Previous material on the history of Rookwood dealt with the preparations for the sale of the house in July 1917 using the prospectus prepared by Stephenson and Alexander, Auctioneers and Chartered Surveyors of High Street, Cardiff. In this article we pick up the threads of what happened next and celebrate the establishment of the first hospital at Rookwood in 1918, 100 years ago.
The records for Stephenson and Alexander held at Glamorgan Archives confirm that strenuous efforts were made to sell the house and the estate in the summer of 1917. On two occasions a sale was close, with well-known figures in the local business world showing interest. However, in each case, they were deterred by the valuation of £20,000 placed on the house and the estate by the Hill family. The sale may not have been helped by the fact that Rookwood had been unoccupied for some time. Sir Edward Stock Hill had died in 1902 and, by 1917, Lady Hill and her eldest daughter Mabel were living in Charlton Kings, Gloucestershire. Mabel’s siblings were mostly married and also living in England with the sale being handled, primarily, by her brothers Eustace and Vernon, both living in the Bristol area. The Rookwood estate had, therefore, been mothballed, with much of the furniture moved to family homes in England. Records suggest that two members of staff were employed to care for the house. In addition, the gardens were tended by the head gardener, Duncan McIntyre, with one assistant. It may have been a ruse to beat down the price, but several interested parties complained that the house and gardens needed attention and that the price did not take account of …the outlay which would have to be made in improving the residence.
It was at this point that Maud Purnell first appeared in the records. In the latter months of 1917 Stephenson and Alexander were commissioned by the Hill family to begin to sell the remaining contents of the house. After the sale, Lady Hill wrote to the auctioneers expressing her disappointment with the £355 raised and the ongoing failure to find a buyer. It must have been a relief to all concerned when, in February 1918, a letter was received from Maud Purnell of Weybridge, Surrey enquiring whether the house could be leased for use as a hospital for the duration of the War.
Maud Alice Purnell was a force to be reckoned with. Although living in Surrey with her husband, Ivor Purnell, an architect, she was the eldest daughter of Philip Morel. With his brother, Thomas, and brother in law, John Gibbs, Philip Morel was the founder of the Morel shipping line, one the biggest and most valuable fleets operating from Cardiff in the latter half of the 1800s. The Morel family lived primarily in the Penarth area and, with her first husband, Francis Hibbert, a Corn Merchant, Maud was a well-known figure in south Wales. She figured regularly in local newspaper reports in connection with her church and charity work, including the provision of £1000 in 1908 for a bed at the Royal Hamadryad Seamen’s Hospital in memory of her father who had died that year.
Maud had married Ivor Purnell in 1913 after the death of her first husband and, on the outbreak of war, she had thrown herself into work for the Red Cross. With the siting of the 3rd Western General Hospital in Howard Gardens, Cardiff was a major centre for the receipt of wounded brought by boat and rail from France and Belgium. As a result there was a need for satellite auxiliary hospitals where those discharged from the military hospitals could be cared for while they convalesced. This was a role taken on board by the Red Cross using local volunteers referred to as VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachments). In Glamorgan alone during the course of the war there were 48 Red Cross Hospitals.
On marrying Ivor Purnell, Maud had given her address as Lavernock House, Penarth. Many of the auxiliary hospitals were large houses loaned or rented to the Red Cross and Maud Purnell was certainly involved with, and probably ran, the Red Cross hospital at Lavernock House that catered for non-commissioned officers and other ranks. However, by 1918 Lavernock House was required by the authorities to provide extra beds for patients at the King Edward VII Hospital in Cardiff. Mrs Purnell, therefore, was looking for suitable premises to establish a new hospital. In a letter to Stephenson and Alexander, dated 15 February 1918, she demanded a quick decision on her application for a lease. She also side stepped the usual conventions by asking that a second letter be passed direct to Lady Hill setting out her request.
Of course I am leaving it to Mr Alexander to arrange any reasonable rent but I am writing this to assure you that in the event of our coming to terms I should be living in the house in entire charge myself and am bearing all the expenses, except the Army grant per Officer. I will be responsible that no damage shall be done at all to your very beautiful property [letter of 15 February, ref.: DSA/12/2933].
The letter was signed Maud A Purnell, Hon Commandant. The very first Hospital at Rookwood was, therefore, to be a Red Cross hospital but reserved exclusively for the care of officers. Although the Hill family hoped for a sale, when told that Mrs Purnell would not buy ‘at any price’ they relented. By 8 April the terms were concluded with Mrs Purnell securing the lease for her hospital for £500 a year for an initial 12 month period, and with an agreement that the lease would end 6 months after the end of the war.
As the tenant, Mrs Purnell took responsibility for the maintenance of the interior of the house and also for the surrounding grounds, kitchen gardens, stables and lodges. She also inherited the services of Duncan MacIntyre, the head gardener, who lived on the estate at Rookwood Lodge. This was probably something of a coup, for Duncan, originally from Kilmartin in Argyle, and his wife Lizzie had worked for the Hill family for nearly 20 years. As Head Gardener at Rookwood he was a respected local figure who often acted as a judge at horticultural shows in Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan. Although stripped of many of the staff that Rookwood would have employed to tend the gardens in their prime, no one was better placed to maintain the estate.
