VAD Hospital, Abbeydale Road South

Most of us will at some time have had to visit the Dore and Totley Postal Sorting Office on Abbeydale Road, next to St John’s Church. The building was at one time the church rooms before the more modern church hall was built in the 1950s. Its most colourful period of use was in the First World War when it became a VAD Hospital. VAD stands for Voluntary Aid Detachment, and the volunteer staff were overseen by the British Red Cross Society. At the St John’s Hospital there were a hundred beds with the first wounded soldiers arriving there on the 21st November 1914. They were Belgian forces and thereafter many Belgian soldiers would pass through the St John’s doors.

Red Cross and auxiliary hospitals were set up very quickly in any place large enough to cope with from ten to a hundred patients. Many primary schools in Sheffield were turned over to this use, as well as other public buildings, church halls and private houses. The text on the mosaic plaque above the door reads, ‘This building was used as a VAD Hospital during the Great War’.

This plaque is next to the Licenced Victuallers' Alms Houses on the opposite side of Abbeydale Road South. We believe that Woodland View was requisitioned as an overflow from the main St John’s Hospital site.

There are many references to the hospital in the Dore and Totley Parish magazines of the time. As early as November 1914 this was noted that “…there is a company of wounded Belgian soldiers at an improvised hospital, where they are well looked after by a large number of capable nurses, and where everything is done for their comfort and welfare.”

By December of 1914 many Dore and Totley residents were actively involved in fundraising for the St John’s Hospital. Following a social held at Dore School the authorities were asked what would be the most appropriate use of the money raised. The reply was: ‘… boots, slippers, gloves, and other little necessities.’

Trained nurses were greatly outnumbered by the VAD staff, who did virtually all the work on the wards. They cleaned, scrubbed and dusted, did the catering for the patients, and did the washing, a massive task for a hospital in the days where laundry duty began by lighting fires for the coppers which boiled the linen. The most dramatic step for many of the VADs came in those duties directly involving the patients. These were young men who needed help to dress themselves and wash. Many of the women would have come from privileged backgrounds where they were chaperoned, and their only solitary contact with young men would have been with their brothers.

Danny Ripley’s memory of what happened at the VAD Hospital was kindly passed to us by Totley Local History Group. He recalled that “… it was the year of 1916 and the Great War was in progress. This was very apparent in Totley as it was like a small garrison town. Soldiers came by in their thousands to do their gunnery training on the rifle ranges; also wounded soldiers from the front line in France were brought to the field hospital (on the recreation ground fronting the Cricket Inn) for treatment. St John’s Hospital on Abbeydale Road was the operating theatre for severe cases, who were then transferred to the field hospital on recovery.” A Doctor Dick Evans, a member of the American Consulate, was a frequent visitor to the sick bay at Totley Bents, where I understand he was able to offer his valuable expertise.

Images that exist of the interior of the church rooms whilst it was being used as a hospital show a very spartan appearance, still retaining many indications of its original purpose like the stone lintels around the windows, and the high ceiling.

The President of the Dore and Totley Voluntary Aid Detachment was Mrs W.A. Milner of Totley Hall whose second son, Lieutenant Roy Denzil Pashley Milner of the 18th Brigade of the British Expeditionary Force, Sherwood Foresters, died on 20th September 1914 as he led a charge up the steep sided Troyon valley in Picardy. Lieutenant Milner was one of the first soldiers to die in the Great War from our area. For the rest of the War Sarah Milner worked tirelessly to provide aid and comforts for wounded soldiers, including working closely with the VAD hospital at St John’s.

Amongst some of the more unusual ways that the hospital was supported by Dore and Totley residents was through the very regular appeal for eggs to be donated. Food not rationed could be in short supply, and giving up precious eggs was indeed a major gesture of support for the War effort. Here are some extracts from the Dore and Totley Parochial Magazine:

September 1916: “The response to the appeal made to farmers and others for new laid eggs on Sunday July 20th was most gratifying, because although the notice was only a short one it revealed a willingness and sympathy on the part of the givers which justified the effort. Baskets containing 30, 25, 20, 15, 12, 6, 4, and paper bags with twos and threes, all given for the sake of those brave fellows who had risked their lives in battle, gave the pathetic touch to every contribution. The exact number given totalled six hundred and two.”

Again by June 1918 eggs are being requested as follows: “There was an enthusiastic response made on Sunday May 12th to the request that eggs should be given to the Red Cross Hospital at Abbeydale, Dore for our wounded soldiers. The Dore Day School children had been busy the whole of the previous week, and 104 children had between them collected 340 eggs, the remaining 320 being given by members of the congregation. Bearing in mind the scarcity of eggs, and their enhanced value at this time, and an important item of revenue to our farmers, a sacrifice was made, and so making the gift more marked and special.”

Do we know who any of the patients were? You might be very surprised to learn that we do. Again through Bill Glossop passing over copies of an autograph book of the period we can see the signatures of many of the Belgian soldiers, as well as a separate page signed by some of the RNAS patients. One of the pages is shown below:

Hand drawn and coloured, the RNAS page is dated 9/4/18. Perhaps someone will spot the signature of a family member? One memory of the wounded Belgian soldiers which Dore Village Society received was this:

“St John’s Hospital was of great interest to us as children. The patients gathered round the entrance in their bright blue hospital uniforms and we practiced our halting French as we passed, though I think they spoke only Flemish.”

Source: Dore to Door issue 114, Summer 2014

Related Topics: Dore in the First World War | Dore's War Memorial | Lych Gate War Memorial | Roll Call of War Dead 1914-1919