A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: In an exotic Regency residence, an oasis of hope for limbless soldiers


Brighton’s famous Pavilion played a vital, forgotten role in rehabilitating troops

Richard Blackmore

On 13 April 1916, hundreds of people queued up to pay sixpence to tour an empty military hospital on the South Coast. This was no austere Victorian medical building, however, but the Brighton Pavilion, the ostentatious, Mughal-inspired seaside residence created between 1787 and 1823 for the playboy Prince Regent, later King George IV.

His extravagantly furnished former home, seemingly Indian on the outside with its onion-shaped domes, but Chinese on the inside, its drawing rooms filled with silks and chinoiserie, had, since early in the war, served as an unlikely recuperation centre for Indian soldiers wounded in Flanders. By 1916, with the British Indian Army transferred to Egypt and Mesopotamia, and the last Indian patients moved out of Brighton, the War Office converted the Pavilion into a specialist unit for limbless British servicemen.

Before the wounded arrived, the town council – which bought the royal estate from Queen Victoria in 1850 – held a series of open weekends, with admission fees going to the Mayor’s war charities. The Pavilion had been off-limits to most civilians during the conflict, so there was much curiosity to see how it had been transformed and thousands came through the doors.

The first patients, admitted a week later on 20 April, were to experience a revolution in the treatment of war wounded under the direction of Colonel Sir R Neil Campbell, who had served as Senior Medical Officer for Brighton’s Indian hospitals. Appointed CO of the new unit, he shifted, with his staff, focus to offer rehabilitation and vocational training to the disabled soldiers. These pioneering methods laid the groundwork for the treatment of limbless ex-servicemen still being practised today.

In all, there were 526 beds in the Pavilion and its neighbouring buildings, with eight isolation wards, a staff of 91 doctors and medical attendants, 33 nurses and 80 “general service women”.

Men who had lost limbs were sent to what had become known by the Indians as “Dr Brighton”, to convalesce and gain strength before being referred to Queen Mary’s at Roehampton for fitting with artificial limbs. By August, the Queen Mary’s Workshops – funded by Her Majesty – had opened in the Pavilion grounds to provide patients with skills to help them find employment when released from the Army. The Queen chose the motto for the workshops: “Hope welcomes all who enter here!”
For four hours a day, the men were offered courses in  vehicle mechanics, electrical engineering, carpentry and woodwork, boot and shoe-mending, as well as book-keeping, shorthand, typewriting, English and grammar.

The soldiers also enjoyed sporting, dramatic and musical events, and published their own monthly newspaper, The Pavilion Blues.

As Brighton Season magazine wrote at the time: “The cheerfulness of our wounded men has often been the subject of deep wonder, even when lying for weeks in bed; but the bright, interested, happy faces during instruction hours strikes a note of gladness in the hearts and minds of everyone who has the good fortune to see them.

“Hope, indeed, has entered here, and the fine finish on all the manufactured articles tells of an interest in their work, without which such excellence could not be arrived at.”

It reserved particular praise for the workshops’ commercial training section. “Here a vigorous preparation for business life in all forms is to be grasped… It is most gratifying to learn already that many of the men who have passed through the workshop are now earning good wages of up to £160 per annum.”
By the time the hospital closed in 1920, more than 6,000 amputees had been offered treatment, recuperation and retraining. Its visionary approach to care is the subject of a free summer exhibition curated by Brighton and Hove’s Royal Pavilion and Museums service. “Dr Brighton’s War: Hospitals and Healing in Brighton during WW1” will further explain the town’s role in preparing the seriously wounded for a return to society.

Kevin Bacon, the museum’s digital development officer, said: “The Pavilion Hospital for Limbless Men was more than a facility for treating wounds; it built new lives for its patients. Some of the patients had joined the Army as unskilled men, but through losing an arm or a leg and being treated at the hospital, they emerged from the war with a trade. That commitment… would not have been considered before the First World War, and it’s a sign of the changing social contract at that time. It’s an early sign that the demands of total war could pave the way for systems of total care, and anticipates some of the thinking behind the creation of the welfare state.”
He added: “Sadly, the work of the hospital seems to have been mostly forgotten in the following years. The neurologist Ludwig Guttmann’s work with wounded Second World War soldiers at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the late 1940s was rightly celebrated during the Paralympics in 2012, but doctors were trialling similar methods in the Pavilion 30 years earlier.”

‘Dr Brighton’s War: Hospitals and Healing in Brighton during WW1’, 9 July until 31 August, Brighton seafront. Details HERE. To access Brighton Pavilion and Museum’s First World War resources, including photographs, posters and local periodicals from the time, click HERE

Tomorrow: The Easter rising

The ‘100 Moments’ already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here