Main content

Wooden Legs and Wheelchairs

Episode 7 of 10

Peter White's close encounter with an aristocratic wooden leg. And who got access to 19th-century new technology? From June 2013.

Peter White has a close encounter with a huge wooden leg, and asks who got access to new technology in the 19th century.

Strangely, wooden legs were thought to be sexy in the 19th century. During the 22 years of war with France, tens of thousands of British soldiers and sailors gave their lives for their country. Surviving, with a missing limb, became tangible proof of valour - and virility.

However, the reality of life with a wooden leg was anything but romantic. Peter White discovers an extraordinary account written by a 19th century soldier, Thomas Jackson, who lost his leg in battle:

"Military surgeons are not very nice about hurting one. What with the tearing off of the bandages, and the opening of the wound afresh, and the tying of the ligaments of the arteries, I fear in my feeble strength I must have sunk under the excruciating pain. When fitted on, my wooden leg was strapped by the knee. I looked down with the same kind of satisfaction which a dog does when he gets a tin kettle tied to his tail."

But William Jackson was one of the lucky ones. As a military man, he had access to the latest technology. Disabled women were not so lucky - and could be confined to the house, unable to leave their bedroom. Two case studies - one soldier, one genteel woman in Bath - reveal how expectations of mobility were limited by gender. And how crucial it was to have individual ambition.

With historians Julie Anderson, Caroline Nielsen, and Amanda Vickery.

Producer: Elizabeth Burke
Academic adviser: David Turner of Swansea University
A Loftus production for BBC Radio 4.

Available now

15 minutes

Clip

Broadcasts

Podcast