The South African Military Hospital
Visitors enjoying the tranquillity of Richmond Park are seldom aware that there was once a large military hospital within the park, not far from Star and Garter Gate. Today the only traces of the South African Military Hospital are some of its foundations, sometimes visible in the winter months.
South African forces had first seen action in South West Africa, German East Africa and Egypt before being sent to France in the spring of 1916.
On the outbreak of war, an influential group of South Africans in London had formed a committee to establish a hospital. As one of the hospital’s patients wrote in The Springbok Blue in May 1917: “It would be difficult to imagine a more delightful place than Richmond in which to recuperate…”.
Funds to meet the costs of building and equipping the hospital were raised by well-wishers, from millionaires to school children, in Britain and South Africa. Construction began in March 1916 and the first 300 patients were welcomed at the end of June.
It was at this hospital that the use of ‘water baths’ for the treatment of septic wounds and serious burns was pioneered. In the ‘Victoria Falls’ – the bath ward – patients supported on permeable hammocks were immersed in constantly flowing water, maintained at body temperature, for anything from a few days to up to six weeks. This avoided painful changes of dressings and allowed the wounds to be kept clean and to heal, while the patient, his head resting on an air pillow, could sleep free of the pain that the pressure of a mattress inevitably inflicted. This novel approach proved more effective than traditional methods and other military hospitals across the country soon followed suit.
Patients with life changing injuries were encouraged to take part in training provided by the hospital’s Education Section in on-site classrooms and workshops.
When ready to be discharged, these patients were sent to a hostel, established at Stanley House in nearby Queens Road, under the care of a matron. Eventually four houses on Queens Road were required to provide additional accommodation for those undergoing vocational training.
Patients classified as ‘Full Privilege’ could obtain passes to go out of the grounds during the afternoon and parties were ‘got up’ for the theatre, bus trips or sporting events at venues such as Stamford Bridge and Craven Cottage. Many local residents also held open house for patients and those owning cars would offer to take patients out for drives. Outings organised by the Comforts Committee included the opportunity to watch the opening of Parliament. Some patients and staff were selected to attend a reception at Windsor Castle at which the King and Queen met some of the Empire’s wounded and those who had nursed them.
The Richmond patients launched their own magazine, The Springbok Blue, its title a reference to the blue suits that wounded soldiers wore.
When the War Office noticed that almost all the patients at the nearby Richmond Military Hospital were South Africans, a decision was made to merge the two hospitals for the duration of the war. By the end of the war, a further 250 patients had to be billeted with local residents.
At this time the influenza epidemic was reaching its peak in Richmond. Until then, the hospital had lost relatively few patients, but half of those buried in Richmond Cemetery’s ‘Soldier’s Section’ died in the six weeks from the middle of October to the end of November 1918, probably from complications of influenza. The toll included four members of the South African Medical Corps, as well as a nursing sister. All died within days of each other.
After the war, the hospital continued in use by the South Africans until 1921, having by then treated almost 10,000 patients. Its buildings continued to be used for other purposes, before being demolished in 1925. The Cambrian Gate remains in use as a pedestrian gate.
[Footage of the hospital and patients can be seen on the Imperial War Museum website, on reel 3/6 ]
Edited from an article by Margaret Frood, Museum of Richmond project volunteer