Monday 17 March 2014

Sanctuary from the Trenches

By Richard Sparey from Congleton, United Kingdom (#phonar task 2) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
During the First World War, not enough hospitals were available to treat the vast numbers of injured soldiers who were returning from the trenches and Dunham Massey Hall was one of the 3,244 auxiliary hospitals created within large houses, schools and other buildings. Lady Stamford, its owner, offered the Hall to the Red Cross in 1917 and by February 1919, 282 soldiers had been cared for within its tranquil surroundings, Lady Stamford acting as commandant and her daughter, Lady Jane Grey, training as a nurse. To mark the centenary of the outbreak of war, parts of the Hall have once more been transformed into the Stamford Military Hospital and if you are in this beautiful part of Cheshire it is well worth a visit.

Although the visitor facilities, the gardens and the deer park are open every day, the Hall itself is closed on Thursdays and Fridays. We visited early on a Tuesday morning in beautiful spring sunshine, collected our timed tickets and joined the queue to enter the Hall. I was surprised just how many visitors there were on a weekday morning – the recreated hospital has only been open since the beginning of March and will, no doubt, get even busier at weekends and during school holidays. Groups enter at ten-minute intervals, which is essential in order to give visitors time to read all the information and view the exhibits before the next group follow on your heels. Patience is needed when there are two or three people standing between you and what you want to read!
After passing through an ante room which contains the background information about the hospital, you enter the saloon, temporarily stripped of its valuable furniture and paintings and recreated as the main ward. A case note is tied to the foot of each iron bedstead, giving the soldier’s name, his injury and a brief account of the treatment being given. These are actual details taken from the hospital records and the injuries include gassing, trench foot, shrapnel wounds and shell shock. Some of these men would have been sent back to the front as soon as they had recovered. These personal, horrific, details relating to real men – photographs of some of them are displayed in another room – make passing through this ward a very moving experience. One of the beds was occupied, a young man in hospital uniform sitting up reading a newspaper. A tobacco tin and a small plate with a slice of bread and jam lay on the locker beside his bed. Later we saw him at the piano in the rest room exchanging banter with a young nurse.

The recreation of the operating theatre is very oddly situated underneath the main staircase; necessary because of the proximity to the toilet in the nearby billiard room.

I don’t want to spoil any potential visitor’s experience by giving too much detail here about the stories of the individual soldiers; you can follow their fate as you make your way through the Hall. This auxiliary hospital has been faithfully recreated from letters, artefacts, and photographs, along with entries from Lady Jane’s scrapbook, and I would thoroughly recommend a visit to anyone who is in the area over the coming months. It brings the horrors of war to life by small, personal details, and also shows the remarkable spirit of selflessness of Lady Stamford, Lady Jane Grey, the doctors, nurses and other staff who helped make Stamford Military Hospital a ‘soldiers’ sanctuary’.  

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