A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to visit Dunham Massey with a National Trust group. Dunham has done something pretty amazing and transformed what was a very standard Trust Stately Home into the military Hospital it actually was during the First World War. I had read quite a bit about ‘Sanctuary’ as the theme is called so when my line manager asked if I wanted to go and see it I jumped at the chance!
The best bit about going to see it with work (other than getting to go on a jolly and it being called ‘work’) was that after we had been round the house we had the opportunity to talk to the team behind sanctuary. It was really inspiring to see what could be done with a good idea, a fascinating story, and a lot of money!
During the First World War Dunham Massey, like many stately homes, was turned into a military hospital to help ease the burden that the War had placed on the under-prepared British health care system. At the beginning of the war Britain had only 7000 hospital bed, by the end there were 364000 thanks to Dunham Massey and other places like it.
From 1917, when it opened as a hospital, Dunham Massey was known as Stamford Military Hospital. The hospital was established and run by The Countess of Stamford, Penelope Grey. The ground floor became the hospital but the upper floors remained the family home, where all the furniture that had been in the rooms below rooms was also stored for the duration of the war.
The Countess took a personal interest in all the soldiers under her roof, and her daughter Lady Jane Grey became a VAD Nurse working at the hospital, and bringing great comfort to the wounded soldiers. Penelope’s son, Roger Grey, the 10th Earl of Stamford, was based in London for most of the war and used his position to help get supplies the hospital needed.
The interpretation of Dunham’s amazing story has been really well done, with the ‘Bagdad Ward’ in the Saloon being the highlight of the tour in my opinion. The room has been recreated according to contemporary photographs of the hospital. There are snippets of information all over the room, so many that you have to really explore the space to find it all.
The Visitor Reception Building had several panels of information about Dunham’s role in the First World War, and background information about the major changes that the national hospital system underwent during the War. There was also an introductory exhibition in one of the first rooms of the house, giving basic information about life in the Trenches and some of the injuries and illnesses that could send fighting men ‘back to Blighty’.
We were the first people in that day (eager beavers us Trust lot) so we have a chance to be in the room before the actors came in. There are sound effects of breathing, whistling, ringing phones and even music in the downstairs rooms which help create the atmosphere of the place. Being in that space was really absorbing. When the actors came in the room at first I wasn’t sure what to do. We had already been warned that they would not interact with us (thank goodness, audience participation terrifies me!) and I wanted to read all the information, which meant venturing near one of the actors who was lying in a bed.
However once I got past the slight awkwardness and just carried on looking it was fine, and then the actors started one of their vignettes. There are several different scripts and I have heard really good things about them. The two I saw were very good, you had to have a bit of background knowledge to fully understand the meaning of the conversation the two soldiers were having. If you did have this knowledge it was very though provoking.
However after hearing so many good things about how powerful and moving the acting was I came out of the property a little disappointed, knowing that there were elements I had not seen. We even went in the first couple of rooms again at the end of the day to try to catch some more acting, but again did not see the really emotive scenes we had heard about. I guess this is where ‘managing expectations’ really becomes important. I was a little bitter that Sanctuary was getting so much press but have now decided maybe it’s not a bad thing Hardwick it not in the public focus in such a big way. It is a lot to live up to, especially when the icing on the cake is something like Sanctuary’s acting, where it is very time dependent on the experience you will get.
This has turned into a really long post so I will leave it there for now and talk more about my visit to Dunham in the next post. Thanks for reading!