Friday, June 12, 2020

Surgeon George James Guthrie at the Berry Head Forts, Spring 1801

Featured in the Berry Head Forts display at Brixham Heritage Museum, there is a short account of surgeon George James Guthrie and his role at the battle of Albuera, the “bloodiest battle” of the Peninsular War (1808 – 1814). This article presents a more detailed examination of his connection with the Berry Head Forts, and also briefly reviews his later accomplishments during the Peninsular War and afterwards, in civilian life.

Button illustrated above was discovered by the museum's Field Research team during the 2005 Berry Head excavations. This may have been from the uniform of an army medical officer based at the garrison hospital, accidentally lost during a routine or emergency call-out to attend to a soldier in the southern fort(fort1). 

Surgeon George James Guthrie at the battle of Albuera May 16th 1811 [Reconstruction drawing by Rose Coulton]

Berry Head House 1906, built as the garrison hospital, in 1809. [vintage postcard; collections Kate and Phillip Armitage]

Who was George James Guthrie?

George James Guthrie (1785 – 1856) is regarded by modern medical professionals and historians as “the greatest British surgeon of the Peninsular War”, who revolutionised surgical procedures on the battlefield and in military field hospitals and, later, in his civilian career, became renowned as “a master of ophthalmic and general surgery”. 1

Entry to the army medical services – and arrival at Berry Head 1801

Guthrie began his military career, joining the 29th (later Worcestershire) Regiment of Foot as the newly appointed assistant surgeon, when the headquarters staff and five companies of this regiment were stationed at Berry Head, in May 1801, under the command of Lt. Col. Frederick Montagu. 2 Other companies of the 29th were sent at this time to Totnes and Dartmouth and detachments to Exeter and Paignton. The regiment’s presence in Devon was in response to the rioting and civil unrest then breaking out throughout the west country, ignited by escalating grain prices (following poor harvests in 1799 and 1800), high taxation and low wages.3

Remarkably, Guthrie was just 16 years of age when he took up his new position, having previously (June 1800) gained some experience of working as a surgeon’s mate at the York Hospital, Chelsea, and then demonstrating his surgical competence by passing the qualifying membership examination set by the Royal College of Surgeons, London. Guthrie’s age on his first military appointment would not have been considered unusual, however. As discussed by Howard. 4 for the ambitious young men at that period, age was no bar to entry to the army medical profession. A slightly older contemporary of Guthrie’s, James McGrigor, in 1793, first purchased his commission in the 88th Foot (Connaught Rangers) when 22 years old. McGrigor went on to become Director General of the British Army Medical Department.

“Sharp winds” on Berry Head, Spring 1801

What was facing young Guthrie on the windswept headland occupied by the two Berry Head forts 5 that Spring?

It would have been immediately apparent to him on arriving, that even the familiar, basic medical facilities he had previously had access to in the York Hospital in London were lacking; there was not a purpose-built garrison hospital until 1809, eight years after Guthrie had left with his regiment for service overseas. He would have therefore had to examine and treat sick or injured soldiers in their barracks, an entirely unsatisfactory location for any medical practitioner, owing to the often, deplorable conditions to be found in army barracks at that period.

Like many other semi-permanent barracks hurriedly erected elsewhere in Britain in response to the French invasion threat, those at Berry Head consisted of single-storey, prefabricated wooden hutments. These hutments were found to be far from ideal, as is evident from complaints by Lt. Col. Bastard, who commanded the 1st Devon Militia garrisoned at Berry Head October 1798 6 – who reported that the barracks were in need of whitewashing, the windows of barrack no. 1 leaked, the chimney of no. 3 smoked, and the guttering (drainage) unhealthy and offensive. A further unfavourable observation of the Berry Head barracks comes from Ensign Thornton William Keep of the 28th Regiment (who was there in 1811), which he described as “mean diminutive wooden sheds…composed of thin planks”. 7  

Crowded together in each of the five barracks at Berry Head (in 1801) would be upwards of 100 soldiers, together with wives and children of the married men. 8 Here the occupants ate, slept and spent much of their off-duty hours confined in an environment with very limited personal space or privacy. Lack of inside washing and toilet facilities further rendered such barracks insanitary. An indication of the deplorable state of such quarters is evident from a report by the Army Medical Board in Dublin, in 1799, which declared “the filth and unventilated state of a barrack room can only be conceived by those who have frequently visited such apartments before cleansing day”. Typhus and other contagious diseases often ran rife through such overcrowded barracks, resulting in high frequencies of death. Newly arrived militia recruits coming from isolated farming communities especially were prone to these, as they did not possess any degree of acquired natural immunity

compared to their contemporaries from the towns.  

