a call to arms

The influx of wounded soldiers during the First World War led many grand ladies, including Lady Almina of Highclere Castle - the "real" Downton Abbey - to open hospitals in their homes

After the tense summer of waiting for something definite to happen, once war was declared there was an explosion of activity.

Lady Almina immediately pressed her sister-in-law, Winifred, for an introduction to a woman called Agnes Keyser, the founder of the Edward VII Hospital. Agnes had been a very rich, very pretty young socialite of the 1870s and 1880s.

Somewhat inevitably she came to the attention of the Prince of Wales. They became friends and, later, lovers. Agnes allowed him to use her house in Belgravia for entertaining his various other friends, including Mrs Alice Keppel. The two formed a strong bond and their relationship, which was accepted within court circles and even by Queen Alexandra, lasted until the King’s death.

Agnes was horrified by the plight of officers returning from the Boer war, whom she discovered were mostly highly self-sacrificing, unable to pay for surgeons’ fees and consequently medically neglected. She used her own money to finance a hospital but relied on her connection to the king to secure the co-operation of the most distinguished doctors and surgeons. She had a genius for organisation and by 1914 was a very well-respected humanitarian.

Here was the perfect role model for Almina. She was absolutely determined to meet Agnes and ask her advice. But Sister Agnes, as she liked to be known, was already extremely busy with her own hospital.

Almina, very practised in getting her own way, was insistent, and eventually Agnes granted her half an hour, although she stayed standing throughout, saying she was too busy to sit. Almina took her cue from her more experienced colleague and refused a seat. She put her case simply and clearly, and Agnes was so won over by the woman standing in front of her that she embraced her warmly as the two parted. Almina left Sister Agnes’ hospital armed with practical advice from a rigorously organised and experienced nurse, and full of inspiration.

Fired up by her conversation with Agnes Keyser, and fuelled by nervous energy from fretting about Aubrey [husband George's half-brother, injured in France] Almina had set about the process of converting Highclere into a hospital. The first step was to find the people to staff it. She had appointed Dr Marcus Johnson, the family’s much-loved personal physician, as medical director. Dr Johnnie was a GP. He knew the Carnarvons well, had travelled with them for years and was more like a member of the family than an employee.

He had long ago grown used to being teased by the Earl who, indulging his love of practical jokes, once planted a piece of Gorgonzola cheese in one of poor Dr Johnnie’s travelling trunks and teased him relentlessly about the smell wafting from his cabin. Dr Johnson moved in to the Castle on 12 August 1914 and proved himself to be a capable administrator and the perfect right-hand man for Almina, whom he adored.

They placed adverts and called on all the nursing agencies in London and, between them, Almina and Dr Johnnie recruited 30 nurses. There must have been quite a run on nursing staff, what with all the grand ladies rushing to perform their patriotic duty by opening hospitals, but Almina had plenty of money to pay for the best people. She had a decided preference for Irish nursing staff and the
Highclere nurses also tended to be good-looking; Almina seems to have decided that pretty nurses would be good for morale. As it turned out, she wasn’t wrong about that.

Matron of Highclere

Since she was also somewhat prone to self-importance, Almina had a vision of herself in the role of all-powerful matron. She certainly relished using the same organisational and leadership skills she had been honing for years in the running of Highclere and in her political work. For the first time since her campaigning days, she felt herself flexing some mental muscle. She was in her element.

It is deliciously typical of Almina that the thing she did next was commission a high-fashion uniform for her nurses. Their dresses were made of fine wool in a cheerful crushed strawberry-pink, with starched white aprons and caps. This detail set the tone: Highclere would be a cutting-edge hospital, but also a sensual retreat from the horror of combat.

Almina proved herself to be an instinctive master of what we might call, nowadays, holistic medicine. She understood that to treat the injured soldiers as individuals in need of space, time and comfort, as well as medical attention, was the key to success.

Once the staff were engaged it was time to tackle the equipping of Highclere. The first task was to organise for blinds to be constructed
for all the Castle’s south-facing windows. Arundel, a bedroom on the first floor in the northwest corner of the house was to be used as an operating theatre. It was right opposite the back stairs, so hot water and other supplies could be rushed up and down as required. There was no question of installing hospital beds in any of the larger rooms to make communal wards. The patients, up to 20 at a time, were to have individual rooms or, at times of great pressure, to share with one other person.

All the guest bedrooms on the first floor were readied for use, as well as some of those on the floor above. The men would be made to feel as if they were house guests, sleeping in comfortable beds with soft down pillows and beautiful linen and cotton sheets.

Almina decided that the library would be used as the men’s day room. None of the furniture was moved out but additional chairs were added, so that there was ample space for the men to sit and play cards or to read the books. The room runs the width of the house
and is elegant but supremely comfortable. The leather-bound books and veneered wooden shelves, the oriental rugs and the lamps on low tables next to overstuffed sofas make it feel like a place to sit by the fire and be soothed. The French windows open straight out on to the sweep of the drive and look out over the gardens, so on a sunny day the room is flooded with light, and within moments you can crunch over the gravel and feel springy lawn beneath your feet.

Everything had been designed to make Highclere’s luxurious country-house lifestyle available to the injured soldiers; Almina had re-imagined the Castle as a therapeutic space, one where the atmosphere in the Library or the excellent cooking from the Castle’s kitchen was as important as the services of the radiologist she planned to bring down from London. The first patients arrived in mid-September, members of the Seaforth Highlanders and the Royal Artillery, who had fractures, gunshot wounds and no doubt
a large dose of what would soon be called shell shock, and what we now describe as post-traumatic stress disorder.

No wonder they reported that when they first laid eyes on Highclere, it felt as if they had arrived in Paradise.

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by the Countess of Carnarvon is published by Hodder & Stoughton.