The Llandaff Knuts: The first hospital at Rookwood, 1918

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.

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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.

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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].

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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.

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‘A most charming and unique property’: Rookwood through the keyhole, July 1917

Rookwood Hospital in Llandaff is well known to residents of Cardiff and in 2018 it celebrates 100 years since the property was first used as a hospital. Less is known, however, about the house as a grand and opulent family home prior to its conversion to a hospital. Several sets of records at Glamorgan Archives help to fill in the gaps prior to 1918 and provide an insight into the house and the family that built and lived at Rookwood from 1866.

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The records of Stephenson and Alexander, Auctioneers and Chartered Surveyors of High Street, Cardiff provide a useful starting point in looking at the history of Rookwood. They include papers that provide a fascinating glimpse into what would have been one of the grand houses of Cardiff at the turn of the 19th century. In 1917 Rookwood, then still a family home, was put up for sale. Stephenson and Alexander were charged with handling the sale and they produced a prospectus for potential buyers with full details of the house and the estate along with a number of photographs. The records also contain background information, not used in the brochure, with additional photographs and details of key items of furniture. In all, the material compiled by Stephenson and Alexander helps to paint a detailed picture of the house in the summer of 1917.

From the outset it is clear that Rookwood, although only two miles from the centre of Cardiff, was a substantial house and estate. As might be expected the auctioneers went to great lengths to underline its desirability:

The property is an exceptional one in any other respects. It is situated close to, in fact almost adjoining the City of Cardiff, and yet in such a secluded and beautifully sheltered position, that once within its precincts it is difficult to realise that an industrial City is only a few miles distant.

The magnificent views obtainable over the whole of Llanishen, Lisvane and surrounding districts are particularly beautiful. The mildness of the climate at Llandaff is apparent by the extraordinary luxuriant growth of all kinds of flowering shrubs – including Camellias which bloom luxuriantly and regularly out of doors – Rhododendrons, Azaleas and the like, and also the collection of Japanese Maples, which is considered to be one of the finest in the Kingdom.

Set in 26 acres of land, the estate occupied an area between Fairwater and Llantrisant Roads. By 1917 much of the outer rim of the estate had been turned over to pasture but, at the centre of the estate, there was still 9 acres of woodland and gardens.

The Gardens and Grounds are singularly attractive and have for many years been prominent on account of the generous manner in which the owners have on many occasions thrown them open to the public, and numerous exhibits and the number of prizes won for fruit and vegetables at the local Flower Shows. The delightful walled Gardens, with the broad herbaceous borders, the Rookery, the Rose Gardens and Woodland Walks, small items in themselves when added to the many other attractions, make this Property a particularly desirable one from a residential points of view.

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The house, however, was the jewel in the crown. It was one of the better examples of the grand mansions erected by families that had prospered from the economic boom in South Wales in the latter half of the 19th century:

Rookwood was built in the year 1866 and is of the early 13th century English Gothic design. It was considerably added to in the year 1881 by Mr John Prichard well-known as the Architect employed in the restoration of Llandaff Cathedral and the erection of many important Gothic Houses in the locality. The North Lodge was designed by him and is a very fine example of half timber work, built regardless of cost and also the very beautiful Porte Cochere which is one of the features of the residence.

The internal decorations and painted ceilings were carried out under the direction of Mr J D Crace FSA, the renowned artist and designer of the great staircase in the National Gallery and other important building in London; this internal painting has never been touched since its completion, is still in perfect order and represents some of the finest of its kind.

The Camelia House built entirely of Teak with panels of mosaic forms a most handsome addition to the House. There is an interesting Summer House overlooking the lawns that was brought from the outskirts of Cardiff, and appears in an old view of the City dating from the eighteenth Century.

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Having set the scene we are then provided with a room by room tour of the house and estate buildings. The estate could be approached by carriage drives from either Fairwater or Llantrisant Roads with, in each case, a substantial ‘artistic lodge’ built at the entrance to the estate. On arrival guests would have drawn up outside the imposing arched entrance to the south front of the house provided by a Port Cochere that can be seen in the first of the photographs in the folder. The front of the house with its turret and stone bay windows was designed to impress and almost certainly hit its mark with visitors.

The Mansion House which is built of Radyr stone with Bath stone facings and red tile roof, stands in a beautiful sheltered and mild position clad with well-grown specimens of Magnolia, Wisteria and Myrtle.

Photographs of the entrance hall with its teak doors and the drawing room provide an invaluable record of how the interior of the house would have looked in 1917.

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It was no coincidence that the entrance hall had its own fireplace. For some that may be as far as they were allowed to venture but, even then, with its painted walls and ceiling there was no mistaking that you were in grand house. There were some 35 pegs on the teak cloak stand and they would have been fully used given that the owners frequently threw large garden parties and evening musical soirees.

For those invited past the threshold, the drawing room, with its heavily patterned wall paper and carpet, was the focal point of the house. It was a room to be admired and also a room that had to passed through in accessing many other areas of the house.

BEAUTIFUL DRAWING ROOM (38’ X 17’ 6”) with two large double bay windows, oak parquet floor, teak mantel piece and over mantelpiece, beamed and painted ceiling, with door leading to Dining Room and large sliding doors leading to the heated Conservatory….

