Knowle Hill: From peace to war

Cobham Remembers

Written by Stephen Spark. Article first published in the Cobham Conservation & Heritage Trust magazine – August 2017

In November 1910 Knowle Hill House became Britain’s first permanent home of recovery. The hired motor ambulance carried post-operative patients several times a week from metropolitan hospitals to recuperate in the fresh air of Cobham. For those who had never ventured outside the capital’s sooty streets, the tranquillity of Knowle Hill’s sweeping parkland must have seemed like Elysium.

Recognising that good nutrition plays a crucial role in convalescence, the farm and kitchen garden were developed to supply fresh milk, eggs, vegetables and fruit. Each ward had its own kitchen, so meals went straight to the patient’s bedside and were tailored to individual dietary requirements – quite a contrast to the modern hospital experience.

One sister, five staff nurses and six probationers looked after around 60 patients under the supervision of secretary-superintendent Lt Col John Willoughby Wray. For £50 a year the Rector of St Mary’s, Stoke D’Abernon, the Rev Blackburne, provided spiritual sustenance. Margaret Traill was appointed the Home’s first matron, but proved unsatisfactory, being replaced in 1911 by Miss Sandifer.

The matron problem – which persisted for decades – is a clue that even Col Wray found it hard to keep the Home on track. Without regular injections of cash from its deep-pocketed benefactor, Sir Ernest Schiff, it is doubtful the institution could have survived for long.

Britain’s declaration of war on Germany on 4 August 1914 gave the Home a role its founders could never have foreseen: the post-operative care of wounded soldiers. The War Office gratefully accepted Sir Ernest’s prompt offer of 20 beds for military use, and on 19 September the Home became the first outside London to accept military convalescents. Between this date and 1 April 1920, when the last batch departed, some 2,000 British and Belgian servicemen passed through Knowle Hill.

Local people were keen to help, bringing gifts of illustrated papers, cigarettes, tobacco, boots and games, but eventually the constant round of visits proved counter-productive. In 1915, the managing committee ruled:

that no entertainments, except amongst the staff and the patients themselves, be allowed without the previous consent of the Committee, and that the matron be reminded that the regulations of the War Office discountenanced the promiscuous visiting of the patients by the general public.”

The following year it became necessary to add a new injunction:

As the grounds are exceptionally large and commodious, the patients are not to be allowed to go for drives or to entertainments, public or private.”

An exception was made for Rev Blackburne, who was allowed to entertain two soldiers to tea, accompanied by a nurse, every Friday. In 1917, the vicar went off to act as a chaplain to the Forces, and was replaced by Rev G D Brookes of Fairmile.

Even at Knowle Hill the soldiers could not entirely escape the conflict. Local historian T E Conway Walker recalled hearing the guns in France from Blundell Hill (the top of Polyapes), and armoured cars destined for the battlefields were tested in Water Lane. By 1915, the committee was debating whether to insure against damage from the air, and even Schiff’s philanthropy and his knighthood in 1911 could not entirely shield him from anti-Germanic prejudice. He died on 5 November 1918 and was buried in Brookwood Cemetery six days later – which, perhaps appropriately, was Armistice Day

Two years earlier, “a kindly but rather frightening bearded man”, 6ft 5in tall, visited the Home and was so impressed by what he saw that he bequeathed the Schiff his own house, Stilemans, near Compton, for use as an annexe.

This was Ernest Penrose Arnold, headmaster of Wixenford School near Wokingham, a feeder for Eton. Ernest was related to both Thomas Arnold of Rugby School and the poet Matthew Arnold, who had lived at Pain’s Hill Cottage, Cobham. Another Compton resident was the artist G F Watts, who just happened to be married to Mary, sister of Etheldred Fraser-Tytler, who had conceived the home of recovery concept back in 1904. It is not hard to see how Arnold came to be involved with the Schiff Home.

Arnold died in 1917, but for legal and practical reasons Stilemans could not be used as a home, so the property was sold. The £9,000 raised was used to build a new wing at Knowle Hill, designed, in a style sympathetic to John Earley Cook’s old house, by Robert Thomson of Wimbledon. The 40 beds in the Clara Arnold and Penrose Arnold wards received their first patients in February 1919.

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