Record rescue: photographs of First World War Clacton nurses purchased for Essex Record Office

Hannah Salisbury, Essex Record Office

From time to time we see things come up for sale at auctions (and even on ebay) which have a place in the Essex Record Office’s (ERO) collection of records of Essex people and places. The ERO, however, has only a very small budget to purchase documents. This makes us even more especially grateful for the support of the Friends of Historic Essex who, where they can, purchase documents for preservation at the ERO, so they can be discovered and used by researchers.

One such recent purchase made by FHE is this set of 14 photographs of nurses at a Clacton hospital. They have been removed from an album, and therefore potentially from precious context which could have given us valuable information about their owner and the people in the pictures. We have done our best, however, to work out where the photos were taken, and find out about the lives of the women they show.

11 of these photographs date from the First World War, while 3 look to date from the Second World War. There was little written information on the photographs, but we have managed to establish that they relate to the Middlesex Hospital in Clacton, a convalescent hospital which was converted to military use immediately after the declaration of war. During the war, the hospital treated a total of 9,242 wounded and sick soldiers, including 4,622 cases of gunshot wounds, 415 cases of trench foot, and 110 cases of shell shock.

We are able to discover such details because in the immediate post-war years the two surgeons who ran the hospital, Comyns Berkeley and Victor Bonney, wrote a book about the hospital’s wartime service, The Annals of The Middlesex Hospital at Clacton-on-Sea during the Great War, 1914-1919. A copy of this is handily available in the ERO Library, and has been an invaluable aid in our sleuthing.

Two of the photographs have the name ‘Patterson’ written on the back – perhaps the owner of at least those photographs at some point. The book includes a list of staff at the hospital, which names a Miss T.G.A. Patterson as one of the nurses.

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This photograph is marked on the back as being a visit by Princess Alice to the hospital in 1917. It was through comparing the building in the background of this picture with images of the Middlesex Hospital that we have been able to confirm which hospital the pictures relate to. Princess Alice is the lady in civilian clothing in the second row back, second from the left. Her husband is next to her, and her two children in front. Through comparing this image with others in the Annals, it has been possible to identify the lady in the front row in the matron’s uniform is Georgiana Morgan.

Miss Morgan had been Matron of the Convalescent Home before it was converted into a War Hospital. Not only was she a trained, experienced nurse, but she had also nursed for the military before, in South Africa during the Boer War. In the Annals, the authors tell us that Miss Morgan deserved ‘special mention’:

‘Her powers of organisation and management had full scope… On Miss Morgan fell most of the responsibility for the management of the men and the orderlies, and all the responsibility for the nursing of the men and the management of the nurses and domestic staff, together with the catering and the outfitting of the soldiers. In addition, she was primarily concerned in the arrangements for the transfer of the men to the auxiliary hospitals. Miss Morgan was of great help to us not only in the wards and as our chief assistant at most of the operations, but also in the important matter of splint-making, for which she exhibited a remarkable natural capacity. The first-class Royal Red Cross, which she received from the King, was most thoroughly deserved.

She could turn her hand to anything! On one occasion a patient came down to the theatre for operation and was comfortably settled on the oeprating table. There was a wait, as the surgeon had been detained in one of the wards. Suddenly the matron said: “Your hair is dreadfully long; it wants cutting.” The man consented without enthusiasm, climbed down from the table, and, taking his place on a chair outside, the scissors were vigorously applied. However, she had only got half-way through when the surgeon appeared, and so the man had perforce to be satisfied with the remark that half a cut was better than no cut at all.’

The Annals of The Middlesex Hospital at Clacton-on-Sea during the Great War, 1914-1919, pp.23-24

In 1917 Miss Morgan was awarded the Royal Red Cross, a medal given for exceptional services to military nursing.

Judging by their uniforms, most of the photographs seem to be of Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) (the information on Sue Light’s Scarlet Finders website about identifying uniform has been invaluable).

These photographs seem to all show VADs in the first year of the war. VADs wore mid-blue dresses and white aprons, sometimes with a red cross. Until summer 1915 they wore caps like the ones in these pictures, while professional trained nurses wore a veil style headdress.

