Friday, 18 February 2011

A hero of Budleigh's heritage

George Murray Levick in his Surgeon Commander's uniform.
Photo courtesy of the National Museum of the Royal Navy

It's almost a year ago that Fairlynch Museum appealed for memories and documents relating to former Budleigh Salterton resident Surgeon Commander George Murray Levick, as I reported at

Since then I've found myself heavily involved in both the Museum's work as its press officer and in the story of Commander Levick's life. Not that I have any real military connections, or even deep knowledge of Antarctica which this naval doctor set out in 1910 to explore along with the unlucky Captain Robert Falcon Scott.

Maybe I'm intrigued by the Commander's lifelong desire to explore hostile environments, though it's been a long time since my own exploration of unknown parts as a carefree hitchhiker in the 1960s.

Raystede Centre for Animal Welfare hosts a visit organised by Graheme Kirker, Rotary Club of Lewes, of pupils from Chailey Heritage School. Jason Caulfield the Animal Care Manager, took the teenagers on a tour of the site to meet the many animals staying at Raystede.
Photo credit:

Or perhaps it's being diagnosed as a teenager with a crippling spinal illness that's made me take an interest in the pioneering work that he did from the 1920s onwards at the Chailey Heritage School in East Sussex. Click on to see the wonderful work that they do today to help children.

Chailey Heritage School reception.
Image credit

The Hermitage Craft School for Crippled Children in East Sussex had been founded by a remarkable woman. Grace Kimmins was born in Lewes, Sussex, in 1870. At the age of 24 she co-founded a charity for disabled children known as The Guild of the Poor Brave Things.

Within nine years the Guild had grown into a school for children born "crippled" (as it was termed then) as a result of poverty-related diseases and deformities. It had small beginnings. Seven boys from the Guild were brought down from London and housed in an old warehouse and industrial buildings in the Sussex village of Chailey.

By 1904 the Hermitage Craft School for Crippled Children was recognised by the education authorities. Thanks to the vision and the drive of its founder, and sustained by an energetic fund-raising campaign, the School grew at a remarkable speed.

Dame Grace, as she became, specified its aims. "It was to be, not a school for normal children, but a school for the maimed; not a school for the well-nourished, healthy cripple, but a school for the cripple from the poorest homes."

Many children at Chailey Heritage School in the early days had been crippled by diseases like polio.
Photo credit: Philip Howard

Under the direction of the world-famous orthopaedic surgeon Sir Robert Jones (1857-1953) life for the children of the Chailey Heritage School, as it is known today, was characterised by a rather spartan existence. As chairman and founder of the Heritage's medical board Sir Robert believed that fresh air and an outdoor life were essential to the well-being of the children.

Not surprisingly, with his Antarctic experience and his military background, Murray Levick shared such a view. He became the School's London-based Medical Director in 1923, a post which he held until 1950.

To the efficacy of fresh air he added that of sunlight. When natural light was insufficient, heliotherapy or the use of artificial sunlight took its place. A few years later he published a report charting the success of light, air and diet in treating rickets, malnutrition and polio.

The children slept outside (including babies from a few weeks old), but there was a supply of hot water bottles to hand, and the bed covers were made from the same material used by Scott's Antarctic expedition on which Levick had served.

In 1926 the Town Crier magazine reported that to listen to the persuasive Murray Levick "is to gain an entirely new conception of medicine, for he asserts emphatically, and with all the confidence of the man of science, that almost the entire prevention of disease might be brought about by the proper application of light.

"Recent researches in connection with the chemical action of light upon the skin have revealed what civilised man misses by covering himself with unsuitable clothing. And here women, in their recent advance towards greater freedom in their clothes, with their short skirts and low necks, have shown far greater wisdom than men."

By 1936 the Chailey Heritage School had both a boys' school and a girls' school three miles away, both equipped with operating theatres and medical facilities where education and treatment could be practised together.

Chailey Heritage School was described as 'Outstanding' in its latest Ofsted report.
Having fun: an essential part of therapy for disabled children.
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The School was taken over by the NHS in 1948. Today it operates with a 220-strong staff specialised in the work of "educating and caring for young people with complex disabilities." It was rated as 'outstanding' in its most recent Ofsted report. Like BSES Expeditions which he founded to encourage young explorers, it is an institution with which Murray Levick today would be proud to have been associated as he was, for 27 years.

Survival! Fairlynch Museum's exhibition to honour Surgeon Commander Levick, runs from Sunday 10 April until October 2011.

[With acknowledgement to David Arscott's book Chailey Heritage: A hundred years, SB Publications, 2003. Some of the above photos are reproduced with acknowledgement to http://www.flikr/ under the Creative Commons agreement]

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