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Hospitals and Convalescent Homes

Historic England has started investigations to find out about the role of its property at Wrest Park as a hospital for wounded soldiers.

At the outbreak of war in 1914, due to the reorganisation of the Army Medical Service by Sir Arthur Keogh, the country was relatively well prepared to treat the wounded. However, the War Office had substantially underestimated the number of casualties.

Initially, it was predicted that only 50,000 hospital beds would be required and these could be accommodated in existing military hospitals and voluntary hospitals. But by the end of the year, 73,000 wounded men had been brought back to England, and it was clear that more beds would be urgently needed. A scramble for additional hospital accommodation ensued; owners of some country houses volunteered them as convalescent homes, while others were requisitioned.

Wrest Park, Luton, Bedfordshire
Wrest Park, Luton, Bedfordshire. The Library at Wrest Park transformed into Ward IV (DP087544) © Private Collection

One place pressed into action as a hospital was Wrest Park in Bedfordshire. Now under the care of English Heritage, this served as a base hospital receiving wounded men straight from the front by train. In all 1,600 men passed through the wards there, but the hospital was forced to close in September 1916 after the house was badly damaged by fire.

Women's Hospital, Royal Gunpowder Factory, Waltham Abbey, Essex
Women's Hospital, Royal Gunpowder Factory, Waltham Abbey, Essex. The hospital was purpose-built in the war to cater for women munitions employees - known then as Munitionettes. In January 1916, there were just 40 women. By March 1918, this number had grown to 3108, almost half the total labour force. (BB92/26039)

Further premises were also pressed into service as auxiliary hospitals. They were staffed largely by mostly middle and upper class women volunteers, who had been trained to serve in the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs). Clustered around these hospitals were groups of convalescent homes taking in the wounded who were recuperating to free up bed spaces.

There were also units specialising in the treatment of amputees, shell-shock, typhoid, and venereal disease. Specialist units oversaw great advances in care for disabled soldiers, including the maimed, disfigured and those with shell-shock.

Great Dixter, Northiam, East Sussex, where a room in this Arts & Crafts house with its celebrated gardens was converted into a hospital ward during the First World War (CC002560)
Great Dixter, Northiam, East Sussex, where a room in this Arts & Crafts house with its celebrated gardens was converted into a hospital ward during the First World War. cc002560
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Hospitals and Convalescent Homes

Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

  • Ampthill station, Bedfordshire. Wounded soldiers shown arriving by rail at Ampthill before they were transferred by ambulance to nearby Wrest Park, one of the first grand country houses to be offered as a hospital. Officially it had 150 beds, though on occasion there were up to 200 patients. (DP087610) © Private Collection
  • Wrest Park, near Luton, Bedfordshire. Wounded soldiers recuperating at Wrest Park. The grand rooms were transformed into wards, furniture was cleared, gilded panelling boarded over and crystal chandeliers bagged up, as shown in this image. (DP087528) © Private Collection
  • Ward I, Wrest Park, near Luton, Bedfordshire (DP087543) © Private Collection
  • Wrest Park, near Luton, Bedfordshire. Recuperating soldiers enjoyed an almost holiday camp atmosphere – including playing croquet on the lawns in front of the house, fishing, putting on concerts and going boating on the lake. (DP08763) © Private Collection
  • Wrest Park, near Luton, Bedfordshire. Convalescent soldiers resting under awnings in the open air outside the house. (DP087630) © Private Collection
  • Wrest Park, near Luton, Bedfordshire. Wrest Park after a devastating fire which broke out on 14 September 1916. All the patients were safely evacuated to nearby Woburn Abbey, also transformed into a war hospital. (DP087656) © Private Collection
  • Woburn Abbey Military Hospital, Bedfordshire. Woburn Abbey was another of Britain’s great country houses that became a hospital during the First World War. Here soldiers are recuperating in the fresh air. (BL23130)
  • Orpington Hospital, Bromley, Kent. Originally known as the Ontario Military Hospital as it was funded by the government of Ontario, it opened in February 1916 and mostly received wounded Canadian and British Empire troops. The hospital treated more than 25,000 patients by the end of hostilities. This image from 1976 shows surviving ward blocks, since demolished. (NMR 4840/76)
  • Orpington Hospital, Bromley, Kent. The Ontario Military Hospital, as it was originally known, was one of the first hospitals using occupational therapy for patients with shell shock and one of its surgeons, Thomas McCrae, was an early pioneer of plastic surgery for severe facial injuries. Pictured here is one of the original First World War ward blocks, since demolished. Each housed forty-six patients. (BB96/00913)
  • Maple Tree Club, 5 Connaught Place, London July 1916. Nurses and injured soldiers wearing their ‘hospital blues’ convalescent uniforms. (BL23582/001)
  • Joyce Green Hospital, Dartford, Kent. Joyce Green Hospital, along with two others, was built in first years of the 20th century to replace decaying hospital ships moored on the River Thames that dealt with an epidemic of smallpox. It became a fever hospital for the duration of the First World War, mostly treating cases of scarlet fever and diptheria. In October 1918, it accommodated over one thousand refugees from Eastern Europe who were wrongly suspected of having contracted smallpox. (EPW057986)
  • Pilkington Special Hospital, St Helen’s, Merseyside, September 1918. Recuperating servicemen woodworking at one of the hospital’s ‘re-educative workshops’. (BL24370/017)