Christmas and New Year in the Territorial Hospitals, 1917

  • by Ross Horsley, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library


Within three months of the outbreak of the First World War, Leeds had already seen its first influx of injured soldiers. These made their way to Beckett’s Park to what would become the city’s largest military care centre, the 2nd Northern General Hospital. At its peak, this hospital had 3,200 beds, but was still just one of many institutions across Leeds specialising in the treatment and rehabilitation of returning servicemen. Some of these were temporary hospitals offering convalescent care and healthy food in the pleasant surroundings of stately homes like Temple Newsam House and Gledhow Hall. Others, like Beckett Park itself, boasted some of the country’s top surgeons, carrying out innovative procedures on severely wounded soldiers. One thing they all had in common was the strength of community they fostered within their walls, between patients, nurses and other staff.

The Journal of Leeds Territorial Hospitals suggests this spirit was never in greater abundance than over the festive period. We have three copies of the magazine, all from 1918, in the Local and Family History Library at shelf mark L 940.476 JOU. Inside, articles about life on the wards mix with staff portraits, cartoons, comic pieces and letters – while the Christmas and New Year celebrations of late 1917 are covered in particularly immersive detail, as you’ll find if you read on below. Please do be aware that these extracts contain some dated language we’d no longer find acceptable today, but which we’ve left in as an accurate reflection of a period almost 100 years ago.

At Beckett Park Hospital, a contributor signing himself as ‘J.B.B.’ describes the activities that occupied soldiers throughout December: “For many weeks the wards had been making hundreds of golly-wogs, black cats and hair-tidies, which they sold to visitors and friends. Some wards were fortunate to get large orders for these things from munition workers and business houses. It was quite a common sight to see half-a-dozen men and Nurses sitting round an empty bed making golly-wogs, etc., working quietly and solemnly, thinking most probably of the good things which were to come, and speaking only when it was necessary to ask where the different portions of cat or golly-wog anatomy had been put, and anyone casually walking into a ward would have been quite shocked if they had heard a patient or Nurse asking, “Oh, Sister, where have you put all those arms and legs?” or “Have you put those eyes on yet?” or “Please, Nurse, will you twist that neck round for me?” and “Take that eye out; it does not match,” etc. Then as the days drew on and only a day or two remained until Christmas, the hard-earned money had to be spent. If one was fortunate enough to get into the confidence of a Sister, one was permitted on the condition everything one saw was kept a dead secret, to have a peep at the good things stored in the kitchen cupboards. They were like some smuggler’s cave on a small scale, stored up with all the luxuries which go to make up Christmas festivities. Then pianos arrived in the wards and even a barrel organ, which having annoyed the authorities was put into detention for twenty-four hours and only let out on Christmas Day. Decorations then came, coloured paper, ivy, holly, mistletoe and paper chains.”

Once the big day arrived, patients and staff could expect a packed schedule of festivities and treats, such as this one enjoyed by residents of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (V.A.D.) at Gledhow Hall, a private house offered for use as a hospital by its owner, Lord Airedale:

CHRISTMAS DAY – A box of 100 cigarettes was presented to every patient, and a calendar to every member of Nursing Staff, by Lord Airdale.
12.30. Dinner – Turkey – Plum-pudding.
4.30. “Grand Fish Pond,” containing over 300 presents – for patients, Nursing and Domestic Staffs.
6.00. “Yorkshire” Meat Tea.
7.30. Whist Drive.
BOXING DAY – Whist Drive and Supper in Y.M.C.A., for patients and their friends.
Dec. 27 and 28. – Theatricals by Staff to patients and their friends.
Dec. 29. – Matinee Performance to friends of the Staff, and in the evening, one for the patients from the Roundhay-St. Edmond’s and Chapeltown Auxiliary Military Hospitals.
Dec. 31. – Opening show of the Hospital Cinema, and presentation of Oak Eight-day Clock and Wedgewood Flower Bowl to Commandant by the patients.

In our previous post, The Gledhow Hall Scrapbook, you can read more about life at this particular hospital, see some great photographs, and find out about an amazing surviving artefact from the hall: a large scrapbook compiled by its commandant, Edith Cliff, and now held at the library.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to know more about Christmas Dinner itself, Lance Corporal W.A. Barrett gives a humorous recollection from the East Leeds War Hospital, which was based in the building that today houses Thackray Medical Museum: “Our Captain had, it was generally understood, earned distinction as a “carver” in the surgical world, but on this occasion, with a full-blown turkey on the operating table, he excelled. Right well did he hack his way through to the “inwards,” and as speedily did the “portions” mysteriously vanish. Thanks to the praiseworthy energy of a few local ladies and gentlemen and the delightful agility of our Sisters and Nurses, business was brisk, coffee, cigarettes and dessert succeeding one another in well-regulated order… It was done… So was I… I lay contentedly back, basking in the sunshine of our dear patrons’ smiles. To those who sat at the table, missing limbs and arms in slings proved no handicap.”

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Finally, back at Beckett’s Park: “Sunday and New Year’s Eve were quite quiet days, and everyone was glad of a short lull before entering upon the final outburst, which was to say farewell to 1917 – and to welcome 1918. The Band together with St. Chad’s Choir helped at a Service held in the main staircase. By teatime all the wards were again merrymaking. The Officers’ Mess in Caedmon eat their Christmas Dinner, and the R.A.M.C. unit had a very enjoyable whist drive and dance in the Recreation Room, at which the Hospital Band played. Then towards midnight, when the fun was at its height, patients, Sisters, Nurses and Officers all stopped whatever they were engaged in and waited for the critical moment when the clock announced the birth of a New Year. When all had sung the famous “Auld Lang Syne” many times over, the various gatherings broke up amidst greetings of Good Luck for the New Year.”

We echo this sentiment here at the Secret Library and would like to wish all our readers a happy and healthy 2016. If you’d like to hear more about the military hospitals of Leeds, come along to our Healing Homes of World War I event at Armley Library on 18 February, 2.00-4.00 pm. Until then, we’ll carry on digging out more interesting finds from our collections and investigating the lesser-known history of Leeds right here at the Secret Library blog. Happy New Year!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Tony Scaife says:

    Boys from the Orchestra Society at the Central High School Leeds were giving concerts for the wounded at Beckett’s Park well into the 1920s. So clearly the recovery and discharge of some patients was a slow process despite the excellent their Christmas Dinners.

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