Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Blighty ............. a unique record from the Great War part 4 setting the story straight

Ms Wattis explains
Now I am no where nearer finding out anything more about Ms Rachael Wattis who in the August of 1916 opened an autograph book for the patients of the St John’s Red Cross Hospital in Cheltenham.

It is a unique record of some of the men who spent time in the hospital, comprising 29 entries ranging from poems, and pictures to short passages expressing gratitude for the care the men received

The hospital which wasn't St John's
It comes from the collection of David Harrop who maintains a permanent exhibition of memorabilia from the Great War at the Remembrance Lodge in Southern Cemetery.

So far I have been able to find out something about three of the men who made a contribution in the book and in time it should be possible to find out something about the remaining twenty-seven along with the two Red Cross personnel who are also mentioned.

But today this is a correction because in the first of the stories I included a picture of what I thought was the Red Cross Hospital

St John's Red Cross Hospital
It was an easy enough mistake to make given that it showed a group of Red Cross nurses and soldiers and was with the autograph book.

It is a Red Cross Hospital in Cheltenham and just maybe Ms Wattis is amongst the staff but it is not St John’s

And this I know because of help from the   Cheltenham Local & Family History Library who kindly supplied me with an image of the hospital along with some more taken from a copy of a local newspaper.*

At which point I do have to express my thanks to local history and studies centres which are often the first point of call when attempting to tell a story, especially when that story takes off all over the country.

Inside St John's
So I owe a special debt of gratitude to the archivist at East Dunbartonshire who helped me solve the mystery of how a photograph of a cinema in Chorlton taken in 1920 could end up in Scotland, a special thanks to the Derby library who brought some of my family out of the shadows and to Greenwich and Manchester who I use a lot and never tell me to go away.

And so to Cheltenham where amongst their records was that picture of the Red Cross hospital from the Cheltenham Chronicle and Gloucestershire Graphic of July 31 1915.

And there is no way that the picture I originally thought was St John’s can be so because it had been a school which quite clearly my picture is not.

All of which is confirmed by the remaining images from the Cheltenham Chron which show what were either very large classrooms or the school hall, none of which would have fitted inside the grand house on my postcard.

And the added bonus is that the newspaper provided more staff names which can be followed up and perhaps reveal a link to Ms Wattis.

Average duration of patients in St John's, 1915-1919
Nor is that all for there is also the final report on St John’s from the Red Cross covering the four years from when it opened in June 1915 through till its close in January 1919.**

It had been equipped to take 160 patients which were “increased to 180, [and] was exceptionally well adapted for a hospital having no stairs; its proximity to both railway stations ..... and on several occasions individual cases on ambulance trains, too desperately ill to proceed to the North, were detrained in Cheltenham and brought to St John.”**

In time it will be useful to compare this report with the one we have for one of our Red Cross hospitals here in Chorlton, and of course it will send me off into Cheltenham to explore some of those who kept St John going.

Above all the report offers a context for those 29 entries.  I know that 2995 men passed through the hospital and that only 15 died and it may be that some at least of the 29 had stays matching the averages for 1916 and 1917.

It is only a start but we are a little closer to those men and women who spent their time in St John’s

Additional research from Cheltenham Local & Family History Library, http://www.gloucestershire.gov.uk/archives/article/109250/Cheltenham-Local-and-Family-History-Centre

Entry from Blighty, © David Harrop

Picture; Cheltenham Chronicle and Gloucestershire Graphic July 31 1915, courtesy of Cheltenham Local & Family History Library, cheltlocalstudies@gloucestershire.gov.uk

* Cheltenham Local & Family History Library, http://www.gloucestershire.gov.uk/archives/article/109250/Cheltenham-Local-and-Family-History-Centre

**St John’s V.A. Hospital Glos, 108 final Report from the Red Cross in Gloucestershire 1914-1919 quoted from, St. John's VA hospital Cheltenham http://www.angelfire.com/az/garethknight/redcross/stjohns.html

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