PICTURE GALLERY: WW1 autograph book from Bignor Park military hospital

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SET against the stunning backdrop of the South Downs, Bignor Park House, with its vast lawns and grand interior, undoubtedly has a wealth of history within its walls.

But few are party to the fact the house operated as an auxiliary military hospital in the first world war.

And thanks to Petworth author and photographer David Johnston, a record of the servicemen treated there has now come to light.

Scanning the shelves of Mullabys antiques shop in June Lane, Midhurst, David came across an important piece of history.

While their comrades were engaged in battle overseas, those who had been injured, or were recovering from surgery, spent their days convalescing in the rooms of Bignor House.

David found a small autograph book which he purchased for £5, thinking it might be ‘of some interest’.

It was only once he got home that he realised just how important his find was.

The autograph album had been owned by a nurse, Beth Richardson, from Fittleworth. In it are messages, poems and sketches by the soldiers she cared for during the war.

At the outbreak of the war, the British Red Cross and the Order of St John of Jerusalem formed the Joint War Committee, setting up temporary hospitals for injured service personnel.

Varied buildings were put to use, including houses, schools and townhouses.

Bignor Park was opened as a Red Cross hospital, by then-owner Mrs Johnstone, who joined the war effort and opened her stately home to soldiers from around 
the world.

Little is know about her time at Bignor, but it is known she set up the wards in early August 1914, and the first patients arrived shortly afterwards.

Auxiliary hospitals would be attached to military hospitals and there were more than 3,000 administered by Red Cross county directors.

There were dozens of war hospitals across Britain during the first world war, run by the War Office, but official records, for example, admission registers, survive from only four of these hospitals.

Other auxiliary hospitals set up in the area include Bellevue in Petworth, the Golden Fields Hospital in Liphook, and Belgrave House in Littlehampton.

For the full nostalgia feature, see this week’s Observer series (out May 8).




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