The Royal Pavilion’s Hidden Histories: the hospital for Limbless Men

Photo of patients at the Limbless Hospital, 1917
Patients at the Limbless Hospital, 1917

When I was a student in Brighton 25 years ago I became very used to seeing the iconic Royal Pavilion building during my everyday life in the city. I then discovered the story of this former royal palace being used as a hospital for injured soldiers during the First World War and suddenly I started looking at it in a new way. Since then it has fascinated me that this beautiful, yet strange building was somehow transformed into a state of the art military hospital, first for Indian soldiers and then for British soldiers who had lost a limb in warfare. I am certainly not the first to have found this fascinating.

An article in the 1917-18 The Brighton Season magazine describes the spectacle of the transformed palace:

‘..the great rooms, famous for their beauty, now hospital wards, is indeed a strange, sad sight, and one that probably very few ever dreamed that their eyes should rest upon.’

Since the opening of the Indian Military Hospital display in the Pavilion in 2010, there has been renewed interest in the forgotten story of thousands of Indian soldiers hospitalised in the city between 1914 and 1916. We are fortunate that this was recorded through a huge range of photographs, paintings, postcards and a commemorative book — all of which can now be downloaded for free.

However, the story of the Pavilion as a hospital for limbless soldiers, from 1916 until 1920, is a little less well known. There are hardly any photographs of the interior of the Pavilion during this time.

It was not just a hospital at this time, but a place of rehabilitation and retraining, before the men went to Roehampton to be fitted with new prosthetic limbs. To this end, workshops were built in the Pavilion grounds. The motto written over the entrance, ‘Hope welcomes all who enter here’ was said to be chosen by Queen Mary, who gave her name to the new buildings.

Queen Mary's workshop, 1917
Queen Mary’s workshop, 1917

 

The Queen Mary workshops provided training to enable the soldiers to learn to become book-keepers, motor mechanics, and carpenters, among other trades. There is a short film showing life at the workshops, held by Pathe, which can be seen here.

Sport and leisure activities were also used as a means of rehabilitation. Cricket, the ancient Sussex game of Stoolball, even hairdressing competitions were held in the Pavilion Gardens.

Jody East, Creative Programme Curator, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery

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