Waverley Abbey Hospital

Plaque within Waverley Abbey recording its WWI role

Title: Plaque within Waverley Abbey recording its WWI role
Description: Image copyright of Kirsty Bennett, Surrey Heritage by-nc

Text by Gillian Devine

Waverley Abbey House, in Tilford, near Farnham, was the home of Major Rupert Anderson, his wife, Amy, and their family. The ruins of the oldest Cistercian Monastery in England, Waverley Abbey, were in the grounds. (Read more about the Anderson family here.)

Mrs Anderson was already, before the outbreak of war, the Commandant of Red Cross Detachment No. 56 in the Surrey Division, and the house was offered to the government at the beginning of the war. Waverley Abbey Military Hospital was opened in September 1914 under the command of the Cambridge Hospital in Aldershot. It contained 60 beds and was worked by the Surrey 56 Red Cross Detachment with help from the men of the Surrey 23 Detachment who supplied night and day orderlies and helped with stretcher parties. Mrs Anderson herself became Commandant of the hospital. Drs Travers, Tanner and Hussey were the Honorary Medical Officers and Miss Potter was Matron, operating theatre. In 1914 twenty four members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) worked at the hospital. The first patients were wounded soldiers from the Mons retreat of August/September 1914.

Exterior of Waverley Abbey

Title: Exterior of Waverley Abbey
Description: Copyright: Rural Life Centre by-nc

In 1915 the average number of patients was 60, even though this included a period when two wards in the hospital was closed for disinfecting after four cases of ‘spotted fever’. For several weeks the number was over 70. The 1915 Red Cross report stated that 840 patients had been admitted since the hospital had been opened and that there had been no deaths. Most of the patients were members of the Expeditionary Force, the British Army sent to the Western Front.

As casualty numbers rose more beds were needed and following a request from the War Office huts were built in the grounds, bringing the total number of beds to 100. These were expected to be filled by January 1916.

The wards were named after Walter Scott’s novels and included ‘Monastery’ in the main house, ‘Lady of the Lake’, ‘Kenilworth’, ‘Rob Roy’, and Abbot A and Abbot B in the huts.

Kenilworth Ward, in one of the huts in the grounds

Title: Kenilworth Ward, in one of the huts in the grounds
Description: Copyright: Rural Life Museum, Tilford by-nc

The number of patients steadily increased and in 1916 1,254 patients passed through the hospital. The work of the hospital was very successful and there were no deaths recorded during the year. A large number of serious face and jaw cases were admitted during the latter half of 1916 and these were treated by Captain Gillies, the plastic surgeon specialist.

The staff at Waverley Abbey were sorry to see these men go when they were transferred to a specially-built hospital at Sidcup in Kent during 1917, since these cases were interesting and the patients spent longer at the hospital.

More buildings were erected in the grounds and a new water supply was laid on, drawing water from the nearby River Wey by a ram pump. A new church and recreation hut were dedicated by the Bishop of Winchester in a service held on September 23 to commemorate the second anniversary of the opening of the hospital. There was also a new hut for nurses, with a second sitting room and a small shop, run by Hon. Gerald Montagu, opened for the sale of tobacco and sweets. The Commandant organised an entertainment for patients and staff on Christmas Day. This was later repeated and tickets were sold, the proceeds being in aid of the hospital.

There were even more patients in 1917, the number admitted during the year being 1,314. On 23 September the anniversary of the opening of the hospital was marked, as it had been every previous year, with a special commemorative service. It was held on the terrace and lawns at the front of the house, and every patient who could leave their bed was present, together with all of the staff. The scene was beautiful and impressive.

Staff and patients in the grounds

Title: Staff and patients in the grounds
Description: Copyright: Rural Life Museum, Tilford by-nc

The patients were entertained with a special show at Christmas, and there were three lectures given by members of the Victoria League during the year. The house had also been given a Pathescope. The shop continued to be successful and raised money towards the running of the hospital. The patients and staff were able to wander in the lovely and picturesque grounds as seen in the example photograph here.

