First World War: How Red Cross volunteers helped turn Woodbridge grammar school into hospital at outbreak of war
- Credit: Archant
Ill and injured First World War troops were often cared for by volunteers during those days long before the NHS. Steven Russell discovers how a Suffolk Red Cross branch rose to the challenge back in 1914.
Muriel Shipman joined the Red Cross late in 1913 and within a few months had passed her first aid exam and taken her nursing certificate. As she explained in her diary, it helped that she was “much interested in the work and, having three servants, could devote much of my leisure to practice”.
She tells how, in the summer of 1914, she took part in first aid competitions at Great Yarmouth and Beccles. At the latter, the Red Cross squad from Woodbridge missed out on second place by a few points. “We little thought then how soon we should be needed in earnest,” she wrote. Very soon, in fact. With war declared at the start of August, a briefing was held the next day in Woodbridge – members of the Red Cross told what they’d have to do if they needed to set up a hospital at short notice.
They didn’t have long to wait. On August 6, Muriel was told to go to the grammar school (now the independent Woodbridge School) and help turn it into a hospital with 100 beds. “By this time bedsteads, mattresses, blankets, linen, crockery, brushes and brooms etc were being collected from the townsfolk,” she wrote. Unnecessary furniture was moved out and the rooms cleaned. Muriel, who would have been about 35 years old, was struck by how everyone grafted.
A newspaper report of the time gives more details. The large dining hall, “play” rooms and four big dormitories were converted into wards of about 15 beds each. Two further rooms were turned into operating theatres. There was a consulting room, a sewing room, a nurses’ rest room and a store.
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A bathroom on the first floor was transformed into a kitchen. In three days it was virtually all done.
The first casualty arrived on August 12 – with a broken leg.
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Meanwhile, according to Muriel, a Royal Army Medical Corps unit arrived from Luton and “commandeered” the hospital. Their orderlies and sergeants would staff the place, alongside the Red Cross volunteers, and the medical officers would attend to the patients.
This field unit set up camp in the school grounds with its wagons, ambulances and horses. It also set up a guard, around the clock, “and very strange it was to be challenged when coming on or off duty”. Muriel wrote: “The hospital soon began to fill with casualties from the troops stationed around and we had some very serious cases of head injuries due to falls from horses, motor cycle accidents, cuts, fractures etc. We had, however, no occasion to need the 100 beds, so instead of 6 wards and 2 theatres, we dismantled 3 wards and the theatres... the operation cases being sent on to Cambridge Base Hospital.”
It was, though, a busy few weeks – and then the governors said they wanted their school back, with a new term about to start! The hospital had to pack up and move to Gate House in Church Street on September 14, “very sorry to leave our splendid building”.
It wouldn’t be the last move. The Woodbridge volunteers would in turn help transform another four buildings into hospitals: a house called Westholme, The Council School in New Street, Melton asylum (St Audry’s) and, last, Foxboro’ Hall, Melton. Members would also work at the hospital set up at Shrubland Park, Coddenham.
Extracts from Muriel’s diaries are included in a publication from 2007 called Woodbridge & District British Red Cross – A History, 1910 – 2007. Author Dorothy Kellogg says the notes are “a quite remarkable record of the work done in the town for the wounded and sick in the Great War”.
The story really begins in the summer of 1859, when Swiss banker and philanthropist Henri Dunant was travelling on business in Italy and found himself on a battlefield of the Franco-Austrian war.
Appalled at the sight of men left wounded and dying, he organised volunteers to move them to places of shelter, noting that people forgot the nationalities of those they helped. He wrote a book about it and suggested that national societies of volunteers be set up, ready to help the sick and wounded when wars broke out.
In 1870 the British Society was formed, after the birth of the International Committee for the relief of the Sick and Military Wounded in War about seven years earlier. In the early 1900s, as part of military reforms that created the Territorial Army, the VAD – Voluntary Aid Detachment – was set up in every English county, under the aegis of the British Red Cross. These would help the Territorial medical forces in the event of war, both in the UK and abroad.
