In December 1899, Mr Alfred Cooper (Chair of Messrs Ridgway Ltd , tea merchants and Chairman and Proprietor of the Gardner Gun & Engineering Company) who was living at The Gables, Surbiton wrote to the Princess of Wales offering to convert the private theatre in the grounds of The Gables into a temporary hospital for the sick and wounded of the Boer War (October 1899 - May 1902). He explained that the location was especially favourable as his property was just a few yards from the "up-platform" of Surbiton Station and so troops arriving in Southampton by ship could be transported by train to the hospital without the need for further changes. Initially it was estimated that up to 35 troops could be admitted.
At first the War Office was reluctant to consent to this, preferring to use government convalescent homes, but eventually agreed. The Gables became the only private military hospital in existence at the time. It was one of several locations injured troops were sent to when they arrived in the UK from Her Majesty's Hospital Ship (HMHS) Princess of Wales and was described as an "adjunct" to the Ship. On 30 January 1900 HMHS Princess of Wales left Cape Town carrying up to 200 war casualties.
By early February 1900 the Gables Hospital was fully equipped and staffed. A number of local doctors provided services to the hospital such as Dr Ackerley, Dr Beville, Dr Colby, Dr Owen Coleman, Dr H Cooper , Dr Wallaston Groome, Dr Dudley Somers and Dr Taylor. In addition Mr F C Abbott, an eminent surgeon at St Thomas' Hospital, placed his services at the hospital's disposal. Mr Abbott's connection with St Thomas' meant that patients at the Gables had access to other specialists, if necessary. A matron, Miss Spencer, was appointed with experience of nursing at both the London Hospital and the Royal Hospital Haslar. Some smaller items of equipment such as hot waters bottles, screens, writing boards and bedside tables were donated by members of the community. The paintings on the hospital walls were loaned by a local resident. Messrs Packham and Sons donated bread and the West London Dairy Company provided milk for the hospital.
When it opened the hospital consisted of Ward 1 (the Hall of the Theatre) with 11 beds, Ward 2 (on the stage) 10 beds (also used on occasion as an operating theatre with the curtains closed) and 2 small Wards in the basement each with 3 beds. The wards were heated by fires and by radiator hot water pipes. In addition there was a Mess Room, a well equipped kitchen, a lavatory with several basins with both hot and cold water, a curtained off area with a bath and a doctor's consulting room. In the basement the Matron had her own room as did a Sergeant, who was responsible for maintaining military discipline. There were indoor activities provided such as bagatelle, a large phonograph, books/papers and a piano. Outside the lawn was set up as a football pitch and the asphalt tennis court was adapted for playing bowls. There was also a small shooting range on the upper lawn. The Surbiton Times (9 March 1900) said "a more delightful place for wounded men to rest would be hard to imagine".
By 10 March 1900 the hospital had its first patients. Twenty six troops, who had mainly been wounded at Magersfontein or Molder River, were received at the Gables from the first voyage of HMHS Princess of Wales. Most patients stayed for 6 weeks, but a few for longer. Patients were clothed in light blue hospital uniforms with red caps.
Men knitted socks for themselves and stockings for their wives. A favourite occupation was to make Berlin wool work belts (a type of needlepoint) bearing the owner's name and the action in which they were wounded. The wool was supplied by Mr and Mrs Cooper and they paid a saddler to mount the wool work on to leather so the belts could be worn by the troops. Smoking was allowed all day with pipes, tobacco and cigarettes supplied.
There was regular evening entertainment called "smoking concerts" with local musicians, both professional and amateur, taking part. In addition, in March 1900 the Hospital received a gift of a large musical box from the Princess of Wales. Shooting competitions and football matches were organised for the troops. Theatre visits were arranged to the Royal County Theatre (in Fife Road, Kingston). There was a church service held at 3pm on most Sunday afternoons with the vicar giving his address from the gallery that ran alongside the Hall (Ward 1).
Mr and Mrs Cooper not only funded the hospital at their own expense but they took a personal interest in the troops and their welfare. Mrs Cooper arranged fresh flowers in the Hospital each day and she knew the names of all the men and their stories. Mr Cooper sometimes played draughts or chess with patients and participated in evening entertainments demonstrating his "sleight of hand tricks".
Before the end of March 1900 the HMHS Princess of Wales was ready to undertake a second voyage to the Cape. The Gables received a new intake of 31 injured troops when the ship returned. In July 1900 HMHS Princess of Wales made a third voyage to the Cape to collect injured troops. The Gables continued to take in troops from HMHS but some patients were also transferred from the Royal Victoria Military Hospital, Netley.