There was, in many barracks, a high incidence of “diseases and complaints of the lung”, which Guthrie also encountered at Berry Head - as he reflects in his seminal work A Treatise on Gun-Shot Wounds 1820”: 9

In the spring of 1801, the regiment to which I belonged was exposed to the sharp winds on the Berry Head, the southerly headland of Torbay, and many suffered from inflammation of the lungs, some strong, some weak persons, others old, others young, and of various constitutions. I treated them as I had been taught in London; almost all of those who were first attacked, young and old, died”.

Clearly, not an auspicious start to his military career, and the officers and men “began to feel uneasy” as to his qualifications and skills, as Guthrie himself admits. However, Guthrie was only following what was then the common medical practice of bloodletting (also termed venesection or phlebotomy), applied to treat many ailments and even major traumatic injuries (including severe battlefield wounds!), in order to remove impurities from the blood. 10 Guthrie, rather than abandoning completely the procedure, modified the bleeding regime for another patient with “pleural inflammation”, drawing a smaller quantity of blood and only until “an obvious effect was produced, and his breathing became free, and the pain was nearly or entirely removed”. Guthrie recorded, “The man rapidly recovered; so did others to my satisfaction”. 

Encouraged by this apparently evident success at Berry Head, Guthrie, throughout the early stages of the Peninsular campaigns, continued to carry out the practice of bloodletting when treating battlefield casualties. Modern medical commentators suggest that, in patients with incipient heart failure associated with pneumonia (as at Berry Head, in some of the soldiers treated by Guthrie), bleeding may indeed have proved beneficial. However, while Guthrie went on to revolutionise traumatic battlefield surgery and was rightly acclaimed for this, he was certainly in error to continue this practice of bloodletting more generally - it was not the “universal panacea” he believed. 11   In Guthrie’s defence, it should be noted he was not alone among the British army surgeons, who, throughout the war, continued also this mis-guided, potentially fatal practice.  It is significant that, by 1827 - 1828, when working as surgeon at the Royal Westminster Ophthalmic Hospital (see below) Guthrie was no longer following the practice of bloodletting carried out in cases of inflammation of the eye and, instead, had formulated specific ointments for applying directly to the eyes of those affected, with a series of notable successes, as reported in the contemporary medical journals. 12

 Military career after Berry Head 13

Halifax, Nova Scotia 1802 – 1807

In early June 1801, the headquarters staff and eight companies of the 29th Regiment marched to barracks in Plymouth, leaving three companies on detachment at Berry Head. It is not apparent, in the available records, whether Guthrie remained with the detachments at Berry Head, or went with the headquarters and eight companies to Plymouth.   However, it is recorded, the entire regiment was garrisoned in Plymouth by October of that year. Then, on 24th June 1802, the regiment embarked on transports at Stonehouse, bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia, which would be the regiment’s home base for the next five years. Whilst in Canada, in 1806, Guthrie (aged 21) married Margaret Gordon (aged 27), daughter of Walter Patterson, The Lieutenant-Governor of Prince Edward Island.

The regiment departed Halifax in June 1807 bound for England, where they stayed in various barracks until embarking on transports at Falmouth on 25th February 1808, sailing to Spain to join the fighting in the Peninsula.

Surgery in the Peninsula 1808 – 1814

Two episodes serve to illustrate Guthrie’s organisational abilities, surgical skills and fortitude in dealing with battlefield casualties during the hard-fought campaigns of the Peninsular War.

During two days of the Talavera campaign, 27th and 28th July 1809, the 29th Regiment had 36 rank and file killed, and of the wounded, 1 captain, 1 lieutenant and 140 rank and file. Following the fighting, the small Spanish town of Talavera became crowded with the great numbers of wounded. It was noted 14 that the regiment’s surgeon, Guthrie, “through his action and energy” was, however “soon able to lodge them” and attend to their wounds. By ensuring wounded from his own regiment were collected and treated in a single building in town, serving as a temporary hospital, their care was far better than that experienced by others, who had been scattered indiscriminately in the general treatment locations. 15

At Albuera (May 16th 1811), the scene of the bloodiest and for several British regiments, arguably the most costly-won battle of the Peninsular War, 16 Guthrie (now promoted to Staff Surgeon) was the most senior surgeon present and found himself with overall responsibility for 3,000 wounded, with only four wagons for their removal to the village of Valverde, the nearest shelter, seven miles away. For three weeks, Guthrie and the regimental surgeons worked unceasingly on the wounded, with only limited surgical equipment available.  

