Christ Church is in Lubbock Road, Chislehurst and was built in 1871 – 2 as an alternative to the high church practices of St Nicholas Parish Church. It is a large attractive church which has to this day an active community focused congregation.
Before the war
The church was within the incumbency of Rev George Pole, he had held office since April 1902 having arrived with his family from Osaka in Japan.
The Pole Family
Rev Pole had 6 daughters, 4 of whom served as VAD nurses; his son, Reginald went to live in America and became a celebrated author. Hilda and Gladys, the youngest of the girls returned from six months finishing school in Stuttgart and joined the Red Cross because they regarded it as a sociable thing to do, attending afternoon meetings learning how to dress cuts and grazes, the elementary skills of smoothing pillows, making beds and concocting beef tea.
The Church Hall
Rev Pole is quoted as having given up his parish rooms ‘at great inconvenience to himself’. He did, however, provide a war map to hang on the wall of the parish room; the British line was already outdated when a photograph was taken. Almost as soon as the wounded soldiers had been admitted the local photographer, George Cooling, was called in to take a picture. It was his idea that the wounded should wave patriotic flags.
The call to mobilise
It seems initially however that having gone over preparations so many times and their eager services had been by passed so often that when the call eventually came it seemed like a practical joke. When Gladys Pole, aged 18, answered the telephone at the vicarage at 9.30 in the evening she laughed and hung up ‘that was some idiot trying to pull our legs saying we’ve got to mobilise the hospital!’ Her older sister, Lily, aged 32, who was a VAD officer, flew to the telephone and confirmed the truth. They had 25 beds ready for occupation by 6a.m the following morning.
The first patients
The first convoy of 33 wounded Belgians were received at 9am having been ferried from Chislehurst railway station with the local gentry sending their coachmen and chauffeurs.
Hilda Pole, aged 19 at the time, describes the setting.
“The church hall was ideal in a way, because we already had a kitchen there and plenty of china and cutlery. We had all our medical supplies ready in a locked cupboard, iodine, disinfectant and piles of dressings and bandages. My sister, Lily, as quartermaster arranged all that.”
“She and Trixie Batten, the Commandant, were magnificent that night, dashing backwards and forwards in the church hall as people carried in those beds and piles of mattresses and blankets – everything you could think of. Of course once they got there the bedsteads had to be put up and arranged in the big parish room. We had heaps of volunteers; people started putting on big tea urns and making soup and getting hot water ready so the soldiers could have tea or Bovril. We had no food in and of course no shops were open so the volunteers went back home and returned with bread, a few eggs and a bit of butter so we could give the soldiers breakfast.
We were very excited and sorry when Lily went us home to bed in the middle of the night but we went in the habit of arguing with an officer who was also our older sister. We were too excited to sleep and returned at 8.30 in the morning all spick and span in our uniforms and very proud that we were actually going on duty as nurses. When we walked in we could hardly believe it, there were soldiers all tucked up in bed, not a thing out of place. There were even flowers on the tables in the middle of the ward. Our schoolgirl French was useless. They all spoke Flemish!”
Muriel, aged 21, takes up the story:
“It didn’t really matter that we couldn’t communicate because we weren’t allowed to have anything to do with them, the trained nurses saw to that! We took their meals on trays to them, swept the floor and cleaned the windows. All the soldiers wanted to do was sleep even though most were only slightly wounded, you could hear a pin drop they were sleeping so deeply.”
All this on her 21st birthday, she celebrated with a cup of tea by herself.
“O, the washing we had to do, mountains and mountains of it. As soon as you’d finished one lot it was time to set the trays for another meal and in half an hour you had to start all over again. The wards had bare wooden floorboards which were scattered with tea leaves to lay the dust before sweeping. We had to clean, polish and scrub, taking the everyday chores off the shoulders of the trained nurses”.
Local support for the VAD
Rev Pole was entirely supportive of the hospital endeavour and wrote in the District Times……
“I had the privilege throughout the crisis of acting as mouthpiece as my telephone was used constantly to convey messages. It is impossible for those who do not know what was happening in Chislehurst on Tuesday and Thursday nights and throughout Friday, to realise the spirit of self sacrificing devotion with which it was determined that all the hospitals should be ready, members of the VAD deserve the title of “veritable heroes”. These young girls who for the past two years have been (amid some scoffing) learning their duties and getting ready for this critical time must have their proper reward and show of what stuff they are made .
Supernumeraries will be doing unpleasant menial tasks, doing what they are told and in the way that they are told to do it. They will keep on duty regularly from 8am till 8pm or 8pm to 8am until the end of the war. I feel sure Chislehurst will add to its honour by cheerfully and unstintingly supplying these sinews of war.”