VAD Nurses in Sutton

British recruitment poster featuring Edith Cavell. Image courtesy of the BBC Schools Website.

British recruitment poster featuring Edith Cavell. Image courtesy of the BBC Schools Website.

This week marks 100 years since the execution by a German firing squad of Edith Louisa Cavell, a British Red Cross Nurse who worked in German occupied Belgium during World War One. Cavell is celebrated for having treated soldiers from both sides without discrimination and in helping around 200 Allied soldiers escape from German occupied Belgium; an action for which for which she was arrested, court-martialled, found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Her execution received worldwide condemnation and extensive press coverage.

Cavell’s story is tragic but her actions were by no way unique.  While we cannot claim that Cavell’s famous attitude “patriotism is not enough”, “I cannot stop while there are lives to be saved” would have been universally held by the wartime nursing profession, it must have been been very hard to draw a distinction when presented with injured and dying men from either side. Nurses are well represented among our plates and while we have not uncovered any such sensational stories among those individuals that have so far been researched, no doubt they would all have engaged in many no less notable acts of courage and heroism every day; such was the life of a wartime nurse. Today, we look at just a few of these remarkable women, who fought alongside the men to preserve and save lives on a day to day basis.

We have already looked at a couple of these individuals in past blog posts (click on names to link to articles) Rose Berkely was a local woman who worked for the Red Cross from 1914-1919 and Edith Thorogood was a QAIMNS nurse from Carshalton Road, Sutton.  Here are just a few more from the archives:

Nurse Corisande Mary Hart

Miss Hart. Photographed 2 Jan 1915 by Knights-Whittome.

Miss Hart. Photographed 2 Jan 1915 by Knights-Whittome

We were able to discover details of this sitter, labelled only ‘Miss Hart’ through the wonderful British Red Cross Museum and Archives Database. The Red Cross website is a treasure trove for those researching nurses, but it also offers a great resource about the history of British Red Cross nurses and hospitals.  The database revealed that Miss Corisande Mary Hart lived at Mulgrave House, Mulgrave Road, Sutton, and was aged 41 when engaged in 1914; meaning that this image would have been taken when she was 42 years of age. Miss Hart was engaged as an assistant quartermaster and served in Boulogne in France. As such she would have been jointly responsible for the receipt, custody and issue of articles in the provision store of the hospital or unit in which she was stationed. From the 1911 census, we know that she lived with her widowed mother, four brothers and four servants but over and above this we have no more information about her nursing service.

The Wagenrieder Sisters – Nora, Ethel and Katie

The Wagenrieder sisters were all photographed by Knights-Whittome at his studio in Sutton. They lived in Stanley Road, Sutton. The sisters worked as VAD nurses through the war and were stationed locally. Katie worked at Benfleet Hall War Hospital in Sutton but also at Brooklands, West-Byfleet and the American Red Cross Hospital in London. The records show that both Ethel and Katie worked throughout the war until 1919. The images we have below show all three sisters, but sadly only Katie is specifically named on the documentation we have, so we cannot be sure which of the other two girls is which.

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Benfleet Hall as WW1 war hospitalBenfleet Hall, now demolished,  stood in the area of present day Benfleet Rd (off Benhill Road).  The house and its 17 acres of parkland in Sutton were offered to the local Red Cross Committee by its owner Mr W K Appleton for use as a hospital for wounded soldiers. £500 raised from local residents and businesses enabled an operating theatre, wards, bathrooms, staff apartments, beds, clothing, linen, drugs, surgical equipment, bandages and food to be acquired.

Staff-&-soldiers-at-Benfleet smaller

Benfleet Hall Staff and Soldiers

The hospital, attached to the King George Distributing Hospital in Waterloo, was initially set up to accommodate 60 wounded men, with a view to increasing that to 100, providing expert surgical, medical and nursing care to assist the soldiers regain their health.

All the medical practitioners of Sutton volunteered their services to the hospital. The South Metropolitan Tramways and Lighting Company provided lighting for the hospital at cost price and continued to supply electricity at a nominal charge of one penny per unit. Later they put on special tram runs when the soldiers went on outings. The Water Company offered to supply the hospital with water free of charge and various tradesmen came forward with offers of help.

Formally opened on the 5 June 1915 by the Hon. Henry Cubitt, Lord Lieutenant of Surrey, the hospital consisted of nine wards over two floors plus an operating theatre. Two beds were dedicated to local men who both fell in the war: Captain W G King-Pierce, a former Suttonian and Lieutenant Geoffrey Holman who had lived at Benfleet Hall before the war. The large garden offered those soldiers able, the chance to play tennis, bowls and croquet.

There were eight doctors, six trained nurses and ninety certificated members of the local (ladies) branch of the Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD). A men’s detachment was also formed for stretcher work and lifting. Miss Hepper offered her services as Lady Superintendent. She had previously been matron of St. Mark’s Hospital, London. The Sister-in-Charge was a Miss Lorimer.

One guest at the opening was a Newfoundland dog called Carlo. Red Cross badges and medals had been attached to his harness and as people dropped their pennies into his box and stroked him he would bark his thanks to them.

The first wounded soldiers arrived on the day the hospital opened with more arriving daily. Gifts arrived for the soldiers in the form of groceries, tobacco, pipes, playing cards, dominos, draughts and chess games, books, magazines, chocolate, sweets and many other items to make the men’s lives comfortable. Motor cars were lent to the hospital to enable them to take the soldiers on outings for the day.

The end of August 1916 saw the completion of a new ward built in the grounds of the hospital. Roberts Ward was able to accommodate a further 25 men, thus enabling the hospital to look after the 100 men envisaged from its onset.


In 1909 the War Office issued the Scheme for the Organisation of Voluntary Aid. Under this scheme, the British Red Cross was given the role of providing supplementary aid to the Territorial Forces Medical Service in the event of war.

County branches of the Red Cross organised units called voluntary aid detachments. All voluntary aid detachment members (who themselves came to be known simply as ‘VADs’) were trained in first aid and nursing. Membership quickly grew and still further on the outbreak of war in 1914. At this time the Red Cross and the Order of St John of Jerusalem joined forces to form the Joint War Committee (JWC).

The VADs performed a variety of duties. Auxiliary hospitals and convalescent homes were administered by the JWC throughout Britain and recruited locally.

Qualified nurses were employed to work in these establishments while VADs performed clerical and kitchen duties. With many men engaged in military service, women VADs took on roles such as ambulance drivers, civil defence workers and welfare officers.

Many young women from Sutton came forward to train for the VAD, some ended up working at Benfleet Hall.

Images of Benfleet Hall courtesy of Sutton Local Studies & Archives Centre

There are many more nurses in our collection, waiting to be researched.  Images of these brave women can be seen in our Flickr album; Portraits: WW1 Nurses.  As always, if you recognise any of the individuals pictured in this album, please get in touch.  All individuals would have lived or been stationed locally to Sutton or Epsom.  And if you fancy helping with some of this fascinating research and can spare a couple of hours a week to the project, then we would love to hear from you.

Miss Berkley, 17 May 1917

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