Chance donation of 100-year-old photo album opens hidden history of Sawtry First World War hospital

Memories from Whitehall, Sawtry, with Alan Bottell.

Memories from Whitehall, Sawtry, with Alan Bottell. - Credit: Archant

For the past couple of years, Alan Bottell has been researching a hospital that would have played a huge part in the community 100 years ago, but now it is barely known about, tucked away in a remote road on the outskirts of Sawtry.

Memories from Whitehall, Sawtry,

Memories from Whitehall, Sawtry, - Credit: Archant

Mr Bottell had managed to uncover a bit of information about the hospital but the real breakthrough came last September when Peter Trolove, of Great Gidding, handed Sawtry History Society a photo album that had been lying around at home. Inside were pictures of Whitehall Convalescent Hospital, in Coppingford Road, taken by his mother Jesse Speechley.

Ms Speechley, who lived at Manor Farm, Glatton, worked at the hospital as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse and documented her time with her camera, taking shots of soldiers, nurses and everyday life a century ago.

“When the owner Lord Chesham, who was part of the Cavendish family, came of age, he lent the building to his uncle, the Brigadier General W E Cavendish who opened the hospital in May 1915 for soldiers wounded in the First World War,” said Mr Bottell, of Westfield Road, Sawtry.

“The commandant, or matron, was his daughter Bettine Cavendish. There were lots of these convalescent hospitals dotted around the country and it was said that the person who served the tea in them, went home where they were served tea by their servants – only those who could afford to work for free worked in the hospitals.

“It was a Red Cross hospital so they would have got funding from them but they wouldn’t have got any from the Government. Residents would have helped by giving stuff to the hospital.

“They would have also raised money by holding different events – I have found that there was an auction where everyone donated stuff to sell, that was held in a farmer’s field owned by the Turnell family. Fanny Turnell also worked at the hospital.

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“The hospital only had room for 25 soldiers at a time but managed to treat more than 650 soldiers in its three years. It would have played a major part in village life at the time.

“It closed in May 1918 as Bettine Cavendish got married in 1917 and her mother took over the hospital but due to ill health of the brigadier general, they were forced to move to Norfolk.”

Mr Bottell, 76, added: “I’ve been researching the hospital for a while, and over the winter myself and a colleague spent a lot of time going through newspaper clippings in Peterborough and Huntingdon libraries.

“There wasn’t that much information around until we were given the album. I was over the moon when I got that. We did not have very much, just a few pictures – that was all – and this opened up lots of avenues for us to research and we got lots more information.

“I found a letter from a Canadian soldier by chance. He was from Huntingdon, near Quebec, and of all the places he would have ended up in Sawtry, not far from Huntingdon.

“There is a picture of him with his face painted like a clown as he was part of the Blue Boys, who would raise money by performing in village halls. They were called the Blue Boys because of their uniform, which wasn’t popular.

“The uniform was handed to soldiers being treated in hospitals to show they had been wounded in fighting and not avoiding battle, but the soldiers didn’t like them. Pubs were told not to let them in as there were times when soldiers also couldn’t go into pubs. In fact, the landlord at the George in Huntingdon was fined for letting soldiers drink. She was lucky not to lose her licence.”

At the moment Mr Bottell has only managed to find details on one other patient. Private George Bickerton sent home, in Berwick-upon-Tweed, a postcard of Huntingdon Grammar School with a message: “I’m wounded again.”

He also hasn’t been able to talk to Mr Trolove, or to thank him, since the album was dropped off.

After the war, Lord Chesham sold his home for £8,000 to a Major Fitton, whose family lived there until the 1980s, when it was sold for £285,000. Now the building is called Coppingford Hall and is home to Supreme Concrete.