant gas mask, a gas-proof pram was invented by a resident of Hextable in Kent. The pram has an air-tight lid with a window and a gas mask filter. A rubber bulb is squeezed at intervals which would replace the stale air with fresh air drawn in through the filter.
People were told to carry their gas masks with them at all times and were fined if they were caught without them. However, in the first week of World War II, it has been said that no more than three-quarters of people seen in the streets of London were obeying this rule and carrying their gas masks . The effectiveness of the government’s preparations was never actually tested as luckily, poisonous gas was never used against Britain in World War II.