Visit Orpington Hospital today and it seems like any other. Patients sit waiting to be seen, nurses file hurriedly in and out. But while now it seems a relatively generic small-town facility, nestled on the edge of south-east London, its beginnings were far less humble.
Orpington Hospital opened in 1916 not as a local unit but as the Ontario Military Hospital, specifically to care for soldiers wounded during the First World War.
Then part of the British Empire, Canada sent 560,000 men and women to support the war effort, many of whom came from Ontario. A year into the conflict the scale of casualties made it clear more beds were needed in the South East. Orpington was deemed the best location.
"Orpington is a most charming and healthful district, placed amidst rural surroundings and giving the requisite change and rest so essential to the wounded soldier," said the Canadian authorities when explaining their choice.
Bonar Law, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, opened its doors in February and it was quickly recognised as one of the best equipped in the country. It had 20 wards with 52 beds each; hand-picked staff came from Canada; its own train platform for soldiers to be brought in.
The hospital treated all manner of wartime injuries, but surgery was perhaps the most important part of daily life there. Until it closed in January 1919, 3,392 operations were performed. Total admissions meanwhile numbered well over 30,000, of which just 184 died. Many of those cared for were British.
Plastic surgery was also prevalent, as it played a crucial role in providing facial and other models for The Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup. It was there Sir Harold Gillies, thought to be "the father of plastic surgery", helped treat those disfigured in Flanders fields and beyond.
As the fighting rumbled on, Ontario Military Hospital forged links with the Orpington community. Women regularly visited with gifts, while the Orpington Picture Palace visited twice a week to put on films for the troops. It is also said out of those who died, 116 were buried at nearby All Saints Church.
Today Orpington Hospital is an unlikely link to a distant land. A 1919 book called The Ontario Military Hospital has a quote which reads: "In the years to come, this sunny corner will draw to it pilgrims who will leave here their tribute of respect and affection to the men who died for England and for far off Canada."
Now run by King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, it remains a vital part of the town. Although entirely changed, clues such as the ‘Canada Wing’ and recently refurbished clock tower might give its past away.
Former nurse Carol Ann Slater, 66, began her career there, aged just 17, in 1966, when the site still looked as it did during the war. She recalls the rows of huts, "iron ruling" matrons, and even looking after elderly veterans who had served.
She described: "We were in huts back then, and beds were in long ‘Nightingale’ lines – but our care didn’t suffer. I think we gave great service.
"There were veterans who’d fought. The sister was in complete charge. It’s very different now."
Mrs Slater remembers her time at Orpington Hospital vividly. She recalls a ward sister called Joan Darwin (a distant relation of Charles no less) who was quite a character; the food that was cooked, all freshly prepared; and even the names of some of the patients in her care. She also witnessed the transition to how it is today. The ‘field set up’ was knocked down in the 1970s.
Mrs Slater quickly rose through the ranks and before moving on in 1984 had won a notable accolade and been featured in the News Shopper as well as other London newspapers.
"I really enjoyed my time there," she added. "It was a fantastic place to work".
To commemorate the centenary of the start of the First World War the trust has recently regenerated the hospital’s memorial garden and is set to celebrate on Friday (August 8) alongside the Deputy High Commissioner of Canada, the Bishop of Rochester, and other dignitaries.
Head of internal communications Joanna Nurse said: "We’re really looking forward to opening the garden.
"We wanted to do something special to mark the start of the war and Orpington’s role.
"We’ve done a lot of other work here at Orpington too which we want to show off."
News Shopper’s parent company Newsquest has teamed up with the Woodland Trust to promote the Dedicate a Tree campaign that runs until Remembrance Sunday in November.
Readers can purchase a tree for £20 and leave a message dedicated to those who lost their lives in World War I.
See this link to donate.
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