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From the photographs in the prospectus we can see that, in accordance with the style of the day, the Drawing Room had an array of ornamentation including ceramics above the highly decorated fireplace, with an iron and brass grate, along with photographs and paintings on the wall. Interestingly, just to the left of the fireplace there is a frame with 9 portrait style photographs almost certainly of the owners and their seven children. But more of the family later.

The background notes compiled by the auctioneers confirm that all of the rooms had electricity and the drawing room was lit by a highly ornate Venetian glass chandelier, referred to an ‘Electolier’.

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Purchased at the famous glass makers, Salviati of Venice, it would have provided an imposing centrepiece to the room alongside the brass mirrors on the walls and the marble figure of ‘Clytie’, a water nymph from Greek mythology. In addition, one of the two Broadwood pianos owned by the family, probably the grand piano, would have been in this room. The owners were a musical family and the drawing room would have been used frequently for evening entertainment with both family and professional performers.

So the tour continues on the ground floor through the dining room, the billiard room, the library with its walnut book shelves, the small smoke room and Camellia House …built of teak with panels of Mosaic, glass and tile roof and two doors leading to the Garden and verandah. Finally, as part of the ‘back premises and domestic offices’, there was a large kitchen, scullery and servants hall.  Separate from the house there were two stables, two coach houses and a saddle room. Although the coach houses had been converted to hold motor vehicles by 1917, the records confirm that they still held a four wheeled Landau, a reminder of how the family would have travelled though Cardiff by carriage not so long ago.

The house saw many eminent guests including a Lord Chancellor and Field Marshal Earl Roberts, hero of the Afghan campaigns and the Boer War. Those staying with the family would have been swept up the imposing central teak staircase to the first floor where they would have found, for family and guests, five double bedrooms, including four with adjoining dressing rooms, a nursery and seven single bedrooms.

A house such as this required a significant number of staff. Records for 1891 confirm that at least 10 staff were employed in the house alone. On the second floor six staff bedrooms were provided, in addition to the accommodation for the butler and housekeeper on the ground floor adjoining the kitchen. The butler was charged with the security of many valuable items and his pantry was equipped with a Cartwright safe over 5ft high with 3 shelves and 3 drawers.

Even so, there would not have been enough space for the house staff, and there were further bedrooms for a maid and footman on the ground and first floors. The two estate lodges would have been reserved for the more senior staff, with one allocated almost certainly for the Head Gardener. The prospectus confirms that the lodges, at least from the exterior, were significant and ornate buildings. Stephenson and Alexander described the Lodge on Llantrisant Road as …an artistic half-timbered House with red tiled roof and leaded casement windows …contains five rooms and pantry, has water laid on and good kitchen garden adjoining.

The role of Head Gardener carried a great deal of responsibility leading a team of gardeners, probably drawn from the local area rather than living on the estate. The gardens were used frequently by the family for parties and events and would have been familiar to many of the local families including the Insoles, Brains, Crawshays, Corys, Courtis and Mackintosh.

Again the photographs help to provide an impression of the estate, with views of the tennis and croquet lawns, summer house and a garden walk.

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The detail in the prospectus, however, underlines just what a formidable task this must have been. The gardens consisted of three distinct elements including two extensive kitchen gardens. The prospectus describes just one of the kitchen gardens as having …a long centre board walk, Summer House and arbour spanned by rose arches, flanked by deep herbaceous borders and planted with wall and standard fruit trees of all descriptions in full bearing. The bush trees are enclosed in a wire netting fruit cage on iron supports. In addition to a second Kitchen Garden, there were also two orchid houses, a tomato house and two greenhouses. Beyond the kitchen gardens a second area of land was styled as …the Pleasure Grounds. This included a large rose garden, lawn areas, rose and tulip gardens with boxed edge paths and a woodland area with …remarkable specimens of conifer and other trees including Wellingtonias, Cedars, Lime Beech and Elm. The third area, the park land, had been largely let as pasture by 1917, bringing some relief to the Head Gardener’s role. All in all, maintaining the estate would have been a considerable undertaking.

As a sign of the times much play was made in the prospectus that Rookwood was … fitted with modern conveniences, including its own Electric light, modern Drainage, Cardiff Water and Gas. Indeed the prospectus went into detail on the National Gas Engine and Compton Dynamo fitted in the purpose made Electric Light Power and Storage House. However, the prospectus also carefully identified areas of estate that could be sold off while maintaining a core of the house and its ornamental and kitchen gardens. It is likely that the hardships resulting from the war were making estates, such as Rookwood, increasingly financially unviable.

The purchase, therefore, represents not only a charming and most unique property as a Residence, but also a very valuable investment bound to very materially increase in value in course of time. If desired, a portion of the land could be developed without detriment to the House and Grounds. 

It is clear that owners were a wealthy and influential family that enjoyed throwing the home and grounds open for grand events.  However, who were they and what prompted the family to put their home up for sale? Furthermore, what happened next and how did such a splendid family home come, within 12 months, to be converted into a hospital? Fortunately, the records held at Glamorgan Archives help to unravel both questions. To be continued…

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

Many thanks to Keith Edwards for his invaluable assistance in identifying the documents used in this article from within the Stephenson and Alexander collection.