“Nevile’s Court a Hospital…”: The First Eastern General Hospital

Hospital photo 1
Hospital beds for 250 soldiers in the cloister beneath the Wren Library.

At the beginning of the War, Colonel Joseph Griffiths, a surgeon at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, led plans to build a large open-air field hospital in Cambridge, to be called the First Eastern General Hospital (Territorial Force). Cambridge was an ideal location thanks to its rail connections and the resources available because of the University and Addenbrooke’s itself. Grounds for a permanent structure were identified and work began soon after Britain joined the War, but until those buildings were completed the incoming sick and wounded needed a temporary location.

Initially, patients were brought to the Leys School, but when the pupils were due to return for term, a new location was required. Col. Griffiths gained permission from H.M. Butler, Master of Trinity College, to use Nevile’s Court – the court that is bounded on one side by the Wren Library – as the next interim location. In preparation for the treatment of sick and wounded soldiers, blinds were installed around the cloistered portions of Nevile’s Court to protect the patients from wind and rain, an enclosed operating theatre was constructed and wooden floors were put down to cover the uneven flagstones. Orderlies were housed in tents on the lawn outside the library and cooking for the soldiers was done in the Master’s Lodge. Between August 12 and 30 1914, 250 beds were made ready under the Wren Library for the first convoy of wounded soldiers arriving on the 31st.

Hospital photograph
The first patients arrive at New Court, Trinity, as Col. Griffiths poses for the camera.

Soon, larger tents were required and were erected on the fields behind the Wren to house an additional 250 soldiers. Soldiers who were able to walk spent their time on The Backs, enjoying the fresh air, fishing and the occasional game of football. Local businesses helped the hospital by supplying delivery trucks as make-shift ambulances, and many members of the hospital staff, especially stretcher bearers and the female Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs), were members of the local community. Cambridge residents did their part to entertain the soldiers, throwing sweets, cigarettes and small gifts as the soldiers fished in the river.

The Backs, with soldiers relaxing by the river
The Backs, where soldiers relaxed along the river banks.

The hospital was a true collaboration between Town and Gown, as the librarians of Trinity, Magdalene and Corpus Christi Colleges organized a book and magazine drive to create a library for the soldiers in hospital, and a Fellow of the College whose rooms were on G staircase, Nevile’s Court, temporarily vacated his residence to house it. Around 50 newspapers were also donated daily to help keep the injured soldiers entertained during their stay at the hospital.

Nevile's Court with soldiers reclining on the grass
The soldiers are entertained by a choir in Nevile’s Court

Finally in mid-October, the permanent war-time location for the First Eastern General Hospital opened its doors in West Cambridge. This hospital was equipped with a 108 foot long kitchen capable of serving 1,700 patients as well as operating rooms, laboratories, store rooms, offices, and sleeping accommodations for orderlies. It stayed open through 1919 and may have treated as many as 70,000 – 80,000 patients throughout the course of the War. After 1919, a housing crisis meant that the huts that formed the wards became council housing, known as the Burrell’s Walk estate, and were subsequently demolished to make way for the building of the University Library in 1928.

Title page of a pamphlet
“Nevile’s Court a Hospital” – a sermon by H.M. Butler, 1914

After the Hospital left Trinity, H.M. Butler commemorated the occasion with a sermon, praising the humanitarian efforts of those involved. In Nevile’s Court a Hospital, he marvels over the sight of the court being used in such a way:

“It has been a house of mercy to young men, not students… but young men stricken down for the time by no fault of their own but by wounds or accidents, some of them wounded in the fierce battles… where they saw so many of their officers and their comrades destroyed in a moment by the German shells; some of them almost envying these brave companions because they were themselves for some weeks prevented from going to the front and forced to remain in our peaceful England.”

For all the cheer displayed in the photographs and for all the pleasant pomp about it, the hospital was a place to patch men up and send them back to the front lines, as Butler’s last line hints.

Further reading:

Philomena Guillebaud (2014) From Bats to Beds to Books: The First Eastern General Hospital (Territorial Force) in Cambridge – and what came before and after it. Haddenham: Fern House Publishing.

The Cambridge Review (1914).

See also our interactive timeline of World War I for a look at some of the events that shaped Trinity’s wartime experience.