The building that once existed behind the current façade on Heavitree Road (next to Waitrose!) was constructed as the Children’s Home for Exeter Workhouse. It was opened in February 1914, a few months before the war began, and was equipped with every modern convenience such as electric light.
The Exeter Board of Guardians, predecessors of modern social services authorities, were keen to play their part in the war effort. When Miss Georgiana Buller of the Devon Red Cross wrote in August 1914 ask if they would be willing to lend the building for use as a temporary war hospital they said Yes. The Local Government Board in London opposed the idea but Exeter’s Board prevailed.
The hospital was set up speedily, initially for use for the growing number of troops billeted in Exeter. It was opened in November 1914 and by Christmas was also taking wounded soldiers from the Western Front. It did not close until March 1919.
Inside the front entrance there used to be a tablet, presented after the war, recording the ‘valuable and patriotic assistance’ given by those who served there ‘in the hour of national emergency’. Now that the building is not in public use it is right that there should instead be a plaque visible from outside. This plaque is dedicated, just as our predecessors did, ‘in deep appreciation of the whole-hearted attention which the staff of this hospital gave to the patients’ and remembering ‘the devotion and self-sacrifice’ of those who were treated there.
One of the women who served in the hospital was Red Cross nurse Mary Perkin. Mary was a farmer’s daughter from Coryton near Lew Down in West Devon. Mary responded to the appeal for more women to come forward to serve as volunteers that was made nationally in 1917. She joined the hospital staff on 22 November 1917 and served as a nurse there until the end of 1918, six weeks after Armistice Day.
Joy Frey, the great niece of Red Cross nurse Mary Perkin, unveiled the plaque on 25 October 2018, commemorating the building’s use as a temporary military hospital.