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Stories Of Beckett's Park Hospital

Stories Of Beckett's Park Hospital
Written by   05/03/2013

Headingley LitFest are researching stories of Beckett's Park Hospital between 1914 - 1918 when it served soldiers injured in the  Great War. Richard Wilcocks tells us more.

"So many names and ranks of people who were there, with no information on them, and so many yellowing photographs with no names!

We're looking for stories about the thousands of patients, members of the RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps), nurses, VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachment) and others who were connected with the 2nd Northern General Hospital during the Great War. It was better known as the Beckett’s Park Hospital, and when hostilities commenced in 1914 it suddenly occupied newly-built hostels, halls and classrooms which were intended for use as a training college for teachers. Today, it is part of Leeds Metropolitan University.

The stories we find will end up in a book we will publish at about this time next year, and there will be a dramatic and musical performance based on it, which must be ready for the seventh Headingley LitFest in March, 2014, all thanks to the generosity of the Heritage Lottery Fund.

It is going to be quite a task, because so much appears to have faded into the distance, with many records lost, destroyed or perhaps forgotten in some dusty storeroom or attic. We are unearthing some really interesting stories, though, and a number of descendants have sent us photos, reminiscences and medical records. Most of our new contacts want us to dip into our research to supplement what they have given us.

The Liddle Collection, which is in the university’s Brotherton Library, is packed with items relating to 1914 -18, and in it we found crumbling books of photographs relating to a Sister who worked at our hospital, Violet Trafford –Towers. Most of them must have been taken with a camera like the popular Box Brownie, with faces hard to make out, but a significant number of them include one particular patient, a certain Major Rooke of the Kings Own Scottish Fusiliers. After a post-war spell as a deputy matron in Basrah in Mesopotamia – now in Iraq – she married him. I have spoken on the phone with her granddaughter.

As the War continued and the horrors multiplied, Beckett’s Park became nationally known as a special centre for facial surgery and dentistry: shrapnel from artillery shells was slicing into human flesh on an scale not seen in previous conflicts. I have been given ‘before and after’ photographs of soldiers who had parts of the face, especially the jaw area, reconstructed using some of the near-miraculous plastic surgery techniques which were being pioneered at the time. One of these, Private Robert Bass, had his upper lip sliced off and most of his teeth knocked out after a shell exploded near him. He met the surgeon who had treated him, a Dr Wilfred Vining, a decade after the operation, who offered to improve on the scar he was left with. “No thanks,” he replied. “I’ve got used to it now.” I have spoken with Private Bass’s son, who is aged 91 and lives in Scholes.

What we would love to find, of course, are poems by doctors and patients (yes, there were many written) and personal letters. We have found some, for example many of those sent home by Roslyn Rutherford, who came over in 1917 after graduating from the Department of Massage at Sydney University. She lived in the Grimthorpes in Headingley close to her work, and wrote about the people and personalities at the hospital. One of the things she mentioned was the barbed wire fence which was put up to separate the mainly female trainee teachers, who were allocated one building, from the patients and medics.

We would also love to find out more about the entertainments which were organized for the patients, which were on a huge scale – everything from oratorios by local choral societies to ventriloquists, and from comic sketches to showings of the latest Tom Mix film. A group of members of the RAMC even formed themselves into a proper pierrot troupe, which was wildly popular, called the ‘Cheero Boys’.

If you can tell us something, or have photographs and records we might not have seen, please email us at headingleyhospital@gmail.com"

Read more on the LitFest blog at headingleylitfest.blogspot.com

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