In 1812, Guthrie was appointed Deputy-Inspector of army hospitals, in charge of seven divisions of cavalry and infantry, and a large hospital at Madrid.

Return to civilian life and Waterloo contribution 1814 - 1815

Guthrie left the military and returned to England in 1814 and had to rely on numerous former friends made during his years in the army for financial support. 17 Guthrie was in London at the time of Waterloo (Sunday June 18th 1815) and played no role at the battle, but hastened to Brussels immediately in the aftermath, in order to assist in tending to the wounded, performing what was at the time regarded as his most remarkable feat of surgery. A severely wounded French infantryman, Franรงois de Gray, captured during the battle, had been struck by a small cannon shot that shattered the head of his right femur. Guthrie successfully performed the highly dangerous procedure of removing the affected limb at the hip joint, and the man survived where others, in which this form of surgery had previously been attempted by fellow surgeons, had perished. 18 

Highlights of his post-war civilian career 1816 – 1856

In 1816, Guthrie founded the Westminster Ophthalmic Hospital, situated In the Strand, London. In 1823, was elected assistant surgeon at the hospital, and subsequently, appointed as full surgeon in 1827. In the same year, he was elected to the Royal Society. He was three times President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England (in 1833, 1841 and 1854).  

Guthrie died on his birthday in 1856.


 It is interesting that George Guthrie took the trouble to include a mention of his time at Berry Head in what became one of his major published works on surgery: A Treatise on Gun-Shot Wounds, on Injuries of Nerves, And on Wounds of the Extremities (1820). This seems to indicate that his experience as a young assistant army surgeon with the 29th (Worcestershire) regiment, garrisoned at Berry Head in the Spring of 1801, had left a lasting memory and influence on his later career.

Sources and Notes to the article

1 – Yearsley (1892: 9); Howell (1910: 40); Watts (1961: 22); Howard (2008: 156); Hurt (2008: 78); Crumplin (2010).

2 - Guthrie (1820: 38); Everard (1891: 250 – 251).

3 - In April 1801, a riotous crowd from Brixham protesting against high grain prices had been led by three officers of the Brixham Quay volunteers: Capt. George Sanders (a butcher), Lt. Peter Pridham (who kept a shop) and Collier (a schoolmaster) and also included all the men of the local Sea Fencibles (Gee 2003: 241).

4 - Howard (2008: 27).

5 – In 1794, a year after the French Republic declared war with England, the Ordnance Board established a coastal defensive gun battery at the tip of the headland at Berry Head, overlooking the important Royal Naval anchorage in Torbay. Protection of the gun battery from overland attack was provided by a permanent main fortification designated as Fort 3. Two smaller redoubts (Forts 1 and 2) were planned but only Fort 1 was built. Wooden hutments within the forts (four in Fort 3 and one in Fort 1) provided accommodation for the garrison of infantry soldiers and artillerymen. Pye (1989); Lawrance (2019).

Tiverton merchant Martin Dunsford provides an eyewitness account of the Berry Head fortifications and garrison at Berry Head c.1798 or 1799? (Dunsford 1800: 123). At Berry Head “was a battery of twelve pieces of cannon, forty-two pounders, each sixty-five hundredweight, and two or three smaller batteries, at several different places, on the descent towards Brixham, with the guns pointed in different directions towards the bay. Within the fortifications (earthen rampart) on the summit of the hill, are five barracks for about five hundred men. The Berkshire Militia were in them at this time and had a fine band of musicians”.

6 – Letter from Lt. Col. Bastard to the Board of Ordnance, dated October 8th 1798. Evans (1986: 17); Pye (1989: 7).

7 – Fletcher (ed.) (1997). Ensign Keep in a letter to his mother, written at Berry Head Oct. 27th 1811.

8 – While the wives of enlisted soldiers had to suffer the inconveniences of barrack accommodation, officers’ wives generally preferred to stay in lodgings in Brixham.

9 – Guthrie (1820: 38 & 39).

10 – Howard (2008:173).

