St John’s as a Voluntary Aid Detachment Hospital

A row of neatly made beds sit with men in suits sat beside them. Some are reading or talking. In front of them are nurses, who are also helping some of them.
Now called QS015, this room has been several different types of classroom throughout its life.

During World War One many teacher training colleges temporarily closed due to falling student numbers. St John’s College closed due to a lack of students in 1916 and did not reopen until after the war ended. Remaining students were transferred to another St Johns, in Battersea, to complete their studies. Like other similar institutions during World War One, many prospective students were conscripted or chose to join the war effort leading to low student numbers. But, we know from research that many St John’s alumni ended up fighting together. Our alumni would also cross paths with old friends, or even tutors on the front lines.

When St John’s reopened it was with a student population changed by war. Many students had actively fought for their lives and so chafed against some regulations. Although still young men, imagine being told you had a curfew after fighting in a war!

But what was happening at the college?

In 1916, the Red Cross set up another Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) Hospital in York, this time in the campus of St John’s teacher training college. VAD hospitals were for patients who didn’t have life-threatening injuries, but still required time and care to convalesce. Unlike military hospitals, VAD hospitals were less strict, less crowded and often more comfortable.

VAD hospitals attracted a wide range of volunteers, including many local women who volunteered their time and skills. A typical VAD hospital had three key members of staff:

  • A commandant who was in charge of the hospital, apart from medical and nursing services
  • A quartermaster who was responsible for all hospital provisions
  • A matron who directed nursing staff

Unusually for the time, the roles of commandant and quartermaster could be undertaken by women. Although we don’t currently know who the commandant, quartermaster and matron were at St John’s, it’s likely these roles were either filled or supported by women.

The hospital would also have a range of medical and nursing staff. Volunteers also took on a variety of roles. Behind the scenes, hospitals also needed a range of domestic staff, including cleaning and kitchen staff.

The St John’s hospital

The hospital took up a wide section of campus. Three separate areas which were converted into wards have been identified. Previously teaching space, lecture halls and perhaps even exercise space, these spaces became home to a very different group of men than usual.

  • A row of neatly made beds sit with men in suits sat beside them. Some are reading or talking. In front of them are nurses, who are also helping some of them.
  • A row of beds sits in a line. Some are occupied with men, others are neatly made with their occupants sat in a chair beside them instead. The men are dressed smartly. Around the room are three nurses and the matron. Sat near some radiators are some men in easy chairs.
  • A row of occupied beds, a doctor and nurses talk and observe the patients.

Unfortunately, although once familiar spaces for students, some parts of our campus have now changed significantly. This makes it difficult to identify where these spaces are in relation to our modern day rooms. Although they look similar to rooms we have identified, slight differences in the images suggest they are different spaces. For example, in the identifiable rooms above, the light fittings are different and some of the central furniture is different too.

However, we can guess that only ground floor spaces would be used, as these were the largest. We can also guess that many of the rooms would have had some fantastic views!

  • A row of beds sits by the wall. Some ae occupied by men who are dressed in shirts and tie. Others have their occupants side besides them. In the centre of the room a patient sits at a table with a nurse stood over them treating them. There are two other nurses in the room with them.
  • In the centre of the room a patenint is examined by a nurse and the matron. Watching from either inside their beds, or sat beside them, the rest of the patients sit. One of them has a crutch beside their bed.
  • Patients sit in or beside their beds. The men sat beside their beds are fully dressed, including ties and blazers. The men in bed include one who is wearing a head dressing. A couple of the men are looking directly at the camera. Two nurses are observing the room. An interesting detail is that the bedsheets are patterned.

Behind the scenes

But behind the scenes at the hospital were some other vital members of staff: the cooks. In a kitchen used to serving meals to hungry student teachers, the hospital didn’t lack crucial kitchen space. We don’t know if the kitchen staff pictured were also the college kitchen staff, but it’s clear they knew what they were doing!

Without their expertise and time, it is unlikely that St John’s as a college or hospital would have been so successful.

Today we can’t identify exactly where this kitchen was once located. But based on the location of the original dining space, it’s possible it was located where our security team are now. You might know it as the music block next to Temple Hall. Built in 1933 alongside other campus work, it is possible that it replaced what was originally the kitchen and space for other domestic work.

A black and white photo of a kitchen. There are two large wooden tables, side wooden cabinets and a large range oven. Taken in around 1916, the oven and other kitchen equipment looks to be fire powered. Four women stand in the kitchen in clean aprons and hats. On the table nearest to the camera is an assortment of baked goods. The table closest to the range is in use for baking with various bowls and items on.

What was happening at Ripon College?

During World War One, Ripon College was able to stay open nearly as usual. The majority of the teaching staff were women, so academic life saw fewer interruptions. But in their personal lives, Ripon’s students likely saw a lot of interruption due to World War One’s all-encompassing nature.

By 1918, there were over 3000 VAD hospitals, making it likely that some of our students and alumnae will have volunteered their time, or donated towards one during the course of the war. Students might also have completed their course only to decide to support their country in a different way; in 1914 over 40,000 women were already members of the Red Cross detachments.

Ripon’s alumnae also served a very important role closer to home as teachers to the next generation. Like many women during World War One, they will have worked in roles they might not otherwise have secured. Although women teaching was nothing new, with so many men fighting, the range of roles available will have been much wider.

St John’s after the war

When St John’s College reopened, it did so with staff and students who had served together during the war. Although the campus had been decommissioned and reoutfitted as a teacher training college instead of a hospital, the spectre of the war wasn’t entirely gone.

Students who had fought in a war, had watched friends and strangers alike die, faced a college that hadn’t quite moved with the times. Students still had a strict curfew and a dress code a world away from what many of them will have worn during the war. For returning students and staff, they also faced a smaller college with missing faces.

With thanks to:

You may also like...

1 Response

  1. Colin Harrison says:

    Thanks for the fascinating article on the history of St. John’s in the First World War.
    I (probably like a lot of other alumni), knew nothing about this at all.
    Best regards,

    Colin Harrison

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *