Thursday 7 September 2023

The Oaklands Red Cross Auxiliary Hospital, Clevedon (1915-1919)

The unspoilt Victorian promenade in Clevedon is a pleasure to stroll along. Near the bandstand above what locals call the 'Green Beach', there are a dozen or so benches all carefully positioned to give a stunning vista of the Bristol Channel, the Welsh Coast and views of the spectacular sunsets for which this coastline is famed.  Had one passed these seats during the later years of the Great War then many of them may well have been occupied by service men men dressed in 'Hospital Blues'. Men who were recovering from injury or coming to terms with lost limbs, disfigurement and other physical and mental afflictions. Often they would be accompanied by nurses in their characteristic white and red garb. The journey to Clevedon for most of these men, would have started in the trenches of France and Belgium. Injured in battle they would typically have passed through a front line dressing station, on to a Casualty Clearing Station, then a Base Hospital and finally to a hospital in the UK. 

Oaklands Hospital, Clevedon (Copyright Phil Curme)

The Oaklands Red Cross Auxiliary Hospital, which was situated directly behind the aforementioned Green Beach,  was set up in a private summer residence offered up by the owners (Mr and Mrs Ernest Wills) after Clevedon had been designated as a convalescence base under the jurisdiction of the 2nd General Hospital, Bristol. Later, the Oaklands Hospital was affiliated to the Beaufort Military Hospital in Bristol - indeed over 25% of the 3,500 men rehabilitated at Clevedon, came from that particular facility. The men came from a huge variety of units and there was a mix of nationalities. When the Oaklands first opened as a military hospital on the 9th November 1914, having been kitted out by men and women from the Somerset 33 (Clevedon) Voluntary Aid Detachment,  it had ten wards and forty five beds. 

Fundraising for Oaklands, Clevedon (Courtesy of Campbell Estate)

Ten extra beds were added in July 1915 and a further ten in November of the same year. Additional capacity was created by the conversion of a nearby tennis pavilion and the erection  of two huts. During 1916 the garage and coach house were turned into a billiard room - known to the patients as 'the dugout'! By the end of 1917 a large marquee had been erected in the grounds and the number of beds had been increased to 120. Shortly thereafter an annexe was created at 'The Grange' on the corner of Hallam and Victoria Road. This provided an additional six wards, with forty beds plus associated facilities. The VAD nurses and medical personnel were housed in 'Margency' on Victoria Road which became known as the 'Red Cross Nurses Hostel'. Medical expertise came from Major Moxey and Captain Handfield-Jones both of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

The Pre-War Oaklands Hotel (now demolished) Campbell Estate

Major Alfred Bond Trestrail VD (65 years old in 1914), a retired industrial chemist, worked as the unpaid commandant at Oaklands right up until the hospital was decommissioned in May 1919. For his serrvices to Oaklands and his VAD unit the Major was awarded an MBE. The welfare of the patients was overseen by Lady Blanche St John Bellairs, wife of a Major-General who had distinguished himself during the Crimean War. The nurses came from all over the country, though a fair few were local. 

Lady Blanche St John Bellairs
Postings for the trained nurses lasted from a few weeks to about a year. Sister Catherine Waddell, the matron, who hailed from Tullibody in Scotland, served for the entire time that Oaklands was operational. A number of local people volunteered to serve at the hospital, including Private F. Pritchard, Somerset Light Infantry, who had been honourably discharged from the army - he served as an orderly. One of the more colourful characters who helped, was a local corn merchant John Brewer, kmown as 'Jacko'. Jacko offered to take on the role of transport officer and ended up arranging patients to be driven from the local station or the Beaufort hospital in vehicles lent by people from around the town. 

Realising that a vehicle was required to transport stretcher cases, Jacko set up a fund which was granted charitable status in 1916. The Jacko ambulance became a fixture of the operation, carrying patients to and from Oaklands. Another local, Mr R. Stephens, invented an ambulance stretcher carrier for lifting patients into the vehicle. 

Jacko Ambulance (Campbell Estate)

Jacko Ambulance (Campbell Estate)

One of the men transported was Sergeant Harry Cator of the East Surrey Regiment, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery on Easter Monday during the Battle of Arras having already been awarded a Military Medal on the Somme. Cator had been injured by high-explosive shrapnel, which broke both his upper and lower jaws and was transferred to Clevedon from the Beaufort Military Hospital.  A flavour of how the patients felt about Clevedon can be discerned from a poem written by Private A. Broadley of the 1st Cameron Highlanders in 1917, which can be read here.

The hospital was renowned for its entertainment both by visiting performers, local artists and the patients themselves. The Oaklands concert Parties were undoubtedly a big draw - helping physical and mental recovery, but also raising funds. Messrs J.N. and Victor Cox granted free admission to the Curzon Cinema and also supplied the electrical equipment needed to re-charge the various batteries used in the hospital. The nurses would have participated fully in such activities and the warmth of the relationship between them and the men in their care is hinted at in an autograph book left by one of their number, Miss Catherine Horwood - and now held in the Clevedon Pier & Heritage Trust Community Archive. 

Extract from Horwood book (CP&HT Archive)
One of the less sentimental entries, provides some interesting insights. Private F.J. Vowles of the 10th Battalion, Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry was wounded during the Battle of the Somme on July 28th 1916, at Delville Wood (spelt incorrectly in the book). The entry is dated 18th October 1916. Other entries express affection for the nurses and an appreciation of Clevedon. As one would expect there is plenty of humour evident as well. 

The 1918 armistice was greeted with a celebratory tea and an evening of entertainment at 'The Towers' restaurant. The festivities ended with a rendition of 'Keep the Home Fires Burning' and the National Anthem. 

Once the hospital had been decommissioned in 1919, the building was offered at auction on a reserve (which was not reached) of £2,600. The proceeds were invested in a pair of memorial cottages for ex-servicemen - on Bay Road, Clevedon. Sadly, just over a decade ago, the cottages were sold for development and the charity was wound up. It is believed that the sale proceeds were donated to the Royal British Legion. The site on which the Oaklands Hotel stood behind the Green Beach is now occupied by a modern apartment block which - appropriately -  retains the name 'Oaklands'.

Concert Party, Oaklands Military Hospital, Clevedon (Copyright Phil Curme)

This article was prepared for the Royal British Legion temporary shop in Clevedon (which will be operational Oct - Nov 2023). My thanks to Norma Campbell, for providing the research notes and some of the images from her late husband's papers. For a fuller account of the Oaklands Red Cross Auxiliary Hospital in Clevedon then search out a copy of 'Clevedon's Own: The Great War 1914-1918 by the late Rob Campbell. Other sources include the Clevedon pier & Heritage trust Community Archive and the authors' own collection.