In the last months of the first world war, a ship arrived at Manchester from the US, its passengers deathly ill. They were mostly southerners, infected with a powerful influenza that had overtaken them on their transatlantic journey and quickly turned into pneumonia. The matron of a nearby Red Cross hospital, Mrs Geldart, heard of their plight and took them in, at no small risk to the health of her own – mostly voluntary – staff. For the next 12 weeks her hospital struggled and suffered through the deadliest trial it had faced in four years of war.
Many patients did not recover. Those who did took rehabilitative walks on the oval sward of grass they could see from their ward windows. Their beds took up every available inch of floor space in the Old Trafford pavilion: the long room, the dressing rooms, the corridors, and even, when weather permitted, the roof. It was only a short stroll to the cricket pitch, and no one told the convalescents off for walking on it. Lancashire’s players weren’t using it.
It is 100 years since Britain’s sports grounds were last used to treat the sick. Some of our grandparents will have heard the tales, from their parents, of the dire need that pressed stadiums – as well as schools, hotels, and country houses – into service during the first world war. Some of us have seen the black-and-white photographs, in books or museums, of caped nurses hovering near bandaged soldiers, enamel pans by their side. None of us expected it to happen in our own lifetime.
And yet it has. This week we learned that Cardiff’s Principality Stadium – the home of Welsh rugby – is being turned into a 2,000-bed field hospital to help ease the pressure on the NHS as coronavirus begins to peak. Wembley and the Football Association training ground at St George’s Park are likely to become NHS storage space that frees up more room on inundated wards. Lord’s is already helping out four north London facilities with parking and rest areas for their medical staff. Manchester City have donated the use of the Etihad Stadium to train doctors and nurses working on the frontline, Chelsea are providing accommodation, and Silverstone has offered its medical centre. Twickenham – where the West Stand was filled with hospital beds during the second world war, in preparation for a chemical attack on London that never came – also stands ready.
More clubs and grounds are expected to answer the call – particularly after London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, wrote on Monday to the city’s Premier League and Championship clubs asking for their support, in the form of both medical equipment and clinically trained personnel from their backroom staff. Deep pockets and a wealth of technical resources mean elite sports have plenty to offer the national effort. Who knew, for instance, that a Formula One team such as Mercedes could be so quickly repurposed to create breathing aids? Or realised, until a few weeks ago, that we would need such ingenuity?
But then nor did our great-grandparents, at the outbreak of the Great War, the one supposed to be over by Christmas. Initial calculations suggested a total of 50,000 beds would be enough to treat the men returning from action. By the end of 1914 there were 73,000 wounded back in England. When Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club’s home ground opened as an auxiliary hospital on 9 December 1914, the seriousness of the conflict was beginning to be understood.
Trent Bridge’s first patients were 20 servicemen from the Western Front, suffering from frostbite. Over the course of the next four and a half years the hospital’s 36 beds grew to 200, and it treated more than 3,500 people. Women had been banned from the Trent Bridge pavilion before the war – hence the existence, on the Hound Road side of the ground, of a separate (and less comfortable) Ladies Pavilion. From 1914 to 1919 both buildings were staffed and run almost entirely by female volunteers, most of whom had no previous experience of work at all.
Many were single women who had never been in the company of men unchaperoned. They were directed in their efforts by a doctor who also happened to be the club’s cricket captain, Dr George Ogg Gauld, and the entire operation was overseen by two formidable and supremely competent commandants, Lady Bruce and Henrietta Hayman. Nottinghamshire paid tribute to them during last year’s centenary, with a plaque commemorating the “women and men” – in that order – who worked at the hospital.
We look back and see an era when the nation changed out of necessity, and found itself grateful for people and skills it had never before valued. Perhaps we can hope for the same today. This is a rare moment in our national life when our appreciation for healthcare workers outstrips our collective obsession with millionaire footballers. And while the wartime efforts may be beyond our living memory, their stories remain to inspire us.
In a 1928 memoir, Lancashire’s dressing-room attendant William Howard recalled working at the Old Trafford pavilion hospital. It was his saddest experience in cricket, particularly when the American flu victims arrived and he was required to “make provision” for those not expected to last the night. “Being accustomed to look upon this place as the home of cricket,” he said, “it was most pathetic to see men pass away so quickly: it was more like the home of death.”
Yet throughout the hardship he saw much that uplifted him, from the great efforts to make soldiers comfortable to extraordinary resourcefulness (including from his own wife, who knocked up some rudimentary face masks on her sewing machine). “The response to the appeal for necessary articles required to equip the hospital proved that the British public are generous,” he wrote. “It would be impossible to speak too highly of the staff.”
Lord’s, too, was equipped as a Red Cross hospital in the Great War. Two decades later it was used for more military purposes, becoming RAF recruiting centre during the second world war. A bronze plaque at the ground commemorates those who never returned from their service: “Our enjoyment of cricket reflects their sacrifices.” The same will be true of all those who now fight for the lives of our friends and families in hospitals up and down the country. If you can, volunteer. If you can, give blood.