A First World War Hospital
Jack Pease MP had not got far into his speech before he was interrupted by a loud-voiced woman. It was the afternoon of Friday 13 June 1913, and militancy was at a peak. The front cover of The Suffragette for that day carried a front page devoted to Emily Wilding Davison, who had died under the hooves of the king's horse at the Epsom Derby a few days earlier. He managed to finish what he had to say after the heckler had been hauled out. President of the Board of Education, and a member of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s Liberal cabinet, he had traveled up to Yorkshire for the opening ceremony of the brand-new City of Leeds Training College at Beckett Park, which had been finished the year before on what had once been called the Kirkstall Grange Estate when it had belonged to Ernest Beckett, Baron Grimthorpe, who had sold it to Leeds City Council to pay off his debts. The first cohort of trainee teachers (480 men and 300 women) had already been there for three terms. It was a pleasant afternoon, on the whole, beginning in the quadrangle with the grand march from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, played by the band of the Leeds Rifles, unmarred by any serious incidents, though another suffragette was thrown into the new swimming pool at some stage and had to be rescued.
The book has been published - read sample pages at www.firstworldwarhospital.co.uk
The buildings had been designed in an adaptation of a late seventeenth century style, which had been chosen by the energetic Leeds Secretary for Education, James Graham, who had also chosen the furniture and fittings, and named most of the hostels – Leighton, Macaulay, Caedmon, Brontë, Fairfax and Cavendish. Priestley was named by a sub-committee. Ironically, Pease in his speech said that the College was “a great possession for the city of Leeds” and that “it will be in the future a national asset.” How right he was! Just over a year later, on the outbreak of war, the whole place was commandeered, renamed as the 2nd Northern General Hospital, and the Red Cross flag was hoisted. Suddenly, suffragette campaigning, union militancy and the fact that Ireland was on the brink of civil war faded as priorities. The British Empire was at war.
In 1914, the summer was beautifully sunny by all accounts. Many wages were low, motor cars were rare, beer was a penny a glass, and cinemas, open all day, had been operating for just a year or two. Going on country walks, men in straw boaters carrying walking canes, women in ankle-length dresses, had become fashionable for those who could get outside the city. This was many-chimneyed and still gaspingly dirty, not very different from the Leeds which had appalled Charles Dickens with its smoke and filth decades previously, when he had visited on a lecture tour. Although there had been some attempts at slum clearance, well over half of working-class homes were back-to-backs, most of them of the older, insanitary sort: the more modern ones, two-up, two down with a toilet block every four houses, were a minority. A rent strike which had begun in Harold Grove, Burley had taken place in the spring of the year. The city was well established as a centre for textiles, ready-made clothing and leather boots, and the local economy had diversified to include printing, engineering and chemicals. Beckett Park was a welcome green space some distance away from the masses of redbrick housing, and many of the houses around its edges today had not been built.
Conflict with Germany anticipated
A conflict with an increasingly belligerent Germany had been anticipated as far back as 1907, when the Territorial and Reserve Forces Act aimed to provide a medical service for the Territorial Forces formed in 1908. Contingency plans had been made to set up a whole series of Northern General Hospitals, in Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield, Lincoln and Leicester. Leeds was thought to be especially suitable because of its renowned infirmary and medical school, and there was an original plan to base the hospital in the Leeds Institute on Cookridge Street, until RAMC Major James Faulkner Dobson took over command in 1912 and realized that this would be inadequate. He soon had detailed plans made to take over and equip the new college buildings in case of mobilization. On 4 August 1914, he swung into action. Beds appeared in the Great Hall and the library within a week, barbed wire fencing was put up in the Acre and flat roofs were designated as open-air wards. A week after that, six hundred beds were available with ninety-two nurses prepared to take duty. The declaration of war had come as a shock and a surprise to many, even after years of sabre rattling. Who would have thought that Gavrilo Princip with a group of suicide bombers (they carried cyanide) could have triggered off so much by killing an archduke and his wife in the faraway Balkans? The feelings of surprise did not last long at Beckett Park. It was soon down to business.
Very soon, all seven of the hostels were occupied. Major Dobson was the first administrator and Major Coupland the registrar. Lieutenant Colonels Barrs and Littlewood were in charge of the medical and surgical departments and Major Knaggs was in charge of sixty beds for officers. In April 1915 Dobson could not continue because of illness, so Coupland became administrator for a short while before leaving for France in June, when Littlewood took over the post, which he held until May 1919. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Edward Ligertwood then took his place. Major G W Watson was registrar from June 1915 to June 1919, and Euphemia Steele Innes, matron of Leeds General Infirmary, was matron-in-chief of Beckett Park and the war hospitals which were associated with it. Jessie Hills was the first matron, replaced by Mabel Whiffin when she went to France in 1915.
