Dunbar Battery Hospital
Dunbar’s old Napoleonic shore battery on Lamer Island, between Victoria Harbour and the Broadhaven, was a white elephant almost immediately after it was built and never fired a shot in anger. It was preserved, in a disused condition, throughout the building of Victoria Harbour in the 1840s, when the island itself became integrated into the new harbour’s wharfage. As part of this work a new causeway provided a much more reliable route to the battery but it still found no regular use.
Eventually, in 1874, it was adapted as a fever or isolation hospital in response to the 1867 Public Health (Scotland) Act. The hospital was managed by the parochial board of Dunbar, who took over title to the structure. The hospital was housed within a two story building inside the battery on the landward, or south-western, side: its roof appears in many photographs from around this time. It was a convenient place to isolate those afflicted with infectious diseases, but hardly comfortable!
As infectious diseases began to be brought under control, ownership passed (around the opening of the 1890s) to the Dunbar Combination Hospital Committee and the hospital’s remit expanded to include general nursing. However, the condition of the premises was always poor and it shut during 1905-06. The Parish Council (successors to the Parochial Board) took over the building and for the next few years it was only used for emergency isolation cases that could not be accommodated at the new hospital in Belhaven.
When storm clouds gathered in Europe, the War Department, which owned the nearby Castle Park, began to look around for a hospital site going so far as to take a lease of the Battery Hospital during 1914. In the event, the authorities built a new hospital within the precinct of Castle Park and the Dunbar Branch of the British Red Cross Society took over the Battery Hospital lease.
The hospital was reopened as Dunbar Battery Auxiliary Hospital under the Red Cross and staffed with a team of over 20 Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) volunteers. Two RAMC orderlies were redeployed from the Scottish Cavalry Depot in Castle Park to assist with heavy work and one of the town’s GPs was appointed Medical Officer; a Quarter Master VAD is also mentioned. The building was taken in hand and repaired, redecorated and re-equipped entirely through voluntary contributions. In June 1915 Mrs Anderson of Bourhouse, newly appointed Commandant, was pressing the town council to upgrade the heating of the wards:
To put an A1 Simplon Range with high pressure boiler into the kitchen, and connect the same with the Baths, also a larger Water Cylinder to supply the same. Too put an open fireplace into each of the wards, building chimneys for them, in the place of the old stoves which constantly smoke and won’t burn at all in an East Wind. The old range and old stoves will be taken away altogether and allowed for by Ms. Melville and Mr. Cunningham who will be the contractors for the work. These alterations are absolutely necessary for the comfort of the patients. And I am much obliged to you for kindly getting the permission of the council for the work to proceed. We are collecting and going to collect the money for the purpose and feel sure that in every way it will be a benefit now, and hope that after the War it may prove a benefit also to the place. This is our great desire. Believe me.
Alice H. N. Anderson, Commandant V.A.D.
As well as the women who came forward to staff the hospital, a host of other local people exerted themselves in fund raising. In July 1917 events in Dunbar raised over £840, the largest contribution being a cheque for £100 handed directly to the Dowager Duchess of Roxburghe, who headed the local Red Cross Committee. Even schoolchildren were involved: an annual schools’ cake sale before Christmas each year of the war could raise substantial sums. Other people provided comforts for the inmates of the hospital, loaned vehicles for excursions and even provided fruit and vegetables to augment military rations. Even the rent of the premises was waived:
A letter was read, of date 14th January 1916, from the Dowager Duchess of Roxburghe, on behalf of the Scottish Branch of the British Red Cross Society, thanking the Town Council for having granted the East Lothian Branch of the Society the use, free of rent, of the Battery Hospital.
An illustrated booklet was produced with an account of the hospital’s early days. It is clear that from the first and over the course of the next few years the hospital provided an essential auxiliary service to the military in and around Dunbar (a bountiful source of accidental injuries, if not simply nursing the sick) and also to convalescent local soldiers and those posted back to the Cavalry Depot from overseas. After the Armistice, the hospital was wound down and given up by the Red Cross during March 1919. Almost immediately, the building was put in hand to be utilised as a Cottage Hospital for Dunbar and District, in which capacity it was used until December 1926 when it was closed (for new admissions) until new premises at the East Links were readied during 1927. Thereafter, the battery was used as emergency housing despite it having reached an ‘unsatisfactory and, indeed, dangerous’ condition. The building continued to degrade until it really was uninhabitable: the roof blew off during a storm on Sunday, 13 December 1936! By June 1937 the remains were being dismantled and reduced to a shell.
The founding staff members of the Dunbar Auxiliary Hospital were (25th October 1914):
- Doctor Duncan MacDonald, Medical Officer (also Medical Officer, Dunbar Barracks)
- Mrs Alice Anderson, VAD Commandment
- Mrs M McLean, Certificated Nurse
- Mrs Grace Bayley, VAD Quartermaster
- Mrs Evelyn Hunter, VAD Nurse and Cook
- Miss Margaret Fish, VAD Nurse
- Miss Annie Tweedie, VAD Nurse
- 30 11 1873 – 09 11 1918; sister of John, tenant of Eweford; Obit Courier 15 11 1918
- Miss Mary Low, VAD Nurse
- Miss Janella Jackson, VAD Nurse
- Miss Iris Cunningham, VAD Nurse
- Miss Christabel Tunnard, VAD Nurse
- Remembered on Whitekirk Roll of Honour
- Miss Helen Bayley, VAD Nurse and Cook
- Miss Alice Mitchell, VAD Nurse and Cook
- Miss Melise Aspinwall, VAD Nurse and Cook
- Miss Theophila Laidlay, VAD Cook
- Remembered on Whitekirk Roll of Honour
Additionally, the following are also known to have served at the hospital:
- Mrs Evelyn Hunter, VAD Commandment (in succession)
- Miss Violet Fraser, Trained Nurse
- Miss Florinda Tunnard, Tyninghame, VAD nurse
- Miss Isa Graham, Dunbar, VAD nurse
We would be delighted to uncover more stories about the Battery Hospital, its staff and particularly its patients. Please let us know if you can add to this account.
Compiled with thanks to Dunbar and District History Society for transcribing council minutes recorded during the war years.