The First World War at the RHN

First world war RHN

First World War and the RHN

When the First World War broke out in 1914 the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability (RHN) was home to nearly 240 patients. In August 1914 the Board Minutes noted that: ‘A letter from the Matron was read suggesting that a certain number of beds should be put aside at the service of the government for the use of convalescent patients and the matter was reported to the Board for consideration on the 27th.’

The board gave serious consideration to this suggestion from the matron. However it was decided that as the hospital was already operating at full capacity, and that patients at the RHN were unlikely to receive care elsewhere, the current patients should be given preference and so the matron’s suggestion was declined. However, despite the fact that the hospital did not care for wounded soldiers from the war, the organisation was, like everyone in Britain, affected by the war.

One significant way in which the RHN was affected by the war was through staff – both women and men – leaving to join the war effort. In August 1914 three attendants –Snow, Fountain & Percy – joined the army. Throughout the war years many male attendants left to join the Army. There were also many  nurses who volunteered for the war effort. In October 1914 Sister Wall asked permission to “offer her services for Army Nursing in France”. As Sister Wall was one of the first nurses to leave on voluntary service she was initially granted leave on three months full-pay and she joined the French Red Cross. However as the numbers of staff leaving increased it became impossible to continue offering full-pay for the staff who were overseas. Within two months two other nurses Sister Watson and Miss Begg, the hospital matron, had also left to offer their services to the War Office. Some of the staff who volunteered, or were conscripted, to join the fighting would never return.

In the 1917 records the death of Mr Percy, who had been one of the first staff to leave to go to the war, is noted. During the war years the hospital found recruiting new staff very difficult, particularly male staff to work as attendants. Similarly nurses were difficult to replace and the hospital was at times working with a shortage of staff. The hospital attempted to help the war effort in many small ways. One of these was through lending what were then called ‘invalid chairs’ to military hospitals. There were also garden parties held for wounded soldiers in the grounds of the hospital.

One controversial subject during the First World War was that of conscientious objectors. As the war dragged on and the number of casualties increased the government considered conscription. When the first Military Service Act was passed in 1916 only unmarried men between 18 and 41 were affected, however by the start of 1918 all able bodied men between 18 and 56 became eligible for conscription.

Five men at the hospital became conscientious objectors. The generally negative opinion held of conscientious objectors is reflected in the minutes of the House Committee from 1918. In the meeting notes from 3 July 1918 it is recorded that: “The Chairman reported to the meeting that he had seen the Steward and the Matron with reference to the discharge of five male attendants who are conscientious objectors”.

The five men involved challenged their dismissal and asked for an opportunity to speak with the board. They brought letters from seventeen patients attesting to the great care they provided to patients and to their general good behaviour. However the response of the committee was that: “The Chairman said that the reason (for their dismissal) was that the Committee now felt that the time had come when they would prefer to have the help of male attendants who have served, or offered to serve, their country.”

The five men were given their notice in July, however the matron intervened with the Committee, arguing that all the men involved were good workers and committed to their patients. She also argued that it would be very difficult to replace the five men as recruiting staff was continuing to be difficult. The matron’s intervention, together with the letters of appeal from the patients, was enough to cause the Board to reconsider

It is clear from examination of hospital records that, although the RHN was not directly involved in the war effort through offering care to wounded soldiers, it was, like every aspect of British life, largely affected by the war. On a very practical level the prices of food and supplies increased significantly and the RHN was forced to look at how it could best make use of its own grounds in order to continue to offer a healthy diet to patients and staff. The working farm that was part of the hospital estate was put to great use during the war and was able to provide vegetables, dairy products and meat for the patients and residents.

Many members of staff, men and women, volunteered their services for their country. Others were conscripted and went to fight on the continent. Many people who left the RHN and Wandsworth to fight did not return. There are records of other staff who were forced to give up their position to return home and support their families when other members of the family left to fight or support the war effort. These are just some of the many ways that the First World War impacted upon staff and patients at the hospital. Like communities across Britain people had to deal with loss, leave their jobs to serve, and make do with meagre supplies. Despite the many challenges and hardships endured, the lack of staff, and tragic loss of friends and colleagues, the staff at the RHN continued to provide care for over 200 people living with illness and disability just as we continue to today.