The Valhalla of British Heroism: the early years of the Star and Garter Home

By Simon Fowler

At the outbreak of the Great War there was very little provision for permanently disabled soldiers and sailors. On the whole, they were expected to be cared for by their families: unlucky men would probably end up in the workhouse. However, as casualties mounted in 1914 and 1915 it became clear that there was nowhere where men permanently disabled by their service in the armed forces could see out their days. A network of hospitals and convalescent homes looked after wounded men, but this care ceased when soldiers and sailors were discharged from the services. In July 1915, Mr B. I’Anson Breach of the Auctioneers and Estate Agents Institute, put a resolution to the Institute:

That the services of the members of the Institute be given towards the raising of funds sufficient for the purchase and presentation to HM The Queen of a building suitable for a permanent hospital for the accommodation of disabled and paralysed soldier…  

This remarkably generous proposal was adopted unanimously.

Within a few weeks £21,000 had been raised to buy the old Star and Garter Hotel, which had become derelict since it closed in 1907. It was believed, wrongly, that it would be an easy job to convert the hotel buildings into a hospital. Before the Institute had passed its resolution, Queen Mary had been sounded out about the proposal.  She had agreed on the condition that she present it to a slightly reluctant British Red Cross Society as a home for permanently incurable ex-servicemen.

The Old Star & Garter Hotel circa. 1910

The Queen took a keen interest in the Home.   It was she who decided that the establishment should be known as the Star and Garter Home, rather than the bland British Women’s Hospital, which was the initial suggestion.  However, the site was not an ideal place to put a hospital. The King’s Surgeon, and one of the movers behind the scheme, Sir Frederick Treves admitted as much in February 1916, when he told the press that:

I found the old building quite impossible to adapt to the requirements of a modern hospital for the reasons that the basement was dank, very badly ventilated and in other ways unsuitable.  One could hardly have asked the domestic personnel to take up their duties in the basement.

There was a lot else wrong besides.  The only parts of the hotel actually used by the new Home were the ballroom, the grand entrance and the adjacent rooms.   And as a result only sixty patients were initially cared for, a much smaller number than had been expected.

Ward (old hotel) 1916

In July 1915, the British Women’s Hospital Committee was established by members of the Actresses’ Franchise League with the intention of equipping a hospital unit in France.  At the suggestion of the Red Cross the energies of the Committee were soon diverted to, in the words of its final report, ‘the magnificent if somewhat formidable task’ of raising the £50,000 thought necessary for the conversion of the Star and Garter Hotel to a hospital and its subsequent maintenance.

The Committee asked the women of Britain and the Empire to ‘give this building as a memorial of their gratitude to the men who have suffered and died in the Great War.’ The Committee actually raised £223,948 (roughly £50m in today’s money) to equip the building, endow a ward, and to establish a compassionate fund to provide extra comforts for the men and to support relatives who wished to visit husbands and sons in the Home. In addition £18,000 was presented by Navy League to endow rooms in memory of Jack Cornwell, VC:  ‘the boy VC’ who died at the Battle of Jutland.  This was raised by the sale of 1d stamps to schoolchildren. Upwards of five and a half million children donated pennies to the Fund.

The first men were admitted on 14 January 1916.  They were ordinary soldiers who had been badly injured during the battles of 1915.   Most died of their wounds within a few weeks of their arrival, although several managed to recover enough to leave the Home.  There was great joy when Private Harry Mingary was discharged in September 1916 to marry Miss Nina Bredman a masseuse he had met while in the Home. A number of the early residents however were discharged for insubordination. This may be bound up with the emotional stress caused by their injuries, and by the fact that they were boisterous young men.

The terrace of the old hotel 1916

While discipline was probably greater than would be acceptable today, it was certainly less than in other hospitals of the period.  The aim was to provide a ‘home’ rather than a ‘hospital’. The Home was given enthusiastic support by local residents. Most would have agreed with the Ladies Pictorial who wrote in December 1915 that:

Richmond will indeed be proud to have such heroes in her midst, and to share with them the exceptional natural beauties and many interests with which she is so lavishly endowed.  When in future visitors come from afar to see Richmond and its world renown ‘view’, surely the chief point of interest will be ‘the Star and Garter’ and its inmates who fought in the ‘Great War’.

And this proved to be the case.

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