Private Percy Meek – Shell Shock at Seale-Hayne
7 September 2018
‘In his dreams he saw the ghosts of Germans he has bayoneted come to take revenge on him and he heard them fire at him. He believed he was still in the trenches which were being heavily shelled; his pupils were widely dilated and he sweated profusely. He was still unable to speak… all four limbs were now completely paralysed.’
Dr Arthur Hurst, 1918.
Private Percy Meek became one of the most well-known patients of Dr Arthur Hurst’s neurological hospital at Seale-Hayne Agricultural College. His was one of the most extreme cases of ‘hysterical paralysis’ from shell-shock.
Percy’s story really begins during the winter of 1916 when his trench came under a heavy barrage of German mortars. At some time during the attack, Percy cracked and had to be physically restrained from attacking the enemy position himself. He became dazed and unresponsive. In the weeks that followed, Percy was shipped back to Netley Hospital in Hampshire. Initially suffering from convulsive tremors and hallucinations, Percy gradually deteriorated into complete hysterical paraplegia, his mind regressed to that of a ‘year-old child’.
‘It was then found that [Percy] had total loss of memory: he had no idea who or what he was, he did not realise that his anaesthetic legs belonged to him, and he had no knowledge of the meaning of words.’ (Hurst, 1918)
Luckily for Percy, the treatment of shell shock was about to receive a tremendous boost with the relocation of patients to the newly-acquired Seale-Hayne hospital near Newton Abbot. With its large, airy rooms and quiet, rural location, leading neurologist Major Arthur Hurst believed it to be ideal for the treatment of shell shocked men, initially funding the relocation from his own pocket.
Major Hurst, along with ten fellow doctors and numerous nurses and assistants worked to create a positive environment with a matter-of-fact approach to treatment. On arrival, patients were assured that they would be completely cured within a short time; Dr Hurst claimed that his methods could have a thoroughly incapacitated man walking around within the hour. He even invited the cameras of Pathé news to bear witness to this ground-breaking work.
Incredibly, the grainy footage shows Percy Meek, bounding up and down the front steps. Now something of a celebrity patient due to his remarkable recovery, Percy had slowly improved in speech and movement since November of 1917, almost two years since the onset of his symptoms. One day at Netley Hospital he ‘felt something snap in his head’ and soon after began to speak confidently and recover more and more of his memory. Within a fortnight of transferring to Seale-Hayne, he could move both of his arms. By the end of May, he could stand unassisted and was walking by the 2nd June. At the end of the month, he was appointed head of the basket-weaving workshop where he can be seen in the Pathé film, calmly overseeing the other patients.
Percy soon returned home to Snettisham and the family business; he married, had two children and died in 1968 aged 75.
Hurst, A., 1918. Pte. Percy Meek, aged 23, basket maker, from Snettisham. [typed sheets] Fortescue of Castle Hill. 1262M/0/O/LD/113/68. Exeter: Devon Heritage Centre.
Meek, R., 1918. Meek Letters: Letter to Major Hurst. [digital image] Seale-Hayne during the First World War. DRP/42. Exeter: Devon Heritage Centre.
Bartlett, R., 2014. Case Study: The remarkable recovery of Private Percy Meek. [digital copy] Seale-Hayne during the First World War. DRP/42. Exeter: Devon Heritage Centre.
Image still from: War Neuroses Version B Reel 1 (1917-1918). 1918. [online]. England: British Pathé. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrRU37beCJ4 [Accessed on: 26th October 2017]
Drewery, D., (n.d.) S-H Pte Meek Later Life (3) [digital image] Seale-Hayne during the First World War. DRP/42. Exeter: Devon Heritage Centre.