The first convoy of wounded
Ninety wounded men arrived from the Front on 17 September 1914, after the retreat from Mons. It was the first convoy to arrive at the now-demolished Midland Station and it was given a civic welcome. The Lord Mayor, Sir Edward Brotherton, met the ambulance train dressed in full regalia, and a dense crowd assembled in City Square to cheer the ambulances as they passed, on their way to Headingley. More cheering spectators lined Woodhouse Lane and the Otley Road. Some threw cigarettes and tobacco to the wounded men when they could. “They came with the soil of France upon their great-coats,” wrote the hospital chaplain, Lieutenant Colonel J F Phillips for Leeds in the Great War (1924) “A few with support walked from the ambulance to the wards, the rest the stretcher-bearers carried. Some were entirely covered from view, and of these some would not have been recognized by those who knew them best.” A couple of months later, in November, more than a hundred wounded Belgian soldiers, sixteen of them officers, arrived. The sick and wounded were conveyed to Beckett Park, and later to the auxiliary hospitals, entirely by voluntary workers using funds raised by the public. A fleet of two dozen motor ambulances was donated by various businessmen, the drivers men over military age, or in other ways unfit for military service.
Meanwhile, the College was obliged to rent alternative accommodation and to share facilities with schools, like Thoresby High School. The students who were left at Beckett Park were mainly women, because most of the men had enlisted. These were watched with great interest by convalescing soldiers, who no doubt made a few comments, in particular when they played tennis. Their behaviour – the women’s that is - was described as “unseemly” by James Graham. Barbed wire separated students and soldiers, but of course this could be cut…
Soon, the increasing numbers of casualties made it necessary to open auxiliary hospitals. The biggest of these was the East Leeds War Hospital, which was set up on the site of the old workhouse in Beckett Street, now the Thackray Medical Museum next to St James’s Hospital. Other auxiliaries were established in Bradford, Dewsbury, Halifax, Harrogate and Keighley. In 1915 it was clear that extensions and more recreation facilities were needed at Beckett Park. A committee to raise funds was formed which included Littlewood and prominent citizens like Rupert Beckett, Joseph Watson and Frederick J Kitson. With some of the £26,000 which resulted from its efforts, a large YMCA recreation hall was erected, which became the venue for many entertainments, lectures and billiard tournaments. It was opened by Grand Duchess George of Russia, who was the Greek wife of the Grand Duke George Mihailovitch, a cousin of Tsar Nicholas II. She had arrived in England just before war broke out, and ran several hospitals for the wounded in Harrogate, like Heatherdene on the Wetherby Road. The funds also paid for seven hundred extra beds in a group of temporary wooden structures which formed an annexe to the permanent buildings. These extensions were opened on 30 March 1916 by Major General H M Lawson, and following the Battle of Jutland a couple of months later, the new wards were named after dreadnoughts and famous admirals.
Ever-increasing numbers of patients brought heavier responsibilities, and the whole range of operations had to be expanded. Pathologist Major Wilfrid Vining was put in charge of cerebrospinal fever (meningitis) and tetanus cases in the whole of the West Riding area. They were sent to Killingbeck. Typhoid, dysentery and malaria cases ended up with Captain Michael Stewart at East Leeds. In May, 1916, a department for the treatment of injuries to the jaws and face was opened at Beckett Park with a hundred and fifty beds, which took cases from across Northern Command. Over two thousand patients eventually passed through this department, in which the consulting surgeon was Captain Maxwell Munby, assisted by dental surgeon Captain Alan Forty. They worked in cooperation with East Leeds, which had a department where dentures were made on a large scale.
King George V, accompanied by Princess Victoria, came on 27 September 1915, and again on 31 May 1918, when he presented several officers and men with medals. In between these visits, the hospital continued to develop: as the war progressed and the number of soldiers with healed wounds increased, it became apparent that large numbers of them were being left with residual disabilities. Injuries to nerves, stiff and distorted joints, bony defects and deformities called for orthopaedic treatment. In 1916, Beckett Park was chosen as a centre dealing with cases like this. A ward of about fifty beds was set aside, and a massage and physical exercises department was started, but it was inadequate, so in 1917 the whole hospital was converted into a Special Surgical Hospital specializing in orthopaedic work. ‘Curative workshops’ were associated with this, providing occupations which could be carried on and taught with the object of getting disabled men to learn in an interesting manner and to regain some of their lost usefulness. Nerve suture was performed on an unprecedented scale, along with innovative reconstruction work and bone grafting. New massage and electrical departments, X-ray rooms and further extensions were needed, so another appeal for funds was made to the public, this time with the assistance of Sir Berkeley Moynihan. The £6000 raised was soon spent, and the extensions were opened by the American Ambassador, Dr Walter Hines Page. Two American surgeons were appointed (see ‘American Assistance’) who were soon joined by others, so that by the end of the war more than two hundred American officers had passed through, many of them to take part in short courses.
The hospital had 3,200 beds when it was at its biggest and in 1918, 57,000 patients had been admitted with 226 reported deaths. I doubt whether this is absolutely accurate - and it can not be checked finally because of lost records. After the war, it was taken over by the Ministry of Pensions, and the College was wondering when it could have its premises back. After negotiations, it was agreed that the hospital would retreat to the wooden extension huts and that doctors and nurses would be accommodated in Caedmon and Priestley hostels. By 1924, all students were back in residence at Beckett Park, but the hospital remained in the huts until 1927, when it was possible for everything to be moved to Chapel Allerton a couple of miles away.
Below, the buildings today. It's Christmas vacation, so no students are around.