Mansion that became an Army Hospital

This article appeared in the Bexhill Observer on 17th September 1987. It gives an excellent detailed account of Normanhurst during the First World War.

“Normanhurst was the focus of local interest for visitors, and sightseers from Hastings came regularly to marvel at the mansion built in the style of a French chateau, whose grandeur proclaimed the wealth of its owners. Built to command a view of the Channel, with its octagonal tower and prospect balcony, lakes and parkland, it was the centre of a 3,000 acre estate. Inside there were reception rooms that could be turned into a ballroom for fancy dress parties, a splendid Pompeian Room, a chapel and a museum. Beyond the house stood the bachelors quarters, model farm and extensive stabling, entered by an arch with a clock tower.

Spring was the best time for a visit: then the rhododendron avenue, leading down to the chain of lakes, was a source of wonder.
The Bachelor Quarters, to the north of the mansion itself, were built by the Brassey’s for their son, Thomas Allnut Brassey, for his 21st birthday in 1884. Tab, as he was called, was also given a covered tennis court, 110 feet by 49 feet – the size is important for this story. This he chose in preference to a yacht.

Just before the First World War, Lord Brassey, then 78, was too old to manage the 3,000 acre Brassey estate: the patriotic response had to come from his son Tab. Now Lord Hythe, Tab responded to Kitchener’s appeal for 100,000 men by taking command of the 2nd Kent Yeomanry. His wife, Lady Idena, set to work with local support to turn Normanhurst into an Army hospital.

By Summer 1914, preparations for war were already underway. Voluntary Aid Detachments had been formed in Sussex and on June 27th there was a Red Cross Field Day at Normanhurst. The “field of action” extended from the village of Catsfield to the indoor tennis court, at the north end of Normanhurst, a distance of 1½ miles. A troop of Sussex Yeomanry engaged in a “fight” near Catsfield. The more serious cases of the wounded were conveyed to the two base hospitals on motor ambulances or farm waggons equipped for carrying stretchers.

The Battle women’s hospital was in tents, the Catsfield Detachment’s, under lady Idena, was situated in the covered tennis court, whose 110 by 49 feet were transformed into a ward, nurses quarters and kitchens.
But it was not until June 1915, that their efforts and patience were rewarded and the first convoy of wounded arrived at Normanhurst.

A contemporary account describes what the ladies of Catsfield V.A.D. Sussex 112 had achieved.

“The main building was divided in half by a tall green screen, which formed two very convenient and beautiful wards, the colour scheme being on one side green and on the opposite side pink. There was also accommodation in the veranda outside for nine or ten of the cases most suitable for open-air treatment. No building, in fact, designed for other purposes, could have lent itself more completely to this undertaking: and when the adjoining kitchen, Quartermaster’s store, dispensary, and linen rooms, had been taken into consideration, the impression was that of concentrated activity and efficiency welded together by an all-pervading sense of harmony and peace.”

It was a warm and friendly place, and an efficient one. In 1916, Mr Tichurst performed a large number of operations in the newly equipped operating theatre. Mr Warwick Deeping, the doctor and novelist, also helped during his short stay in Battle. On Christmas Day there was a message from the King, a Church service, Christmas dinner and a visit from Father Christmas on the wards at 6.00 pm. These festivities continued until the end of the month.

One of the soldiers who received a present wrote sixteen months later from a V.A.D. Hospital in Cambridge to describe how it had saved his life.

“I am very pleased to tell you that the cigarette case I received from your Hospital, Christmas, 1916, was the means of saving my life, as it turned the bullet, and it missed my heart by a quarter of an inch.”

During 1917, there was an unfortunate accident, when on August 5th a convoy of sixteen stretcher cases was being brought from Hastings. One of the cars, which apparently was racing for the first place on the road when leaving Hastings, struck a lamppost while trying to pass a tram, killing one of the patients instantaneously, and injuring two others so severely that one had a narrow escape and the other took several days to recover from the shock.

Christmas 1918 was a particularly grand affair. Tab and Lady Idena had no children, their heir Edward Brassey Egerton had been killed in the trenches, so it fell to their remaining nephews and nieces to produce the grand Victorian tableau which paraded through the wards with Father Christmas. The indefatigable Miss Raper played Britannia, the Allies, the Navy, the Army and Peace were the young Egertons and Myddletons. Patients and guests received presents from their luggage. Finally a hilarious lucky dip brought the evening to a close.

Years later, after another world war had brought German prisoners and Canadian soldiers to a near-derelict Normanhurst Court, a member of an old Catsfield family, George Gurr, was asked the way to Normanhurst by a passing motorist. He explained that the house had been demolished in 1951 when the estate passed out of the immediate Brassey family.

As they talked, the motorist revealed that he was an old soldier, returning to visit the hospital where he had been treated in the First World War. They exchanged reminiscences: George’s father had worked on the estate, so he remembered it all well from his childhood days.

The old soldier then asked George if he knew the little boy the soldiers had given their “good night sweets” supplied by Lady Idena. George laughed, of course he did, he remembered the sweets very well indeed – he was the little boy!”.

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