Wrest Park like many other country houses was pressed into service as an auxiliary hospital during the First World War, catering for the many thousands of casualties sent back to Blighty from the battlefield.
Wartime hospitals were real social mixing pots. They gave ordinary, mostly working class soldiers a glimpse of a privileged lifestyle few of them would have been familiar with. Hospital work also threw together men and women from many different places and vastly different backgrounds, all with a common purpose – caring for the wounded.
Matron: Nan Herbert
Most auxiliary hospitals were staffed by volunteers from the Red Cross and Order of St John of Jerusalem who had formed a Joint War Committee following the outbreak of war to co-ordinate their activities. Wrest Hospital was different, being privately organised and funded by the then owner, Auberon (Bron) Herbert, 8th Baron Lucas.
His sister Nan Herbert supervised the transformation of the house into a hospital – rooms were cleared of furniture, walls covered in sheeting, beds and hospital equipment acquired and temporary electric lighting introduced.
She was also responsible for the recruitment of nurses, a difficult task in wartime as trained nurses were in short supply. Many of those taken on proved unsuitable as Nan noted in her diary:
‘An assortment of nurses came and went – two or three who drank, one who took drugs, stewardesses who wanted to do war work, and probationers who preferred sharing a chair with a patient to finding an empty one.’
In time though a dedicated team of around 20 nurses was assembled, skilfully managed by Nan who took on the role of matron after a crash course of training at the Metropolitan Hospital in London.
The nursing staff: volunteers from all classes of society
Some of the recruits had a wealthy background. Nathalie Ridley was daughter of the Russian Ambassador, Count Alexander Benckendorff whom both Bron and Nan had known for many years. She had enrolled as a Nurse Probationer at the Metropolitan Hospital at the outbreak of war despite having two young children. Eileen Strode and Gwendolen Dorrien-Smith were the daughters of aristocrats.
Edith Taylor, in contrast, was an experienced career nurse, who had trained at Great Ormond Street Hospital, and was working as a fever nurse at Woolwich Military Hospital when war broke out. She had spent time nursing in Australia and had a certificate in midwifery as well as nursing.
Sybil Cockburn was more typical of the middle class women who joined Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) to contribute to the war effort. She was a married woman, aged 39 in 1914, whose husband was a brewer in Baldock, Hertfordshire. After leaving Wrest she was a sister, then matron at the VAD Hospital in Royston, Hertfordshire.
Other nurses like the ward assistant Jeanie Webb and orderly, Frank Hucklesby had a solidly working class background. Then there was Nurse Butler, ‘an elderly Irish woman with wild blue eyes’ who became infamous for improvising the patients’ favourite game, Shooting the Dardarnelles, where ‘one of the wheel-chair men’ had to ‘make his way down the length of the ward, whilst all the bed patients opened fire on him with slippers, pillows or anything else available.’
Recruits came from far and wide. Catherine MacIver hailed from the Hebrides. She had been the first nurse appointed to Lewis Hospital in Stornoway, and was working as a district nurse in Kenmore, Perthshire before arriving at Wrest. Kathleen Adair was from County Carlow in Ireland and came to Wrest from the South Devon and East Cornwall Hospital in Plymouth, whilst Gwendolen Dorrien-Smith was from Tresco Abbey on the Isles of Scilly.
There were even recruits from overseas, like Ellen Dobbie from Auckland, New Zealand and Lois Windeyer, who was Australian.
What happened to them next?
Wrest Park’s life as a hospital came to an abrupt end on 14 September 1916 when the mansion was badly damaged by fire. All 156 patients were safely evacuated, but the damage was so serious that it was not practical for the hospital to be reopened.After leaving Wrest these women went their separate ways. After her brother’s death in November 1916, Nan Herbert succeeded to his titles becoming Baroness Lucas of Crudwell and Lady Dingwall. She sold Wrest Park in 1917, and, in the same year, married Lt-Col Howard Lister Cooper.
Nathalie Ridley helped her mother set up a benevolent fund for Russian soldiers, Sibyl Cockburn went back to her family in Hertfordshire, whilst Edith Taylor carried on in nursing until her retirement.
The hospital at Wrest Park was staffed by a diverse group of people, but for the short time they were there they shared the same experiences, the regimented routine and hard graft – but also the lighter moments and camaraderie. It would be an experience that few of them would ever forget.
Plan a visit to Wrest Park
Aside from its role as a hospital, Wrest Park in Bedfordshire is famous for its gardens – which were enjoyed by convalescent soldiers as much as visitors today. The evolution of the English garden can now be charted over three centuries.
Research for this post was undertaken by volunteers at Wrest Park for the ‘Wrest Park at War’ exhibition, and collated by Dr Andrew Hann. Find out more about volunteering with English Heritage.