The grounds of Waverley Abbey Hospital

Title: The grounds of Waverley Abbey Hospital
Description: Copyright: Rural Life Centre, Tilford by-nc

Mrs Anderson was appointed OBE in January 1918, and later Miss Elizabeth Anderson, Miss Annie Anderson, Miss D Donald, Miss Clara Oakes and Miss Frances Oakes, who were nurses, received ‘mention’ for long and good service.

The year 1918 was the busiest year in the history of the hospital. The Commandant had already agreed to the addition of 50 more beds if the need arose and this was accomplished by putting more beds in each ward, by turning the recreation hut into a ward and by erecting eight tents. By early summer the number of beds had been increased to 246. The number of patients admitted during the year was 1,348, the average stay being 30 days. An outstanding feature of the work of 1918 was the treatment of fracture cases. Major Harris, who specialised in these cases and used apparatus which he had invented, was attached to the hospital as Medical Officer. Medical and surgical cases from the Canadian Forestry Corps, whose camp was in the neighbourhood, were also admitted.

On September 23, the fourth anniversary of the opening of the hospital was marked by a service conducted by the Dean of Westminster in the grounds of the Abbey. It was attended by a number of dignitaries as well as by all of the staff and those patients who could leave their beds.

Waverley Abbey Hospital was visited by royalty in 1916, 1917 and 1918.

Early in March 1919 the work of Waverley Abbey as a hospital came to a close. It had been open for 4½ years and had never closed for a single day during the war. The number of beds had increased from 60 in 1914 to 246. The Senior Sister (Miss L. Reeves) and 20 other members of the staff had worked in the hospital from its opening to its close. The boys of the 1st and 3rd Troops of the Farnham Boy Scouts gave loyal and willing help throughout the whole war. Gerald Montagu continued to run the shop until the last patient had left. The surplus stock was distributed amongst the men as they left. Before the staff dispersed Major Anderson treated them to a farewell dinner.

The equipment from the hospital was sold by Weller Eggar in a sale lasting three days in April/May 1919. The sale included vast quantities of bedding, kitchen equipment and other household items as well as medical equipment such as splints, stretchers, bath chairs and a spinal carriage. Tennis racquets, a tennis net and croquet mallets went under the hammer and some of the large huts were also sold.

The last public act in connection with the hospital took place on 18 January 1920 when the two flags which had flown over Waverley Abbey Hospital were consecrated and placed in All Saints’ Church, Tilford.

VAD personnel records for Waverley Abbey Hospital are kept at the Red Cross Museum and Archives in London and can be viewed online (http://www.redcross.org.uk/About-us/Who-we-are/History-and-origin/First-World-War). The personnel record cards were started in 1914, possibly when the hospital was first opened, and continued until 1919, the date of closure. Staff and their date of enrolment are listed. They contain useful information including names and addresses, the name of the Commandant and the number of beds.

After the war, index cards were compiled for hospital staff. We do not know the names of everyone who worked at Waverley Abbey but some names can be obtained by searching under the hospital’s name in the index online. Unfortunately the cards do not always include the name of the hospital and so cannot be used to obtain a complete list of staff. The cards indicate that although many staff came from Farnham and the surrounding areas, there were many from further afield. The cards also reveal that many of the nurses worked in more than one hospital and that some of them worked in hospitals in Europe as well. All four of Mrs Anderson’s daughters worked as nurses at the hospital – there are cards for Amy, Elizabeth, Annie and Margaret. Amy, who also worked at the Astoria hospital in Paris, was awarded the Medaille d’Honneur.  Elizabeth and Annie also spent time at Lady Violet Brassey’s Hospital at 90 Park Street, London.

