Southwark Military Hospital
by Brian Green

St Saviour’s Infirmary in East Dulwich Grove had been built in the face of considerable local opposition in 1887 by the Guardians of the Poor of the parish of St Saviour’s, Southwark to relieve the overcrowding at their existing infirmary in Newington. It was located in Dulwich because the open aspect of the area was considered beneficial to the patients and because there was no site available in the overcrowded inner-London parish which it served.  In 1902 the St Saviour’s Union workhouse was amalgamated with a neighbouring Poor Law union to become Southwark Union and the infirmary in Dulwich was renamed Southwark Union Infirmary.

In 1914, prior to the outbreak of World War 1, the War Office had begun to identify hospitals and sites in London which might serve as general military hospitals.  These would be run by the Territorial Force (TE) of the Royal Army Medical Corps and included the Maudsley Hospital, Denmark Hill which became No. 4 General Hospital TE RAMC.  Elsewhere in Camberwell was No. 1 General Hospital TE RAMC where Vera Brittain served for a time as a nurse.  They were intended to augment the Stationary Military Hospitals located well behind the Line in northern France.

By March1915 it was apparent that the casualty rate among British and Empire troops was so great that the existing number of general hospitals was insufficient and an approach was made by the War Office to the Local Government Board to have the temporary use of some Poor Law Infirmaries.  The situation in France grew more acute and in October 1915, following the Second Battle of Ypres there were further alarming increases in casualties and there were calls for further expansion of such hospitals and both the Southwark and Lambeth Unions were asked to participate in the scheme to convert their infirmaries to military hospitals.

The meeting between the Local Government Board and the two sets of Poor Law guardians produced an immediate and positive response.  The decline in pauperism in London, caused by the introduction of old age pensions, increases in wages after 1911 and a freezing in rents had improved life for those previously below the poverty line.  As a consequence both the unions’ infirmaries had bed space and it was agreed that as the Lambeth infirmary was actually nearer to Southwark than Southwark’s own infirmary at Dulwich, the East Dulwich Grove infirmary would evacuate its patients and hand it over to the military.

Within two weeks the Dulwich infirmary had been evacuated of its patients, leaving a handful of the most seriously ill who could not be moved.  134 patients (77 men and 57 women) were transferred to the Lambeth institution in Renfrew Street, 166 patients (59 men and 107 women) to Newington infirmary in Walworth.  A further 39 adult patients were located at Christchurch Infirmary in Lambeth, along with 98 children.  It was the first Poor Law Infirmary in London to be evacuated.

The Royal Army Medical Corps took over control of the infirmary in East Dulwich Grove on November 11th, which at the insistence of the guardians was named Southwark Military Hospital.  The hospital was fully equipped for 800 patients and was largely staffed.  At the suggestion of the Southwark guardians, the existing Medical Superintendent Dr A  Bruce was appointed the rank of Major and served as its Officer in charge for most of the three and half years the hospital was used by the military.  He was promoted Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel and in February 1918 was transferred to France.  The nursing and domestic staff presented him with a gold watch “in connection with his impending departure for the Front.  One of his successors praised Bruce for his many years of work at the hospital and the respect with which he was held and the air of general happiness he had created.   Bruce was assisted in his duties by the Matron Miss Williams, who was also retained by the RAMC by  Dr Malcolm Kinsella, a specialist surgeon who served at the hospital from 1917-1919, George Batten, the surgeon in charge of the X-ray department who had worked locally before the war and one of the anaesthetists who was a local doctor, C.E.Carpmael who had a practice in Dulwich Village.

Southwark Military Hospital retained its existing nursing staff and augmented this with nurses from the VAD (Volunteer Aid Detachment of the Red Cross and St John’s).  There were 15 nursing sisters, 28 staff nurses, 59 probationers, 40 orderlies and ancillary staff.  In addition there was a staff of 55 RAMC personnel. Lt Col Bruce, was succeeded in February 1918 by Brevet Lt Col William Butler, who was himself shortly after, posted to Egypt and from July 1918 Lt Col J R McMunn, a RAMC career officer who had previously had experience as Registrar at the Royal Victoria Hospital Netley and 11 Stationary Hospital in France. McMunn was later promoted Major-General and became Honorary Surgeon to the King.  Butler returned to his pre-war role where he was an eminent figure in public health and became president of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health. 

