Swillington Hall, or Swillington House as it was better known, was one of over 50 convalescent homes or “auxilliary hospitals” for wounded soldiers in the West Riding during the First World War. Others nearby included Lotherton Hall, Temple Newsam and Harewood House. Initially they were grouped under the 2nd Northern General Hospital at Beckett’s Park teacher training college which the military medical authorities had commandeered when the war began in August 1914. Seriously wounded soldiers from the Western Front in France and Belgium were brought by ambulance trains from the south of England and treated there before being sent to the auxiliary hospitals to convalesce. Many of those who ended up at Swillington would have travelled through Woodlesford en route to the Midland Railway’s terminus in Leeds.
The “fine old mansion, surrounded by delightful scenery” at Swillington was made available by the owner, Sir Charles Bingham Lowther, a descendant of Sir William Lowther from Westmoreland who had bought the estate in 1655 looking to exploit the coal reserves under the land. A house built on the site in 1690 was remodelled in 1738 by the architect Henry Flitcroft. Sixty five years later, reputedly using a million bricks, it was rebuilt in 1803-04 with a large stable block and a walled garden.
By the start of the First World War Sir Charles, a professional cavalry officer with a considerable fortune earned largely from coal royalties, wasn’t living permanently at Swillington. His main interest was fox hunting and after he had married Marjory Noel Fielden in 1909 they kept a second household at Thornby Hall in Northamptonshire where he became Master of the Pytchley Hunt in 1914. His wife, also a keen hunter, was the daughter of a Tory Member of Parliament and had been born at Grimston Park near Tadcaster. Years afterwards village gossips in Swillington claimed she didn’t like living there because she hated the dust and dirt from the local pits.
The hospital came under the auspices of the West Riding Territorial Association chaired by the Earl of Harewood, part of a nationwide network of county organisations created in 1908 to mobilise the country in the event of war. Voluntary military units which had existed for generations were meant to work together with their local communities including local elected politicians as well as leaders of business and the labour unions. In practice most of the work was done by ageing former military officers who returned to uniform and put their civilian lives on hold.
The task of checking the arrangements at Swillington fell to the County Director of the Territorial Branch of the St. John’s Ambulance Association based in York. Born in 1857 he was Lieutenant-Colonel John Charles Radclyffe Husband, a doctor from Ripon. He was joined by the 67 year old Surgeon General of the Royal Army Medical Corps, William James Fawcett. Together they inspected and passed the hospital “as fit” and the first convoy of 14 patients arrived about 11 months after the start of the war on 5th July 1915.
The hospital was staffed and equipped by the Castleford and Pontefract Voluntary Aid Detachment, part of a national nursing organisation created by the British Red Cross and Order of St. John in 1909. Initially there were two wards named “Castleford” and “Pontefract” with 44 beds between them. After a third ward was added in 1917 the number of beds rose to 60 and by that time what had been the dining-room, the drawing-room and the library had all been commandeered for ward space. The servants’ hall became the men’s dining room and the housekeeper’s room was turned into the staff dining-room. Other rooms were used for a surgery and storage of food and equipment. A chapel was created in another room where local clergy held regular services. From an administrative point of view it was thought “a great advantage” that all the rooms were on the level on the ground floor. Charity fetes and other events to raise funds to pay the nurses were held in the district with some cash coming from government grants along with an allowance of 2 shillings per head per day.
After a reorganisation in May 1917 the East Leeds War Hospital in the workhouse next to St. James’s Hospital dealt with all the wounded men arriving from the front. The administrators there became responsible for allocating men for convalescence at Swillington and other auxiliary hospitals. Beckett’s Park specialised as an orthopaedic hospital for patients as they reached a stage in which special treatment was necessary and many of them had to stay for many months. By the end of the war in November 1918 Beckett’s Park had dealt with 27,000 patients whilst 39,000 had passed through East Leeds, a total of 66,000 cases.
From the outset Swillington was in the hands of what a reporter for the Yorkshire Post described as the “inspiring lead” of two sisters. They were Frances and Cecilia Garforth, daughters of Sir William Garforth, a highly respected engineer and manager based at the West Riding colliery at Altofts, knighted for his efforts to improve coal mining safety. Frances Garforth acted as the commandent in charge at Swillington whilst her sister was the quartermaster. Tragically for the family their younger sister, Stephanie, died in July 1918 whilst standing in for Cecilia. An inquest heard she banged her head and fractured her skull after tripping and falling on the stone floor in the main hall. Remarkably she appears to have been the only death directly connected to the hospital with all of the medical or surgical cases who were treated there declared fit enough to be discharged. Most of them returned to active duty although some were wounded again and at least one was killed in action.