11 – see Watts (1961: 767); Howard (2008: 174).

12 – For example, ten such cases are detailed in Johnson (ed.) 1828: 569 -571.

13 – Based on various sources, including Everard (1891); Yearsley (1892); Howell (1910); Watts (1961); Howard (2008); Hurt (2008); Crumplin (2010).

14 – Everard (1891: 308)

15 – see Crumplin (2010: 44) who also discusses Guthrie’s pioneering and successful approach in addressing what Guthrie considered the unnecessary delay in the amputation of arms and legs in battlefield casualties (which often resulted in complications from sepsis and infection), in favour of immediate aggressive surgery (ibid: 47).

16 – Among these regiments – The Fusilier Brigade lost 1,050 men out of strength of 1,500 and the 57th lost 23 officers and 400 men out of a total of 570. Everard (1891: 307).

17 – Hurt (2008: 75).

18 – Hurt (2008: 66 – 68); Crumplin (2010: 146).


Guthrie sources:

Crumplin, M. 2010   Guthrie’s War. A Surgeon of the Peninsula & Waterloo. Barnsley:  Pen & Sword Books Ltd.

Guthrie, G. J. 1815 reptd.1820 A Treatise on Gun-Shot Wounds, on Injuries of Nerves, And on Wounds of the Extremities. London: Burgess and Hill, Medical Booksellers. Second Edition (1820).

Dr Howard, M. 2008 Wellington’s Doctors. The British Army Medical Services in the Napoleonic Wars. Brimscombe Port, Gloucestershire: The History Press Ltd.

Major Howell, H. A. L. 1910 George James Guthrie, F.R.S., F.R.C.S.  Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps Volume XIV No.6: 577 – 587. Downloaded from htt://military [accessed 03/05/2020]

Hurt, R. 2008 George Guthrie Soldier and Pioneer Surgeon. London: The Royal Society of Medicine Press.

Johnson, J. M. D. (editor) 1828   The Medico-Chirurgical Review and Journal of Practical Medicine. New Series. Volume Nine (Being vol. XIII of Analytical Series). New York: Republished by Richard and George S. Wood.

Downloaded from Google Books [accessed 25/05/2020]

Colonel Watts, J. C. 1961 George James Guthrie, Peninsular Surgeon. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine vol. 54 (9): 764 – 768. Downloaded from Sage Publications [accessed 28/05/2020].

Yearsley, P. M. 1892 George James Guthrie: A Biographical Sketch. London: Printed by Jas. Truscott & Sons. Paper read to the Guthrie Society on 9th June 1892. Wellcome Library. Downloaded from [accessed 25/05/2020].

Berry Head and Military sources:

Armitage, P. L. 2006   Excavations on Berry Head, 2005. Part 2: The “Old Redoubt” (Fort No. 1) Council for British Archaeology South-West Journal No.17, Summer A.D. 2006: 9 -13.

Dunsford, M. 1800 Miscellaneous Observations, In the Course of Two Tours, Through Several Parts of the West of England. Printed and Sold by E. Boyce, Fore-Street

Evans, D. 1986   The History of the Berry Head Fortifications. Report for the Bridge Agency {copy held by Brixham Heritage Museum].

Major Everard, H. 1891 History of Thos. Farrington’s Regiment subsequently Designated The 29th (Worcestershire) Foot 1694 to 1891. Worcester: Littlebury and Co., The Worcester Press.

Fletcher, I. (ed.) (1997) In The Service of the King. The Letters of William Thornton Keep, At Home, Walcheren, and in the Peninsula, 1808 – 1814. Staplehurst: Spellmount Ltd., pp. 71-72.

Gee, A. 2003 The British Volunteer Movement, 1794 – 1814. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lawrance, E. 2019 Defending Torbay. The Berry Head Fortifications. Brixham: Brixham Heritage Museum.

Pye, A. R.   (1989) Berry Head Fort, Brixham. An Archaeological Assessment. Exeter Museums Archaeology Field Unit Report No. 89.04.


My deep gratitude is expressed to Rose Coulton for producing the illustration of Guthrie at Albuera and sincere thanks are due to Cathy Craig for kindly reviewing and commenting on the draft. The illustrations of the Albuera scene and the Berry Head Hospital Staff button are the copyright of Brixham Heritage Museum. Any errors or omissions remain those of the author of the article.

Research & article by

Philip L. Armitage

31st May 2020

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