Among the archives at the Imperial War Museum is a folder of papers belonging to VAD Nurse Joanna Swarbrick who served at Southwark Military Hospital, East Dulwich Grove from July 1917 until August 1919.  Joanna Swarbrick was from Blackpool and had passed her assistant nursing exams and joined the St John’s division of the Voluntary Auxiliary Detachment.  In 1915, probably aged 19, she was attached to a military hospital in Birmingham.  It was there that she started to keep a book in which she invited her wounded patients to write something or even make a drawing.  By the time she reached London, two years later, one book was full and she had started a second.  Naturally some of the inscriptions are sentimental and some are half-remembered pieces of poetry but others are jokey, especially those written by the wounded soldiers from the Australian Imperial Force. A number of paintings and sketches in the books display considerable talent.

By 1918, American wounded were being cared for at East Dulwich Grove and Corporal William G. Dill of Coy F 326 Infantry American Expeditionary Force writes; “May we have those in our arms that we love in our hearts”.  A cartoon by Gunner Jones 2/9 Hampshire Regt from the Isle of Wight is captioned “Signing the Pledge – Compliments to Nurse”.

Private L.E Taylor of the 20th  Battalion Australian I.F inscribes a verse from The Noble Flag, a South African War poem:
It is only a small piece bit of bunting
It is only an old coloured rag
Yet thousands have died in its honour
And shed their best blood for the Flag

Joseph Cox of the 2/21 London Regiment (First Surrey Rifles), Dulwich’s local regiment has a place in Nurse Swarbrick’s book.  He may not have lived locally because by September 1918 the First Surreys’ ranks were being filled with men from remnants of other shattered regiments He dedicates a piece of music to Joanna.  It is set to a poem by Nicholas Grimoald, and Joseph Cox modestly notes that the tune is nor elaborate “art” but a simple melody.

Of all the heavenly gifts
That mortal man command
No trusty treasure in the world
Can countervail a friend.

L/Cpl J. Homeward of the 1st Royal West Kent Regiment mentions he had been wounded four times; December 1915, June 1916, June 1917,October 1917 and writes   that he was still in hospital in April 1919.

A. P. Nimmo of the Seaforth Highlanders adapts a verse from the Robert Burns’ poem Handsome Nell to express his opinion of Nurse Swarbrick:

She dresses sae (so) clean and neat
Sae simple and genteel
Of course, ye ken, her modest air
Gars (Gives) ony (any)  dress luk weel (look well)
A gaudy dress and  graceful mein (demeanour)
May slightly touch the heart
But, its innocence and modesty
That polishes the dart.

Nurse Swarbrick stayed a few more months at East Dulwich Grove after Southwark Military Hospital closed and then transferred to the Special Surgical Hospital, Shepherds Bush and a later became a nurse at  Billinge Hospital in Wigan before resigning to get married in July 1922.  In 1949 Joanna Porter (neé Swarbrick) returned to nursing as a State Enrolled Assistant Nurse.

A Nurses’ League was founded at the hospital to maintain links and friendship with nurses posted to military hospitals in France, Salonika and Egypt as well as civilian hospitals elsewhere.  A number of Dulwich residents joined the committee and social events were sometimes arranged. In January 1918 a dance had been organised but had to be postponed at the last minute when a Zeppelin air-raid occurred.  In its place an impromptu concert was hastily arranged.

Relations between the military and civil authorities were particularly warm at Dulwich and the Army authorities praised the Southwark guardians and hospital staff for the harmonious and efficient working of the hospital.  In return, the Southwark Guardians erected the memorial which has now been restored, to those who died within its walls.  Altogether 12,522 wounded and sick servicemen were cared for at Southwark Military Hospital of whom 119 died; a very small percentage of those admitted and a tribute to the skill of the doctors, surgeons and nurses. The military handed the hospital back to the Southwark Guardians in April1919 and the following month civilian patients began to be transferred back to Dulwich.  Major (Acting Lt Col) Bruce was demobbed and after a fortnight’s leave resumed his duties as Medical Superintendent along with the Matron and both were awarded a gratuity by the War Office.  A Peace Day Celebration was arranged for the patients on 19th July 1919 when they were given an egg for breakfast and a dinner which included chicken and new potatoes, stewed fruit, jelly or blancmange with tea and cake later.  The 45 children who were patients were also given toys.