VAD personnel card for Amy Anderson

Title: VAD personnel card for Amy Anderson
Description: Copyright: British Red Cross Archives and Museum by-nc

VAD Personnel Index Card for Amy Anderson

Title: VAD Personnel Index Card for Amy Anderson
Description: Copyright: British Red Cross Archives and Museum by-nc

Another nurse at Waverley was Edith Ware, a neighbour of the Andersons in Tilford, whose sister Gwen was also a nurse and served at Highlands hospital in Farnham before transferring to Bramshott and eventually going to France. Both sisters wrote about their war experiences, Gwen in her diary and Edith in a book of twelve poems entitled Annals of Waverley Abbey Hospital, 1916.

Two women connected with Waverley Abbey hospital are commemorated on the Surrey Voluntary Aid Detachment war memorial at Farnham Road Hospital in Guildford. Miss Winifred Elizabeth de Mesnie Atkinson from Belfast died there in February 1917 of appendicitis. She was just 19 years old. There is no Red Cross personnel card for Miss Atkinson – was she a member of the Armed Forces? Miss Beatrice Clibbens, who worked at Waverley Abbey from November 1917 to March 1918, died in Springnall Hospital, Halifax, in August 1918. She was 45.

Another nurse was Dorothy Robinson, daughter of Major-General Sir CW Robinson. In her letters home to her mother she describes her life at Waverley Abbey – her accommodation, some of her duties, entertainments for the men, rumours of Zeppelins overhead, etc. Her letters are in the British Red Cross Museum and Archives and can be read here.

We do not know the names or stories of most of the men who convalesced at Waverley Abbey but the Red Cross archives also contain a lot of material from Waverley Abbey including photographs and two scrapbooks compiled by Nurse Oakes which contain signed pictures, poems and messages from soldiers of all nationalities.

Several people associated with Waverley Abbey expressed their feelings in poetry. As well as the poems written in these albums, Mr D N Bethune, then the Commandant of Detachment No. 23 Farnham, who supplied orderlies and stretcher bearers to Waverley Abbey Hospital, wrote, in 1915, his views on ‘The Ladies of the Red Cross’ as poetry:

Ta the Ladies of the Red Cross
Ladies of the Red Cross
You all are ready here
To greet the wounded soldier
With words of kindly cheer
To show him he’s remembered
Now he is home again
And that your hands are ready
To ease his hours of pain
You give him all your kindness,
You give your care – your love,
For you work beneath the Banner
With its emblem from above
And many a heart is lighter
For what you say and do
And many a man is thankful
For all he owes to you
Ladies of the Red Cross
You will in after years
When life has brought its pleasures
Its sorrows and its tears;
You will, I know, remember
The days you won your fame
When all your country loved you
And “Tommy” blessed your name

Material held at the Rural Life Museum, Tilford, includes many photographs of Waverley Abbey Hospital and other material, including letters from nurses and patients. There is more at Farnham Museum.

All of the available material suggests that Waverley Abbey Hospital was efficiently run and that Mrs Amy Anderson was a very ‘hands-on’ Commandant. She appears in many of the photographs in her Red Cross nurse uniform, pouring tea, supervising the stores, helping in the kitchen, etc. Of course, these photographs may have been staged, but the fact that so many of her nurses served for many months or years may have indicated that Waverley Abbey was quite a good place to work.

A ward kitchen at Waverley Abbey Hospital

Title: A ward kitchen at Waverley Abbey Hospital
Description: Copyright: Rural Life Museum, Tilford by-nc

Major Rupert Anderson, the owner of Waverley Abbey House not only allowed his mansion to be transformed into a military hospital, he also allowed his trees to be felled by  the Canadian Forestry Corps, and sold for pit props, railway sleepers and the like.


Shell-case art presented to Mrs Amy Anderson to commemorate her service as Commandant of Waverley Abbey hospital

Title: Shell-case art presented to Mrs Amy Anderson to commemorate her service as Commandant of Waverley Abbey hospital
Description: Image copyright of Kirsty Bennett by-nc