First East General Hospital Cambridge

The Hospital

First Eastern General Hospital

In 1907 the War Office decreed the creation of 23 "shadow hospitals" all over Britain, to be planned, designed and trained for in the event of the outbreak of war, but only then to be built. The First Eastern was one of these. For eight years from 1908, Joseph Griffiths, a surgeon at Addenbrooke's and a volunteer in the Territorial Army's medical branch from its earliest days, who was to become the hospital's Commanding Officer, trained medical volunteers, in which activity he was joined by two other Addenbrooke's staff members, Dr. F. Apthorpe Webb and Dr Richard Porter.

Detailed architectural plans were prepared and a site was chosen (the joint cricket field of King's and Clare Colleges). Territorial Volunteers signed up for four years, and their training involved attendance at a two-week camp adjacent to an existing Regular Army military hospital every summer and a specified number of weekly evening drills in Cambridge in the months leading up to the summer camp.

The hospital was mobilised on 5 August 1914, the day after war was declared, and preparations for construction began at once. When the first patients arrived soon after, they were housed initially in the dormitories of the Leys School and then for some weeks under the arcades of Trinity College's Nevile's Court while the new hospital, composed of pre-fabricated huts, was being built.

Though the hospital had been designed initially for 500 beds, the first patients had only just been admitted, on 17 October 1914, before the War Office decreed an increase to 1,250 and later to over 1,500 beds. When fully built, it consisted of 24 wards of 60 beds each, in two rows of 12, with a central spine containing passageways, baths and toilets. Initially the hospital looked pretty bleak, but soon efforts began to improve it with colourful bedcovers, bunting hanging from the ceiling and flowerbeds between the wards.

When the inflow of patients exceeded the capacity of the huts, as happened particularly during the battle of the Somme in 1916, the over-flow were housed in marquees, until space could be made in the huts by transferring recovering patients to one of the numerous Red Cross convalescent hospitals located in large private houses, either in Cambridge itself or in one of the surrounding villages. Including the patients, doctors, nurses, orderlies and other staff, a local newspaper described it as a village of 2,000 people - and this was a low estimate.

While it was not a specialised hospital, it had two unusual features. In the first place, it was designed as an open-air hospital, all wards being open on the south side, protected only by awnings. It is claimed that the patients did not object, being swathed in blankets with hot water bottles, but it was hard on the nurses and orderlies, and after two years, in 1916 the War Office ordered that 20 of the 24 wards be enclosed. The reason is unknown: it may have been the suffering of the staff, or some unidentified medical reason referred to in a newspaper of the time, or the difficulty of blacking out so unusual a structure when there was warning of a Zeppelin raid. (The hospital was never attacked.)

The second unusual feature was its bath ward. It had from the beginning used baths as a treatment method but by 1916 it had a facility of six baths, specially designed by the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company, each filled with warm circulating water, which was particularly effective in treating shrapnel wounds.

Because of the absence of records, it is not known how many patients were treated in the hospital, the last statistic, for June 1918, being 62,664, but a rough estimate for its total life is 70,000.

The hospital closed in 1919, and the huts were converted into temporary dwelling units to help alleviate the acute housing shortage after the war. From 1926 on, the rows of huts were progressively dismantled, until the last residents left in 1929 to make way for construction of the University Library.

And yet NOWHERE on the site is there any reminder of what was once there.

King George Vth to the First Eastern General Hospital in 1915
Visit of King George Vth to the First Eastern General Hospital, 1915

Staff of the hospital: Left to right Miss Constance Crookenden, Matron of Addenbrooke's, Col.Joseph Griffiths,CO of the Hospital, The King, Miss Enid Newton, Matron of First Eastern, then Major F Apthorpe-Webb, Registrar

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