On Tuesday 3 April 1900 the Prince and Princess of Wales, with their daughter Princess Victoria made, what was intended to be, a private visit to the Hospital. However word got out and there were several hundred people at Surbiton station to greet their train's arrival at 3.45pm. During the visit the Royal family spoke to the patients and presented each with a soldier's testament* and a green Moroccan leather pocket case inscribed in gold lettering as a gift from the Princess of Wales. There was a steel engraved portrait of the Princess on the cover of the pocket case and inside a note tablet, a cartridge pencil, and pocket knife and a pair of scissors. The cartridge pencil was made in the shape of a Lee Metford Rifle Cartridge and was stamped with the name of the battle where the recipient was wounded. After tea with Mr and Mrs Cooper, the Royal Party returned to Surbiton Station and despite the heavy rain, about 2000 people had now gathered to see their departure. Some residents of Victoria Road had quickly managed to put out some bunting for this return journey.
The next day, 4 April 1900, the Prince and Princess of Wales left the UK for a trip to Denmark. While in transit at the Gard du Nord in Brussels on 5 April there was an assassination attempt on the Prince of Wales by Jean-Baptiste Sipido. He jumped on the footboard of the carriage just as the train was starting and fired two shots into the train which missed the Prince. The Princess of Wales was also in the carriage. When questioned Sipido admitted he intended to kill the Prince because he had caused thousands of men to be slaughtered in South Africa. Sipido was tried but acquitted as he was less than 16 years old and the jury decided that he was too young to be held legally responsible.
On 5 August 1900 the Princess of Wales with Princess Victoria visited the Gables Hospital again. This time they came to Surbiton Station in a reserved carriage of a scheduled train. They spoke to 21 patients on this occasion and gave pocket books to each as before. Although the royal family did not visit again, the pocket cases continued to be delivered to the Hospital direct from Barkers of New Bond Street, so all patients continued to receive this gift from the Princess of Wales.
To perpetuate the memory of the hospital in the autumn of 1900 Mr Cooper arranged for a medal** to be struck. On 26 September a sample of the hospital medals were sent to Windsor Castle for the Princess of Wales to approve. Feedback was positive so more hospital medals were sent as gifts for Princess Victoria of Wales and Prince and Princess Charles of Denmark.
There were at least 3 medal types, silver for members of staff, bronze for the patients who returned from South Africa on the HMHS Princess of Wales, and silver plated ones for patients who had arrived from other locations such as Netley. On one side of the medal was an image of the Princess of Wales with HMHS in the background bearing the inscription "Transvaal War 1899-1900". On the other side a facsimile of the Hospital with a Red Cross Flag flying with the text "For the sick and wounded from South Africa". Around both faces was inscribed "Souvenir of the Princess of Wales Private Military Hospital , the Gables, Surbiton maintained by Mr and Mrs Cooper as an adjunct to Her Majesty's Hospital Ship".
The patients showed much gratitude to Mr and Mrs Cooper. On 7 April 1900 the patients presented a framed address of thanks to Mr and Mrs Cooper which was signed by them all. Many wrote to them after their discharge from hospital thanking them for their care and giving them news of their health and life after their time at the Gables. When the hospital closed the patients presented Sir Alfred with a silver cigarette case and Lady Cooper with a silver card case. The Matron was given a writing case and other nursing staff also received presents.
On 10 December 1900 Alfred Cooper was invited to attend a Royal inspection of the HMHS Princess of Wales at Southampton which had recently arrived with more casualties. He returned to the Gables the same day along with 21 more injured soldiers.
In January 1901 Alfred Cooper was given a knighthood in "recognition for the valuable services which you have rendered to the sick and wounded sufferers in the war". In January of the same year a group of patients and Sir Alfred were invited to attend a parade that greeted the return of Lord Roberts, overall Commander of the British Forces during the successful latter part of the Boer campaign. The patients in their light blue uniforms and red caps formed a line inside the gates of Buckingham Palace to greet the arrival of Lord Roberts as his coach passed inside.
On 22 January 1901 Queen Victoria died and the Prince and Princess of Wales became King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.
On 26 January 1901 the Gables Hospital closed. The War Office wrote to thank Sir Alfred Cooper for the "valuable aid rendered by the Hospital.'' The total number of patients admitted to the Gables Hospital is estimated to be between 120 and 200 men. When it closed all the beds, bedding and equipment from the Gables were given to St. Thomas' Hospital.
*The soldiers' testaments are described as having an emblem on the front of the national flag and a red cross flag with a drum and lettering "South Africa 1900". On the back cover there were more flags and texts "Peace through the blood of His cross" and "My peace I give you", as shown by the picture from the Imperial War Museum. They were designed to fit a soldier's khaki jacket pockets. The website has a picture of them courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.
** You can see one of silver/silver plated medals here.
Text in italic has not been found in the Gables Hospital Album, it is from The Guardian.
Note: Neither Doctor H Cooper who provided medical services to the hospital or the owner of The Gables Mr Alfred Cooper (later Sir Alfred Cooper) are Sir Alfred Cooper FRCS specialist in venereal diseases. Sir Alfred Cooper FRCS was not involved with the Gables Hospital. This confusion has appeared in some local history books.