The First World War had only commenced a few months earlier, but when Mrs. Mary Eleanor Gwynne Holford visited a military hospital in January 1915, it was evident that the human cost of this conflict was already significant. Here she met Private F.W. Chapman, a wounded soldier who had lost both arms; an encounter that moved her to vow after the visit: "I will work for one object, and that is to start a hospital whereby all those who had the misfortune to lose a limb in this terrible war, could be fitted with the most perfect artificial limbs human science could devise.”
Mrs. Gwynne Holford , with the help of other high profile supporters, set about fundraising to provide a place to care for and rehabilitate amputees such as Private Chapman, and the site of Roehampton House in south London was settled upon. Built as a stately home in 1712, Roehampton House was purchased in 1915 by shipping magnate Kenneth Wilson (of Ellerman's Wilson Line), who had placed it at the disposal of the government for war work, where it was used to billet soldiers. With Queen Mary as a patron, and only 5 months after the idea was first proposed by Mrs Gwynne Holford, Queen Mary's Convalescent Auxiliary Hospital was opened on 28th June 1915, with 200 beds.
Such was the demand as military casualties mounted, that the hospital’s capacity was extended, and by 1917 some 11,000 patients had been treated there. The hospital became known as “the human repair factory”, and its work and the public interest in this is testified to by photographic features in several illustrated magazines in our archive. These show men with prosthetic limbs not only being taught to walk, but prepared for other aspects of civilian life, learning carpentry skills and even play billiards, using their prosthetic devices. By the end of World War One, the hospital had 900 beds, and a waiting list of over 4,000 patients.
Of the over 1.65 million men in the British Army that were wounded during the First World War, it is estimated that around 240,000 of these suffered total or partial leg or arm amputations as a result of war wounds. The vision of one woman, moved by a personal encounter to create a place of practical support for military amputees, grew to become a pioneering centre for rehabilitation for all who suffered limb loss. Her January 1915 epiphany, borne out of bleak wartime necessity as maimed men returned from the front, left a legacy of hope that was to outlive a second world war, and would still be going strong nearly a century after its foundation. She would later be awarded the CBE for her war work.
Though the original building of Roehampton House is now being made into luxury apartments (http://www.berkeleygroup.co.uk/property-developers/st-james/developments/roehampton-house), the life changing work continues in a purpose-built hospital nearby, officially opened in 2006 and run by the St George’s Healthcare NHS Trust.