£5 antique shop find is a treasure trove of Great War chronicles

SET against the stunning backdrop of the South Downs, Bignor Park House, with its vast lawns and grand interior, undoubtedly has a wealth of history within its walls.

But few are party to the fact the house operated as an auxiliary military hospital in the first world war.

And thanks to Petworth author and photographer David Johnston, a record of the servicemen treated there has now come to light.

Scanning the shelves of Mullabys antiques shop in June Lane, Midhurst, David came across an important piece of history.

While their comrades were engaged in battle overseas, those who had been injured, or were recovering from surgery, spent their days convalescing in the rooms of Bignor House.

David found a small autograph book which he purchased for £5, thinking it might be of some interest’.

It was only once he got home that he realised just how important his find was.

The autograph album had been owned by a nurse, Beth Richardson, from Fittleworth. In it are messages, poems and sketches by the soldiers she cared for during the war.

At the outbreak of the war, the British Red Cross and the Order of St John of Jerusalem formed the Joint War Committee, setting up temporary hospitals for injured service personnel.

Varied buildings were put to use, including houses, schools and townhouses.

Bignor Park was opened as a Red Cross hospital, by then-owner Mrs Johnstone, who joined the war effort and opened her stately home to soldiers from around the world.

Little is know about her time at Bignor, but it is known she set up the wards in early August 1914, and the first patients arrived shortly afterwards.

Auxiliary hospitals would be attached to military hospitals and there were more than 3,000 administered by Red Cross county directors.

There were dozens of war hospitals across Britain during the first world war, run by the War Office, but official records, for example, admission registers, survive from only four of these hospitals.

Other auxiliary hospitals set up in the area include Bellevue in Petworth, the Golden Fields Hospital in Liphook, and Belgrave House in Littlehampton.

Records from The British Journal of Nursing from February 1927 show that Miss EMS Johnston was the sister-in-charge at the Bignor hospital.

She was trained at Guy’s Hospital, London, and during the war was first sister in two hospitals for officers in London, before going on to take the position of sister-in-charge of Bignor Park.

In 1922 she was appointed lady superintendent of the Royal City of Dublin Hospital and was an examiner of nurses in the Irish Free State examinations.

Graylingwell in Chichester was the main war hospital for the Sussex area, and some 29,500 soldiers passed through its doors between 1915 and 1919.

But those with less-serious injuries, or post-operative patients, would convalesce at Bignor.

The ground floor of the property was transformed, with areas under the staircase being used for the storage of medical equipment and supplies, and the rooms becoming wards.

There was even an area called The Russia Ward’, used as a smoking room.

An extract from the Sussex Daily News written during the war years praises the excellent spirit of the men’ being cared for at Bignor, and also the high quality of care given by the lead practitioner, Dr Foot.

The author notes how the men made the most of their convalescence in their beautiful rural surroundings, and it was an eye-opener’ for those soldiers who had returned having had a terrible experience’ in horrific war zones.

A message in Beth’s book from a Private Smith of the 2/6 Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers, reads: “If the Germans should take my life, out will go my spark.

“But should they be satisfied with a limb, I will make for Bignor Park.”

The book was purchased by Beth as a gift to herself and at the back an inscription reads: “If by chance this book should roam, give it a kick and send it home.”

Though little is known about Beth, records suggest she spent much of her life in Fittleworth and was the daughter of a farm labourer.

Although brief, the short messages and drawings left by the wounded servicemen give an insight into the traumas they had been facing in the trenches.

But cheeky humour still prevails, with love poems left for Beth and offers to take her on dates when the war had ended.

Katherine Slay, from the West Sussex Record Office, was delighted with the find.

“I started going through the autograph book, and it’s certainly a very nice addition to the archives.

“We are now looking for any more information people might have regarding war hospitals in the area.”

David added: “I have been collecting books for years and this one was newly acquired by Mullabys.

“I though it might have something of interest in it, but then took it home and oh my gosh, was I surprised.

“I have given it as a gift to the records office. I think that is the rightful place for it, and in 100 years’ time it can still be enjoyed by people - it really is a priceless antique.”

Katherine’s interest with the Bignor hospital came after a book she wrote last year about the war hospital in Chichester, entitled Graylingwell War Hospital, 1915-1919.

“I was then asked to contribute a chapter about treatment of the sick and wounded to a book which is being launched on August 4 this year, entitled Great War West Sussex 1914-18, ” added Katherine.

“This involved me trying to track down all the locations across the county where sick and wounded servicemen were treated.

“Then I tried to find photographs or postcards of them, or anything else to do with them. That was why I first got in touch with Bignor Park.

“Such random things survive from the war.

“There must have been dozens of these autograph books around, every nurse probably had one that would be signed by the patients in her care.

“Autograph books are certainly a fairly rare survival, so it’s lovely to have this one.”

Extracts from nurse Richardson’s book show that soldiers from around the world were treated at Bignor, including men from Australia and Belgium.

It was not until 1926 that Bignor Park came into the ownership of the Bigham family, when it was bought by Charles Bigham, second Viscount Mersey.

For more about Bignor House visit the website www.bignorpark.co.uk

Beth Richardson’s autograph book is now at the records office. For details, email records.office@westsussex.gov.uk