International Nurses Day

Sioned Williams

Convalescing soldiers in their 'hospital blues' in the St Fagans Red Cross VAD Hospital, established in the grounds of St Fagans Castle

Nurses and soldiers at the St Fagans Red Cross VAD Hospital, 1916

Bessie Hunter with two soldiers on the Rose Terrace, St Fagans Castle, about 1916-19 (Private Collection)

Bessie Hunter with two soldiers on the Rose Terrace, St Fagans Castle, about 1916-19 (Private Collection)

Red Cross apron worn by Elizabeth Radcliffe, 1916-19

Red Cross apron worn by Elizabeth Radcliffe, 1916-19

Elizabeth Radcliffe (Private collection)

Elizabeth Radcliffe (Private collection)

On International Nurses Day (12 May) we celebrate the contribution of nurses in societies all around the world. 2020 marks the bicentenary of Florence Nightingale and has a special significance as we thank the nurses and carers during this difficult time.

Over a century ago, the sacrifice and efforts of nurses and carers were also at the forefront of people’s minds, under different circumstances, during the First World War. According to the Red Cross, 90,000 volunteers worked at home and abroad during the war, playing a crucial part in caring for the sick and wounded. Amongst these were the Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses (known as VADs) at the St Fagans VAD Red Cross Hospital.

VAD nurses had to be between 23-38 years old and were expected to volunteer at least 48 hours a week with only one day off a week and 14 days annual leave. The VADs were to provide all the labour needed for the auxiliary hospitals, but as the number of wounded returning from the war increased it soon became necessary to employ paid labour. In September 1915 a ‘general service’ section of the VADs was established to carry out all sort of duties in hospitals, from cooking to cleaning, on a small annual wage of £20. The Commandant of the local women’s VAD would be in charge of the overall management of an auxiliary hospital, assisted by a Quartermaster, a Medical Officer and a trained nurse. The Quartermaster was responsible for the building, equipment and supplies.

Gertrude Proger was the Commandant at the St Fagans VAD Red Cross Hospital. Originally from Moulsford in Berkshire, she lived at Llanmaes - a large house in the village - with her husband, Thomas William Proger, a Sanitary Engineer, and their three children. Their daughter Olwen joined the VAD scheme in 1915 when she was only 19 years old. She also volunteered at the Hospital; as well as nursing duties, she drove the Hospital’s ambulance.

Gertrude Proger had been in the role of Commandant since December 1913, before the outbreak of war and any mention of opening a hospital at St Fagans. Gertrude worked hard to prepare the ground for such an event and in her position as Commandant, must have been instrumental in recruiting volunteers to the detachment and in setting up the Hospital which eventually opened in the converted Banqueting Hall in St Fagans Castle on 22 March 1916. She was credited for her hard work by the Chairman of the Division in The Glamorgan Red Cross Gazette a month before the opening of the Hospital:

The Commandant, Mrs T. W. Proger has spared herself no trouble in her earnest endeavour to ensure the equipment being as comfortable and as complete as possible. Needless to state, the members of the Detachment are eagerly awaiting the opportunity of active service which the opening of the hospital will afford them.

Assisting Gerturde Proger at the Hospital was the Quartermaster, Mary Ellen Jones. She lived at The Rock, a substantial house in St Fagans village, with her husband Williams Herbert Jones, accountant to the Plymouth Estate, and their three children. Before the opening of the Hospital, her role would have involved collecting and registering equipment and supplies. Her work continued at the Hospital, managing the building, stores and equipment and supervising the kitchen, which must have become a difficult task as supplies dwindled.

The Sister-in-Charge at St Fagans was Elizabeth Bastable Wilkins. Her record of service shows that she was a paid member of staff and worked at the Hospital from 22 May 1916 until 31 March 1919. Originally from Dorset, she was an experienced nurse who had previously worked as a Sister at the Royal Hamadryad Seamen’s Hospital in Cardiff and at the Belgian School of Nursing in Brussels under Edith Cavell. Her experience and qualifications were not the only assets she brought to St Fagans. A report in The Glamorgan Red Cross Gazette praises her methods of training the other VAD nurses, allowing them first-hand experience, which it seems was not always the case in other hospitals.

The Sister-in-Charge, Miss Wilkins, is most successful in training the V.A.D.’s. She allows them to assist with the dressings, to take pulse and temperature, and this they appreciate, as it gives them valuable experience, and makes their work, &c., much more interesting. It is a great pity her methods are not more generally adopted in Red Cross Hospitals.

Amongst the local nurses working at the hospital was Elizabeth Radcliffe who lived at Chapel House, St Fagans, with her parents and siblings. Her father was the chapel caretaker. Before the war Elizabeth had been working as a nanny in Cardiff for the Howell family, the owners of James Howell & Co department store. By 1916 she was back living with her family and volunteering at the Hospital. Elizabeth had four brothers – three of whom were killed during the war.

Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Hunter was the daughter of the village plumber. The family lived at Y Twyn cottage, situated on Castle Hill, just below St Fagans Castle. Elizabeth worked as a cook at the Hospital, and unlike the other VAD nurses she earned a salary. ‘Bessie’, as she was known, kept an autograph book while working at the Hospital, which she asked her family, fellow nurses and the soldiers in her care to sign. One of the patients at the Hospital who affectionately signed his name in the book was Private Len Chitty, of the East Surrey Regiment who later became Bessie’s husband when they married in 1918.

If you’d like to find out more about the work of the VAD nurses during the First World War go to the Red Cross archives. There are many more First World War objects and photographs in the collection here at St Fagans too. Go to our online collections to discover more.


12 May 2020, 13:34
Very informative- happy nurses day.
Comments are currently unavailable. We apologise for the inconvenience.