A century ago on September 17, 1914, the first injured troops arrived back in Leeds from the front line.
Few of 80 men disembarking a hospital train at the now-gone Midland Station could walk, and some had injuries so severe they were covered entirely from view.
The wounded soldiers from Flanders and France, who were met by the city’s Lord Mayor and a crowd of more than 6,000, were destined for a hastily set-up military hospital at Beckett’s Park, earmarked years earlier as a possible site to treat the injured should war break out.
Thousands would follow as military hospitals opened across the city to accommodate the casualties of war.
To mark the anniversary, children from a Leeds school have worked with the Thackray Medical Museum and a historian to create a new heritage trail, ‘It’s a long way back to Beckett Street’, telling the story of a fictional returning soldier and the treatment and care he would have received here in Yorkshire.
The Beckett Street hospital was only open for a few months before the need for a bigger, more well-equipped building became apparent. That building was the Leeds Union Workhouse, a building with a “fascinating” history, which became the East Leeds Military Hospital, opened in 1915. It is now home to the Thackray museum, part of the St James’s Hospital site.
For historian Berwyn Tinsey, a heritage trail designer from Discover Medical London, the project has been the chance to open up the past of not just the city’s military hospitals, but an area, Harehills, with a “remarkable” history. He said: “As a workhouse, the building was a fearful place, with high walls, but the war opened it up to the community and people were encouraged to visit.”
The trail tells the story of the character of Gunner Edward Smith, who like those first soldiers arriving at Midland Station, would have signed up before war broke out. Children from The Cooperative Academy of Leeds worked with Mr Tinsey using archives from the University of Leeds Liddle Collection to create his story.
Real life experiences of patients treated at East Leeds were also used, alongside an extraordinary three-hour recording of military nurse Louie Johnson, who worked at the hospital, obtained from the Imperial War Museum.
The trail complements the Thackray’s current exhibition Recovery? From Flanders to Afghanistan, which provides a compelling insight into the effects of war on medicine and people. Over the next three years it hopes to adapt the trail to tell how the hospital developed over the war years, which included a visit from the King.
The museum is also hoping to purchase a blue plaque to mark the building’s military hospital past, Brigid Bradley, exhibition development officer at Thackray, said.
“We’re hoping to create a real legacy from the project,” she added.
The first trails will be held on September 27. To book visit www.thackraymedicalmuseum.co.uk or call 0113 244 4343.