No full registers of the staff or of the patients have survived but some of the names of the nursing and support team can be identified from newspaper reports. One of them was Evelyn Mary Nicholson, the daughter of a Castleford farmer and coal dealer. In July 1919 she was described as a “devoted war-worker” at Swillington when she married physician and surgeon Leonard Henry Butler who had served in Mesopotamia as a captain with the Royal Army Medical Corps. Others mentioned include Nurse M. Inglis who was in the kitchen for most of the time, Nurse Shepherd, Miss Sweeting, Miss E. A. Wilkinson and Miss Sym and her sister, Mrs Mumby, who worked as parlour-maids.
Along with the nurses working on a rota system there were two local doctors appointed as medical officers who made regular visits in alternate months as well as continuing in general practice. Dr. John Orford was 57 years old at the start of the war and lived at Stairfield House at Tanshelf in Pontefract with his wife Florence, nee Sorby, who was also a highly qualified doctor. Born in Ipswich John Orford trained in London at St. Thomas’s Hospital and had been employed there and at the Royal Free Hospital. In the 1890s he’d been the Medical Officer for the West Riding Constabulary which brought him into contact with many gruesome police cases. One of them was that of miner’s wife Mary Bowen who’d drowned her two young children in a washing tub and attacked a third with a knife in Pontefract in 1895. Earlier in his career Dr. Orford had been a surgeon for the Ocean Steamship Company so he must have had a good grounding in the kind of battlefield wounds and injuries he was confronted with at Swillington.
The other medical officer was surgeon and physician Dr. William Foggitt Chrispin, who was based at Garfield House on Bank Street in Castleford. The son of an Ossett pharmacist he was ten years younger than Dr. Orford and had trained at the medical school in Leeds before becoming a clinical assistant and anaesthetist at the Women and Children’s Hospital in the city. In 1899, at Featherstone, he’d married Katherine Amelia Middleton, the daughter of a railway goods agent. Along with a Miss Hopkins she “took charge” of the Castleford ward for the first two years at Swillington augmented by many of their friends who went to help along with those who were formally part of the Voluntary Aid Detachment
The day to day nursing care of the convalescing soldiers was in the hands of two day sisters and one night sister in each of the wards. The kitchen was staffed by “general services” members. A report in the Rothwell Courier and Times in April 1919 declared: “The regime of the hospital was peaceful, as it should be, but never dull. Everything was done that could be done to alleviate the men’s suffering, and plenty of games, fun, and music was always going on. The grounds gave much room for roving about, and billiard matches were played.” The table was lent by the Castleford Old Rectory Working Men’s Club and was in constant use. Matches took place against other hospitals with a team from Swillington winning a cup at a competition held at the Gambit Cafe in Leeds. The patients had many invitations and outings and once a week a concert or theatrical entertainment was given by members of a club who travelled round the various hospitals.
Glimpses into the lives of some of the patients can be seen in an autograph book kept by one of the nurses which is now part of the collection at Castleford’s museum and library. Hannah Bates was born in February 1874 in the Heath Town area of Wolverhampton where her father was a moulder in an iron foundry. When she was 24 she married her cousin, George Banks, a miner who had moved with his family to Yorkshire from the Staffordshire coalfield in the 1870s when he was about 5 years old. Their first child, Gladys, was born in the Birmingham registration district in 1900 and was followed two years later by a boy christened William Bates Banks in Castleford. He grew up to become a steam locomotive fireman based at Royston. In 1911 the Banks family were living at Lower Oxford Street close to the centre of Castleford. They later adopted a daughter called Marian. It’s not clear how Hannah Banks came to become a nursing sister. She is also believed to have worked as a midwife after the war but her name doesn’t appear in published nursing and midwife registers.
One of the first soldiers to sign Sister Banks’ little book was Noel Veasey from Wigston Magna to the south of Leicester. Born in 1892 he lost his father when he was a child and before the war had worked as a “counter man” in a hosiery warehouse. At the start of the war he had responded to Lord Kitchener’s “Your County Needs You” call for volunteers to join the army and had signed up to one of the Leicestershire “pals” battalions. They landed in France in early 1915 and Noel was wounded near Loos on the 13th of October. About six weeks later, on the 26th of November, he was recovering at Swillington and was well enough to thank Sister Banks for “many kindnesses shown during my stay.” Shortly afterwards he was allowed home and in 1916 was able to marry Sarah Elizabeth Collings, the daughter of a sand quarry labourer, who had worked in the same hosiery warehouse. Noel’s records show he was eventually discharged from the army in March 1919 with a disability pension after a “gun shot wound to the chest.” It’s not clear whether this was from his initial injury or from a later incident. He was only 41 years old when he died in 1933.
