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Stitching soldiers - the Whitchurch Hospital tablecloth

Elen Phillips, 7 Mawrth 2016

Next month Whitchurch Hospital in Cardiff will close after almost 108 years of providing mental health services in the capital.

To mark this end of an era, members of the Whitchurch Hospital Historical Society have turned a disused ward into a pop-up museum. For one week only, members of the public, former patients and staff are invited beyond the Hospital’s imposing – some would say forbidding – red brick façade to explore its history from 1908 to the present-day.

An autograph book in cloth

Here at St Fagans, we have a tablecloth in the collection which was made at the Hospital in 1917. It was donated to the Museum in 2014 by the costume designer, Ray Holman, who had bought it at a Cardiff antiques shop in the early 1980s. At first glance, this white cotton tablecloth with a crocheted border looks, quite frankly, a little dull. But this rather unassuming textile hides a multitude of secrets. Look closely and you’ll see faint signatures embroidered in white thread across the entire surface of the cloth – the names of British and American soldiers who were receiving treatment at Whitchurch in 1917.

Military hospital

During the First World War, the Cardiff City Mental Hospital (as Whitchurch was then called) was ceded to the military and became known as the Welsh Metropolitan War Hospital (1915 - 1919). Civilian psychiatric patients were moved to other institutions, while injured soldiers requiring orthopaedic treatment occupied their beds. In 1917, 450 beds were allocated for soldiers with mental health conditions.   

The signatures embroidered on the tablecloth include two important figures in the history of psychiatric care in Wales – Lieutenant-Colonel Edwin Goodall and Matron Florence Raynes. Goodall, an eminent psychiatrist who trained at Guy’s Hospital in London, was appointed the first Medical Superintendent of Whitchurch in 1906, two years before the Hospital opened. He was awarded a CBE in 1919 for his pioneering treatment of shell shock. Florence Raynes was also a trailblazer in her own right. She was the first sister to have overall responsibility for the entire, male and female, nursing staff.

If you get a chance to visit Whitchurch Hospital this week, please do go. It’s a fascinating exhibition in the most powerful of settings.

With thanks to Gwawr Faulconbridge, Whitchurch Hospital Historical Society, Dr Ian Beech, and to Ray Holman for his generous donation.

End of an Era, Whitchurch Hosptial, 7 - 11 March 2016

The tablecloth will be on display at the Hospital on 11 March, 10am - 1pm

Elen Phillips

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