Mrs Purnell’s plans for Rookwood were announced in the local papers in April 1918:
Mrs Ivor Purnell of Penarth has rented Rookwood, Llandaff formerly the residence of Lady Hill for the period of the war and it will shortly be opened as a hospital for officers….Rookwood contains something like twenty bedrooms and if all the accommodation that it provides be utilised it will afford room for not far short of 100 beds [Western Mail, 30 April 1918].
It has to be remembered that, until the autumn of 1918, the war was still very much in the balance. The German assault in France and Belgium in March and April had thrown the Allied forces back in disarray and casualties were high on both sides. The wounded, therefore, were still streaming into Cardiff. As to the decision to set up a hospital exclusively for officers, it was accepted practice to care for officers separately and, no doubt, the arrangement helped to smooth the negotiations with the Hill family. In addition, the extra weekly premium paid for the care of officers would have helped to balance the books.
The Red Cross Society Museum and Archive in London does not hold specific records for Rookwood. However, the Stephenson and Alexander records come to the rescue, in that work on the house had to be agreed with the Hill family. The house was evidently in a poor state of repair. In a letter to Stephenson and Alexander, Ivor Purnell noted …a considerable amount of the wall papering is in very bad condition… and it was proposed …to strip or distemper over where necessary for cleanliness. In addition, changes were made to the first floor with new bathroom accommodation put in place and additional toilets added on the ground floor [Letter from Ivor Purnell to Stephenson and Alexander, 30 March 1918, ref.: DSA/12/2933]. Beyond this, the house remained essentially intact with boarding put over a number of items of value, including the mantelpiece in the drawing room. In addition, the electric chandelier, the brass framed mirrors, the marble statue of Clytie and the brass fire curb in the drawing room remained, at the owner’s risk, until they could be sold or removed.
Mrs Purnell’s lease ran from 8 April 1918 and it is likely that the hospital was up and running by late April. Anyone visiting would have been confronted with the formidable figure of Mrs Purnell in her red Commandant’s uniform supported by a quartermaster, matron and cook. The hospital would have been staffed, primarily, by volunteer Red Cross Nurses trained in first aid and home nursing. Beneath their starched white aprons, marked with the Red Cross, they would have worn blue dresses with starched white collars and linen oversleeves. By 1918 styles were changing and it was agreed that the hem of the skirt could be as much as 6 inches above the ground. Many would have been recent recruits from the locality but those with previous experience in military or naval hospitals would have been recognised by stripes worn on their right sleeve. Transport and stretcher work was generally carried out by male volunteers again dressed in blue military style uniforms.
Not everything, however, went smoothly. On 16 May 1918 the Western Mail reported that Mrs Purnell and Ruth Hibbert …were summoned at Cardiff on Wednesday for using a car in Cardiff in contravention of the Petrol Restriction Order. In her defence, Mrs Purnell claimed that she was on official business taking one her nurses, Miss Ruth Hibbert, home. However, Ruth was no ordinary nurse. She was Mrs Purnell’s daughter by her first marriage. The authorities were not convinced by her story and Maud Purnell was fined £10 while Ruth Hibbert was cautioned [Western Mail, 16 May 1918].
What then of the ‘Llandaff Knuts’ mentioned earlier? There is a photograph held at the Glamorgan Archives that may well be the only photographic record of the Rookwood Red Cross Hospital. It shows five servicemen facing the camera and the picture is captioned the ‘Llandaff Knuts, April 1918’ [ref.: DX308/2].
The five men are in the standard issue uniforms worn by soldiers when in hospital – blue jackets with white lapels and lining, white shirt, red tie and regimental caps. Only one of the men is identified, John Swallow, sitting on the left at the front. The evidence is not conclusive but it is likely that the five were part of the first batch of officers cared for at Rookwood. The term ‘knut’ came from a well-known song at the time ‘Gilbert the Filbert’. It had been ‘amended’ and adopted by soldiers as a marching song and the term ‘knut’ was used for ‘young men about town’ – dandies. It sounds, therefore, that the men were in good spirits as they took up residence at Rookwood.
There were, however, others taking an interest in acquiring Rookwood and the Commandant was clearly aware of this. On 1st September 1918 Maud Purnell wrote to Stephenson and Alexander:
Will you kindly remember that I am tenant of this property.
By mid-October Rookwood had been sold for a price close to the Hill family’s initial valuation. The sale, however, was required to take account of Maud Purnell’s lease. We have to assume, therefore, that the Rookwood Red Cross Hospital for Officers remained in place until April 1919. This may have suited all parties for, following the signing of the Armistice on 11 November 1918, the need for auxiliary hospitals was reduced. However, while the Red Cross Hospital was being wound down, the next phase of Rookwood’s life, also as a hospital, was already in the planning with the sale of the Rookwood estate to Sir Laurence Philipps.
Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer
This is one of a series of articles about events at Rookwood from when it was built in 1866 through to modern times using records held at the Glamorgan Archives. The information used for the Rookwood Red Cross Hospital draws primarily on the records of Stephenson and Alexander, Auctioneers and Chartered Surveyors, ref.: DSA/12/2933.