Woking Community Hospital in Heathside Road was opened in the 1990s, having been built on the site of Beechcroft Hospital – the geriatric wing of the old Woking Victoria Hospital, and prior to that a maternity unit. However, a framed collection of pictures in one of its corridors bears witness to an even earlier use during the Great War. Beechcroft was one of many large houses converted to deal with the casualties from the Western Front.
A handwritten caption tells the story:–
“My mother was a nursing sister at Woking Hospital 1916-18, before being sent to Egypt. Some of her patients did some sketches for her. I thought the enclosed could be of some historical interest. My father was wounded in France and it was at Woking Hospital that they met. I have included a photo of my mother, who served with the South African Military Nursing Service”.
Elsie Drabble was born early in 1894 in Royston, Yorkshire. Her baptism took place on 3rd March of that year and she is recorded on the Census return for 1901 as living with her family in Millgate Street, Royston. She was the eldest child of Ada and James Drabble. Her father was a coal hewer. By 1911 Elsie was living in Sheffield and working as a nursemaid. She started training as nurse at Sheffield Royal Hospital on 19th November 1913 and by November 1916 was employed as a Staff Nurse. She also undertook holiday duties at the Jessop Hospital for Women in Sheffield.
On 5th September 1916 she applied to join the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) – giving her date of birth as 1891 although the reason for the discrepancy is unclear. The application includes details of her father’s occupation – “Colliery Official” – and address as 60 Central Drive, Shirebrook Nr. Mansfield.
Three days later Elsie was informed that she had been accepted, although she didn’t formally sign up until the 7th December 1916. She was deployed to Woking the following day and continued to work there until being given a new posting in Egypt on 19th October 1917. Amongst the many casualties that would have passed through Beechcroft Hospital during that time was the man she was eventually to marry, Cyril Lazarus.
Cyril Montefiore Lazarus was born in Fiji in 1888 into a family that had moved from the East End of London to set up a business. By 1914 however the family was in South Africa and with the outbreak of the Great War he and his brothers joined the South African Regiment. Having been deployed to France in 1916 the regiment took part in the Somme offensive – most notably at Delville Wood where enormous losses were incurred – at Arras and the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917.
Cyril’s brother Joseph Barrett Lazarus of C Company, 2nd South African Regiment died on 15th May 1917 and is buried at the Willesden Jewish Cemetery. Given the date of his death and the location of his burial, he may have died in an English military hospital from wounds received at the Battle of Arras. Cyril served with distinction – The London Gazette of 22nd January 1917 carries a notice that Private C M Lazarus 7843 had been awarded the Military Medal although there are no details of the specific act of bravery. However Cyril himself was wounded during his military service and was transported to the Woking Military Hospital, where he met Staff Nurse Elsie Drabble. A number of years were to pass before they married as, like so many couples, they were parted by the demands of military service.
At the end of her war service on 4th February 1919, Elsie Drabble applied to resign her appointment from the Military Hospital, Helouan, Cairo. Her matron A L Wilson gave her a glowing reference “an excellent nurse – kind and attentive to the patients – most reliable and methodical in her work and has considerable administrative capacity”. She agreed to join the Reserves on demobilisation, which finally came on 6th June 1919. Elsie’s address on discharge was 39 Essenwood Road, Durban, South Africa – presumably she and Cyril were reunited once again.
The National Archive holds Elsie’s military records (TNA File ref WO 399_4779) and they paint a fascinating picture of her struggles with bureaucracy to be paid a war gratuity. Authority for payment of a war gratuity was submitted to the Paymaster General on 12th June 1919. However, the War Office correspondence states that no gratuity can be paid due to the relevant records having been destroyed (in fact all documents up to March 1920 in Egypt had been destroyed by Army Order). This decision was overturned, but only after a great deal of tenacious effort by Elsie to provide the necessary evidence. In 1926 the War Office correspondence finally confirming Elsie’s gratuity is addressed to Mrs. Elsie Lazarus, 8 Wexford Avenue, Westcliffe, Johannesburg.
Elsie and Cyril continued to live in Johannesburg, and she served once again as a nurse in WWII. At some point in the following years, the couple changed their surname from Lazarus to Langton. One of their children, Neville Langton supplied the photograph of Elsie in her South African Military Nursing Service uniform with the distinctive Springbok cap badge.
TNA File ref WO 399_4779 records relating to Elsie Drabble.
Entry for Cyril M Lazarus in the British Jewry Book of Honour, 1914-1920.