Legacies of War: A story of love and loss at Leeds hospital

Patients and nurses at Beckett Park Hospital.
Patients and nurses at Beckett Park Hospital.
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The Great War was about much more than the misery of the trenches. Headingley LitFest secretary Richard Wilcocks tells one woman’s story of love, loss and happiness.

AT his house near Doncaster, Dr Edward Huckett can put his hands quickly on just about any item in his detailed collection of old documents and memorabilia.

Among these are albums and scrapbooks, some of which date back more than a century, including those kept by his mother Dorothy Beatrice Emelie Wilkinson who lived through the First World War.

Dorothy was born in 1889, into a house full of music in Leeds, to her German mother Anna and her father Charles Wilkinson, a well-known local musician and teacher. As a young woman Dorothy taught piano to private pupils in Roundhay and often joined her father at prestigious concerts.
She was also a passionate supporter of the suffragettes and a proud member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. “She was certainly committed to the cause,” her son Edward told me, “and she is known to have travelled to London for some big event, but we don’t know the date. She told us that she had wanted to ‘beat the big drum’ on the parade.”

By the summer of 1914, though, women’s suffrage had taken a back seat as the country prepared for war. Dorothy was now living in Boston Spa and engaged to Dr Clifford Pickles. Clifford, one of six brothers five of whom were doctors, was stationed at Malton where he had a commission in the 5th Territorial Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment (the Green Howards) before heading to France as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

In April 1915, Captain Pickles was in charge of a casualty clearing station just behind the lines. He had with him a photograph of Dorothy on the back of which he’d written: “If Found Please Return To Clifford Pickles Capt Ramc 50th Northumbrian Divn.”

His division was among the Allied troops attacked by the German forces using poison gas for the first time. No masks were available, and the Allied casualties ran into the thousands.

By this time many casualty clearing stations had their own operating theatres and Captain Pickles would have been rarely out of his surgical scrubs and required to perform numerous amputations. There are reports that surgical instruments wore out so quickly that cutler’s shops were set up nearby so they could be sharpened quickly. The trauma proved too much for Captain Pickles and after three months he joined the thousands of others suffering from what became known as “shell shock.”

The medical authorities had little idea of how to treat the condition at the time. Officers tended to receive better treatment and Captain Pickles, who was a severe case, was sent back to Leeds where he was treated at the hospital at Beckett Park, in Headingley. Dorothy visited him and would have talked to some of the dedicated young nurses and can’t have failed to admire their care and dedication.

In May, 1916, having resigned his commission, he took charge of his brother Philip’s practice in Lancashire after he died when his ship, HMS Russell, hit a mine near Malta.

The couple were married the following month although by now his health had deteriorated badly. After a bout of flu he developed pneumonia and died a few days before Christmas at his father’s house in Bramhope, near Leeds. The Yorkshire Post reported on his funeral saying that a firing party from Pontefract Barracks was at Lawnswood Cemetery and that a wreath was laid on the grave from the 22nd West Riding Field Ambulance.

Despite her devastating loss Dorothy applied to become a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse early in 1917 and in March was sent to Beckett Park. Like all VADs she was told to perform all duties “cheerfully and thoroughly” - these included cleaning baths and sinks, washing patients’ crockery and sorting the linen, as well as nursing duties – and avoiding intimate relationships.

There is no diary of the time she spent at the hospital but she makes selected entries in the hospital scrapbook, including several from Christmas 1917. One of these reads: “If you wish to rest near Paradise, just go and break a limb/ And be taken down to Beckett Park, where everything’s nice and trim. The patients there will greet you, and acclaim with one accord,/ Oh there’s nowhere in the world so nice, as in St Vincent’s Ward.”

The brief messages for “Mrs Pickles” are all respectably affectionate reflecting the gratitude of the soldiers, some of whom suffered dreadful injuries.

At Beckett Park, as at most other wartime hospitals, there was a well-established belief that entertaining the patients was an important part of the treatment, which often gave civilians the chance to do their bit, or members of the medical corps the opportunity to make use of a wardrobe of pierrot costumes.

There is a particular ward concert that seems to have taken place near Christmas because it also featured several carols. It was made up of sentimental and humorous songs, funny sketches, parodies, washed down with beer. It’s quite likely that Dorothy played piano and the programme notes sound straight out of a compere’s script. “The audience are requested to leave quietly by the skylight. Stretchers and brickbats may be had from the Sisters ... brandy for fainting cases is switched on to the taps at the ward end ... vegetables may not be thrown at the artists.”

A quartet sang Put Me Among The Screens and one act was described as “an exhibition of high diving in the bathroom,” while the show ended with a chorus entitled Soldiers in the Dark.

Not all the photographs from this period were taken on the wards, one shows what seems to be of a tug of war at an event in the hospital grounds, while another features a blurry group of men in uniform by the lake in Roundhay Park and there’s also one taken at a picnic on a beach.

Amid all the many faces there is one that pops up in several photos - that of a Captain Huckett. Alfred Huckett, one of the sons of a minister who had been a missionary in Madagascar, was sent to France in June 1916 as a medical officer with the 40th Divisional Royal Engineers, which had formed in Doncaster. He spent 20 months with them reaching the rank of captain before being injured.

He was invalided out and sent to Beckett Park where he met and fell in love with Dorothy. After recovering he returned to France before he was finally demobbed in early 1919. The wedding, which took place in July the same year at St Chad’s Parish Church in Headingley, was a quiet one.

The couple had three children, two of whom became school teachers, while the other, Dr Edward Charles Huckett, helped trace this story.

They stayed together for the next 29 years until his death in 1948. Dorothy Wilkinson Pickles-Huckett was well into her 80s when she passed away in 1974 and her wartime story survives as one of sadness but ultimately joy, too.

This story is part of the Wartime Hospital at Beckett Park project and is featured in an illustrated book - Stories from the War Hospital - published on March 21, part of this year’s Headingley LitFest. For more information go to www.headingleyhospital.org

Sarah Champion MP

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