Foreword (by Lieut. Col. Alfred Burne); This is Ashridge - Introduction; The Monastery; The Royal Residence; The Manor House and The Mansion; The College; The Hospital; The College after the War




Ashridge entered into a new phase in its history when the Trust, with great generosity and patriotism, offered the entire property to the Ministry of Health for hospital purposes without rent or charge, and subject to the one stipulation that it should be handed back at the end of hostilities in the same condition as it was taken over. It was a fine gesture, untramelled by deeds or red tape, and it was a fitting prelude to what was to follow.

While the last hopes of peace were flickering out in those eventful days of September, 1939, preparations were proceeding quietly at the College. The black-out of the whole building was completed - a task which in itself now seems a nightmare; gas-proof shelters were constructed, and the entire library stowed away with many College treasures. The Lecture Room and Brown Lounge were converted into wards, the former for women patients and the latter for men. The Canteen, familiar to many students, ceased to exist and in its place arose an operating theatre.

Looking back one can still picture the arrival of the double-deck buses, from which emerged sisters and nurses of University College Hospital - some 200 in the first detachment. The vivid red and blue of their capes showed up strangely against the grey of the building, and the great red buses, having discharged their passengers, stood silently by the grass verge of the road. I thought of the scores of motor coaches which had stood there in former times, while visitors were shown round the College - it all seemed fantastic. The nurses looked most efficient as each collected her one suitcase and filed quietly into the house. They were not smiling, and there was a look of quiet determination on the many young faces. I think we all had a feeling of facing the unknown. I turned to follow the last nurse in, and glanced up at the main tower. The sun broke out at this moment and turned the massive pile from grey to almost white; on the top fully extended by the breeze, was the Union Jack.

The Medical Staff were drawn mainly from Charing Cross Hospital, and in the later years their Medical School was also housed at Ashridge. The first Medical Superintendent was Dr F.J. Barker. He was a Scot, and his wide experience and balanced judgment were sheet anchors in those difficult days. He did not spare himself in spite of his age, and in March, 1940, he retired, and died a few years later. His successor was Dr E.C. Warner. It is a commonplace that crucial times breed leaders, and this proved to be the case with Edwin Warner. This quiet precise physician emerging from the tranquil atmosphere of Harley Street impressed his character on staff and patients alike. Quick and accurate in decision, untiring in his work, with a flair for dealing with every problem, great or small, in his stride, he will be remembered by thousands of patients to whom he gave confidence and comfort. Any war-time account would be incomplete without adding a warm tribute to one who gave such remarkable service to the Hospital and to Ashridge.

The first plan for the hospital was sixteen ward huts, holding 640 patient beds, but this was increased at a later stage to thirty-one ward huts to hold 1,240 patients. To the ward huts was added operating theatres, dental surgery, X-Ray department, pathological laboratory, physiotherapy and occupational therapy departments, and dispensary; in short all the necessary subsidiary accommodation for a large general hospital. The approved nursing personnel was 434, but it never approached this figure owing to the acute shortage of nurses. The lay side was provided by a nucleus of the College staff, on which was built the administrative and domestic teams.

Work started seriously in the huts on May 24th, 1940, when 319 men from Dunkirk arrived. They were followed on June 1st by another 174. This was an unforgettable experience. Englishmen, Highlanders, French, Belgians, Algerians, evacuated hastily from the coast, with the dust and dirt of the Dunkirk conflict still on them - tired eyed but dogged, bloody but undefeated. Most were too tired to do anything but sleep, yet, on the following day after a rest, a shave and a wash, the rows of smiling faces testified that a day of reckoning with the german army was to come. I remember the French troops when they heard that France had capitulated. Humiliated beyond endurance, with tears in their eyes, they tore the badges and buttons from their coats and cast them away. Here and there a khaki arm supported a sobbing man and reassured him. Britain had suffered a reverse but was undefeated. Across the park one saw groups of men with a strange armlet marked L.D.V. Here I noticed an old cutlass being sharpened to a razor edge, there a garden fork with its prongs sharpened to a fine point. We were too busy to concern ourselves with possibilities, but clearly the nation was on the march.

Convoys of air raid casualties came all too regularly, and each one intensified our admiration for the courage and fortitude of these ordinary men, women and children. In addition the sick from certain London hospitals were evacuated to Ashridge. Maternity beds were at a premium, and in order to help, Ashridge opened a Maternity Unit sponsored by Charing Cross Hospital. This unit assited Fulmer Chase, and took numbers of officers' wives into the wards. Orthopaedic and skin wards were opened when necessity arose.

At a very early stage a rehabilitation centre was established with physiotherapy and occupational therapy departments. The work in this important branch was very successful, and many difficult cases were nursed back to useful citizenship by these original methods. Courses were held for both medicals and masseuses. The shortage of available beds in sanatoria, due in some measure to lack of nurses and domestic help, resulted in many problems. Ashridge was a hospital under the Emergency Hospital Scheme of the Ministry of Health, and in order to give what assistance was possible, the Ministry agreed to the establishment of special tuberculosis wards to constitute a pool where patients received early and continued treatment while waiting admission to sanatoria.

Ashridge did not escape bombing altogether, and a number fell in the vicinity of the hospital. A land mine on the far side of the kitchen gardens did considerable superficial damage in the way of glass, roof tiles and doors; a 25 foot crater on the road near the West tower was the result of a 500 pounder; eleven fell unpleasantly near the ward kitchens; but bomb stories resemble in some measure fishermen's yarns, and sufficient to say there was no direct hit and no-one was injured. Ashridge had its own Civil Defence and Fire Fighting organisation, consisting of all the able-bodied men and women of a self-sacrificing lay staff.

The work of the War Savings Group established in 1940 is noteworthy. £3,241 was invested in War Savings, £700 in War Savings Stamps and £4,049 during special Savings Weeks, making a total contribution to the Savings movement of £7,990.

Figures are usually dull, but the following give some indication of the work achieved: 19,678 bed patients passed through the wards; 12,820 operations were performed in the operating theatres; and 2,700 babies were born in the maternity unit.

It is impossible to give even an outline of the six years' work in the space available, and one day it may be recoded in detail. One's mind goes back to the self-sacrificing work of the medical and nursing staffs; to the Matrons, Miss D. Stewart, Miss W. Fielder and Miss I.M. Sterlini, who each in turn served the hospital so graciously and so well; to Mrs Jarvis, the Ashridge Housekeeper, who carried her great responsibilities unflinchingly and so successfully; to all those voluntary, domestic and other loyal but nameless men and women who contributed their share. They bring back to mind the words of George Eliot, "For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hid life and rest in unvisited tombs."

The nursing staff was provided by University College, Charing Cross and St John and St Elizabeth Hospitals, British red Cross, Civil Nursing Reserve, besides Army and Canadian Sisters who were allotted from time to time.

The Chaplains covered the Church of England, the Free Churches, the Roman Catholic Church and the jewish Faith. In order to assist a big Catholic congregation among patients and nurses a Chapel was constructed in one of the cellars. The work was carried out by the Hospital staff, and the mural painting by Mrs Foord Kelcey. At the end of the war the Chapel was deconsecrated.

The Hospital closed in June, 1946, and the immense amount of furniture and equipment was returned to store by the end of the year. The Hospital buildings are now used as a Teacher Training College known as Gaddesden Training College, and administered separately through the Hertfordshire County Council.







* * * * * * * * * * *


Webmistress: Susannah Clark

Contact: thecommunity (at) gmail (dot) com