Many of the entries in the autograph book included short poems and ditties. Private Leonard Williamson from Leighton Buzzard, born in 1891, had joined the Bedfordshire Regiment in early September 1914 and was wounded by machine gun bullets in his chest near Loos just over a year later. He seemed to be in good spirits when he wished Sister Banks “all good wishes” on the same day as Noel Veasey. “Little drops of Whisky, Little drops of Beer, Makes you see blue Elephants, If you Persevere,” he wrote.
Before the war Leonard Williamson worked as a baker at the Co-op in Leighton Buzzard and was a keen footballer playing for two local teams. After his convalescence at Swillington he went back to the front line where he was shot in the leg in 1916. The injury wasn’t deemed to be serious enough for him to be sent back to England and he was treated at a base hospital. Unfortunately his luck ran out just over a month after he returned to duty when he was hit by shrapnel and surgeons had to amputate one of his legs in the first week of January 1917. As an only surviving son, his army chaplain was worried about writing directly to his widowed mother, Catherine, so he sent a letter to the vicar at Leighton Buzzard asking him to break the news. A few days later the local community were informed by the Leighton Buzzard Observer which revealed that in Leonard’s last letter home to his mother he told her: “I have had a very happy Christmas.”
Leonard Williamson must have been made of strong stuff because he went on to have a long life. Despite his injuries he recovered and was discharged from the army in August 1917 with the award of a Silver War Badge for the service he’d rendered and wounds he’d received. After the war he continued to live with his mother earning a living as a boot repairer. In the summer of 1939 he married local woman Lucy Leeds and just before the Second World War they were all living in the same house. He died in 1974.
From the autograph book it’s clear that the patients at Swillington came from all over the country. None of the pages were signed by men who had lived close to the hospital and indeed there were none from Yorkshire although from just a few pages it’s impossible to be sure. The others who signed included Private W. Butterworth – Lancashire Fusiliers; Private F. L. Matthews – Suffolk Regiment, wounded at Ypres, 9th June 1915, injured in both legs, right arm and face; William S.Rumsby – 83 Brigade, Royal Field Artillery; Private A. Kenworthy – 1st Manchester Regiment; and Fred White – 1st Rifle Brigade, wounded near Ypres, 6 July 1915, who wrote: A thing that is bad might always be worse, And a hope be it e’er so forlorn, May brighten the way thro’ the night to the day, So – just wait for the sun at the morn.”
On at least three of the pages there are cartoons drawn in pencil. Sapper J. Davis sketched a bird with “compliments to the nurses,” and a soldier who signed his name with just “Jack” drew a crying man standing an a raft in the middle of the sea: “Water, water everywhere and not a drop of beer,” he wrote.
The most elaborate cartoon was by Kenneth Ronald Maclaren Wheater of the Royal Engineers drawn in December 1915. It shows a bearded man in a top hat sitting on a crowded bus. He’s the only one with a newspaper and all the other passenger are trying to read it. The neatly written caption reads: “War News. Patient old gentleman: Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, may I turn over?”
Born at Thirsk in 1894 Kenneth Wheater had moved south with his parents to Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire from where his father commuted by train to work as a stockbroker in the City of London. Kenneth was educated at Berkhamsted School and went on to study science at Imperial College in London. He had only just graduated when war broke out and he quickly joined the Universities and Public Schools Battalion on 2 September 1914. He was transferred to the Royal Engineers and served with the Expeditionary Force which landed in France on the 14th of May 1915.
Like others who were at Swillington at the same time in late 1915 Kenneth Wheater was wounded during the Battle of Loos on 25th September 1915. After he recovered he went back to France in March 1916 where he was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant on the 20th of August. He made it through the following winter but was killed during the Second Battle of Bullecourt on 6th of May 1917. Obviously well thought of by his fellow officers at least three of them wrote letters of condolence to his family, quotes from which were sent to be included in a roll of honour of 26,000 British servicemen killed during the war compiled by genealogist Melville Henry Massue, the 9th Marquis of Ruvigny. One letter read: “We of H Company are going to miss him very much indeed. With his gay smile and perennial good humour, he was a friend of all of us.” A second message declared: “Your son has only been with us about a fortnight, but all of us officers and his men have had time to know him and even to love him, and we shall very greatly miss his happy, clever, keen self.” Another wrote: “He had proved himself to us all a fine comrade and a splendid soldier.”