After summer 1915, the VAD headdress changed to the handkerchief style cap tied at the nape of the neck, as modelled by the lady in this photograph.

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In autumn 1917 stripes were introduced for VADs to wear on their sleeves. White stripes denoted length of service working for the Joint War Committee, so it looks like the VAD in this photograph had 2 years’ service at the time the picture was taken.

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The VADs were volunteers, with no experience of hospital work. Relations between trained nurses were not always easy, but ultimately VADs proved indispensable to the running of a hospital in wartime.

‘All the V.A.D’s, including those who were on the staff, as well as those who came to us for training before being drafted to Red Cross hospitals, worked just as hard as the nurses. They were very popular, not only because they were good at their job, but also because they did as they were told without any grousing or superior airs. Moreover, they were really most useful in spite of the welcome one of the first batch got, “We may be of use to you, but you will be of no use to us,” which welcome was handed down to succeeding generations of V.A.D.’s by their colleagues, as part of the ceremony of their initiation.’

The Annals of The Middlesex Hospital at Clacton-on-Sea during the Great War, 1914-1919, p.29

According to the caption on the back this photo shows ‘Someone who appears to like work!’ Judging by her veil headdress this lady is a trained nurse, at work up on one of the first floor verandahs on the front of the hospital.

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Of the nurses, the Annals has to say:

‘…the work that they [the nurses] did was most excellent. For the first few days following the arrival of a convoy they had a terribly hard time, most of them working all through the night and continuing for the whole of the next day, so that, on many occasions, they were on duty for thirty hours or more, with practically no rest… The nurses were all popular with the wounded men, and we never heard a single complaint; on the contrary, a large number of relatives who visited their sons expressed to us on many occasions their great gratitude for all the nurses had done.’

The Annals of The Middlesex Hospital at Clacton-on-Sea during the Great War, 1914-1919, pp.25

The nurses did sometimes get to enjoy some time off, and sea bathing on the beach at Clacton was one of their favourite ways to enjoy themselves:

‘The work of the nursing staff was arduous, especially when we had a “full house”, but, at intervals, they did not have such a bad time… Bathing, lunch on the beach, and occasional pleasant picnics in the country around occupied off-duty hours in the summer time.

Bathing was very popular, and the day nurses used to get up at 5 a.m. to bathe before going on duty. In spite of seaweed and occasional shoal of jelly fish, several learnt to swim. The preparations for bathing were, however, trying, the beach being too far away, even if the authorities had been complacent, to go down in dressing gowns, whilst there were no rocks behind which a bathing costume could be discreetly donned. This difficulty was partly surmounted by the purchase of a tent and by bathing in detachments. The tent was a flimsy affair, and of the variety known as bell. It would accommodate three nurses at a time if two undressed whilst the third held the pole. The change of garments had to be effected standing up, and the physique of the occupants had to be of the average, since, so we are informed, one of the necessary movements entails a certain amount of stooping. On occasions, therefore, only two were allowed inside the tent. It happened one day that a proper supervision in this respect had not been made, with the result that two of rather more generous proportions than average entered the tent with the pole holder. The undressing had to be done in regular drill fashion to keep the tent more steady, similar articles having to be shed at the same time. When, in due course,  the stooping movement came, it was too much for the guy-ropes and over went the whole show, which would have been all very well for a revue, but it was most fortunate that the Clacton police were not on point duty at this spot; otherwise there might have been lots of trouble, as the Town Council is one of the most particular in the kingdom as regards the amenities of the foreshore.’

The Annals of The Middlesex Hospital at Clacton-on-Sea during the Great War, 1914-1919, pp.25-26

To come round full circle, we finish with another photograph marked as being taken on the day that Princess Alice visited in 1917, which shows a VAD on the left of the back row, and six women in the uniform of trained nurses.

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The photographs now have a permanent home at ERO and will be available to present and future generations of researchers.

For anyone interested in the history of First World War nursing, The Annals of the Middlesex Hospital is definitely a recommended read – both informative and full of character. It can be found in the local history section of the ERO library under E/CLAC.

If you would like to help the Friends to buy documents for the ERO collection when they come up for sale, you can become a member , sign up to Give as You Live to raise money when you shop online (at no cost to you!), or make a donation.


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