On November 6, 1909, the Marquis of Bristol started the Suffolk branch of the British Red Cross Society. Its first director was Colonel Ranulphus John Carthew, a magistrate from Woodbridge. He was chairman of Woodbridge Urban District Council and lived at The Abbey, now the Abbey School.
In 1910 the Woodbridge detachments were the first to be registered in the county: as Suffolk 1 (for the men) and Suffolk 2 (the women. In fact, they’d remain officially separate until 1973!) Volunteers were trained in first aid and (for the women!) home nursing.
“The courses were difficult but they gave members the ability to work in hospitals, wearing the Red Cross emblem,” says Dorothy Kellogg.
And then, of course, they were needed for real.
Muriel Shipman reckoned the Gate House, the second home for the Woodbridge hospital, was cramped and noisy, “and how we managed I do not know. They were soon off – on October 31 – to a house called Westholme. It was in a quieter part of town, “but still not quite the place for a hospital – but we managed to make it very comfortable and were generally full”.
While the officers lived inside, most men were in tents pitched outside – “some sleeping in the stable loft, the hospital orderlies lying on the floors with Army blankets, in our unoccupied rooms”.
She also tells of bad blood between two units stationed nearby: the King Edward’s Horse and the Monmouths. A bayonet charge apparently took place between them one night – in the Thoroughfare – but no-one was seriously hurt. The volunteers generally had plenty to do, day and night, and Sister Redpath, a trained nurse, “was unstinting in her efforts to knock us into shape. I fear we were a terrible trial to her in our inexperience of hospital routine and discipline”.
In January, 1915, the Council School was converted. Muriel writes about it soon being full of men with bad fevers. Many of the beds were wooden camp bedsteads that kept breaking. After six collapsed in one night, iron bedsteads were brought in.
There were fears of air raids and the colonel ordered blinds to be drawn at 5pm and blankets put over the windows.
The Council School hospital closed on February 8 and they moved to Melton asylum until the end of March, where they were short of staff and had to have volunteers brought in from afar. In the middle of April, Foxboro’ Hall, Melton, was taken over by the Red Cross as the next location for a hospital.
It wasn’t plain sailing domestically, either. Muriel explains how in the spring of 1916 her youngest boy developed measles. “From February till May I had a very unfortunate time with constant sickness in the house – ringworm, mumps and then measles. My eldest child of 14 then became seriously ill with double pneumonia.
“We were terribly anxious about her for some days and I do not know how I should have managed had I not had the little knowledge of nursing I had acquired with the Red Cross.” By the summer of 1914 there were actually more than 2,500 detachments across Britain and 74,000 volunteers – two-thirds of them female. Later, the shortage of trained nurses brought opportunities for VADs to help abroad.
Muriel went on to volunteer in London, where convoys of war-wounded soldiers arrived at all hours, at Bury St Edmunds and Sudbury. She also had a stint at the Maxillo Facial Hospital in Kensington, where VADs assisted in the theatre on operation days.
Muriel remained a member of “Suffolk 2” long after The Great War, her tasks gradually being lightened to first aid duty at Woodbridge Cinema and serving on the committee of the town’s Red Cross until poor health prompted her to step down in 1953. She died in 1956.
Dawn Scotcher, a volunteer with Woodbridge Red Cross and a former centre organiser, reckons we owe Muriel Shipman and the many VADs like her a huge vote of thanks.
She points out that these hospitals were set up and run more than 30 years before the birth of the National Health Service.
“They were operating without all that infrastructure. They were volunteers – 24 hours a day, in conjunction with the Royal Army Medical Corps. I really feel they were absolute stars.
“I think it was absolutely astonishing the work and the effort they put in, and it’s been swept under the carpet, in a way. Society has moved on. We don’t appreciate what these guys went through, I don’t think.”