A group of convalescing soldiers from Swillington attended a charity garden fete in Oulton held at the start of August 1916. It was organised by the Oulton and Woodlesford War Fund Committee and took place in the “the attractive grounds” of Woodlands, the home of the Calverley estate agent and magistrate John Farrer. Also on the committee was iron merchant John Edward Davenport who lived nearby at The Elms. He had two sons in the army, one of whom was a prisoner of war in Turkey.
Invited to perform the opening ceremony and give a speech was one of the key surgeons at the Beckett Park hospital, Lieutenant-Colonel Harry Littlewood. He had already had a long career at the Leeds General Infirmary and sixteen months before the war had retired to live in Norfolk. In his book “Stories from the War Hospital” published in 2014 Richard Wilcocks described how Littlewood came back to Leeds to perform long hours in the operating theatre at Beckett Park before becoming the main administrator. The hospital had started with 500 beds and by the time he spoke at Oulton he had five thousand under his control.
In what was described as “a very interesting and able address” Harry Littlewood said he was glad to see that there were more women there than men and when he looked round he could see very few able-bodied men. Those that were there were present because they could not serve, he said. Recognising some of the Swillington patients in the crowd he remarked that it was very nice to see them there. Laughter broke out when he joked that the men perhaps didn’t realise that the War Office rules were that soldiers were not supposed to have any money in their pockets!
The money raised at the fete was earmarked for the Red Cross Society and Littlewood was applauded when he requested that half of it should be given directly to the 2nd Northern General Hospital which, he said, “was one of the best of its kind in the country.” Throughout the afternoon and evening of the fete the stalls, which included houp-la, darts and coconut shies, did good business with the wounded soldiers from Swillington “especially enjoying themselves.” Tea was served on the lawn, and the attractive rose gardens, “though not at their best,” were reported to be well patronised. In the evening the Oulton Brass Band “rendered a selection of music.”
By the time the Swillington hospital closed on Friday 31st January 1919 the number of men who had been treated, both officers and other ranks, stood at a total of 980. On the last Sunday about 30 helpers got together to present Frances Garforth with a tortoise-shell and silver clock and her sister Cecilia with a silver tray. All the borrowed equipment was sent back and everything left over was given to other hospitals and the Red Cross or sold at an auction. A local reporter noted that the house was handed back to its owner “very little the worse for the hard wear of nearly four years.” About a week later Frances Garforth’s name was included in a long list of women whose names had been submitted to the Secretary of State for War by the Chairman of the Joint War Committee of the British Red Cross Society and Order of St. John of Jerusalem in England, “for valuable services rendered in connection with the war.”
Sir Charles Bingham Lowther had served with the Northamptonshire Yeomanary during the war in France and Italy as had his brother, John George Lowther, who lived at the family’s other grand home, Wilton Castle near Redcar. John George was granted the Military Cross after being wounded in France and both were given the Distinguished Service Order and other medals for their service.
There’s no evidence that Sir Charles returned to live at Swillington House. In September 1919 he auctioned off the contents including antique furniture by Thomas Chippendale and a library of 3,500 books which had been stored in the upper rooms. The house and estate of over 2,000 acres was then sold to the local colliery company T. & R. W. Bower which became part of the Darlington based firm of Pease and Partners. In the early 1920s they turned the house into three and two room flats for their workers which were let at rents cheaper than newly built council houses. The Leeds Mercury reported in August 1925 that there were 130 men, women and children living there. It was “an atmosphere of toil, of poverty, and decay in place of leisured ease and the quiet dignity of wealth and social standing,” said the paper. The windows were cracked and walls were spattered with grease and dirt. The stables which had housed 32 horses were empty and the greenhouses were falling to pieces.
After living in Northamptonshire for a number years, where he became High Sheriff in 1926, Sir Charles and his family moved to Erbistock Hall in Denbighshire. No doubt in part for his generosity in allowing Swillington House to be used as as a war hospital he was appointed an Officer of the Venerable Order of St John in 1941 and was made a Commander of the Order six years later. He died in 1949. Most of his former estate, but excluding Swillington House, which was retained by the colliery company, was sold to Joseph Oxley of Sheffield in October 1935. Within a few weeks the land and many buildings including 13 farms was put up for auction in 60 separate lots with many plots bought by builders for housing development. After suffering for many years from mining subsidence Swillington House itself was demolished by the National Coal Board in 1952.
All that remains is the stable block which was bought and renovated in the early 1960s by former miner Jim Bullock who had been born at Bowers Row on the Lowther estate and rose to be president of the colliery managers’ union.
Click here to view a film made in 1969 about Jim Bullock who lived in the stable block at Swillington House.