From the noise, dirt and danger of the trenches of the Western Front, Private Daniel MacKinnon MacLean of the 1st Battalion Royal Highlanders Regiment of Infantry (Black Watch) would never have imagined he would arrive at the peaceful and picturesque Wrest Park in Bedfordshire and meet the love of his life. But, this is exactly what happened when he met Still Room Maid Evelyn Annie Hughes.
Daniel arrived at Wrest Park to convalesce as his leg had been amputated following fighting on the front line in France and Flanders. Amongst the house staff caring for him was Evelyn and her sister Margaret. Daniel and Evelyn soon fell in love and married at St Stephen’s, Canonbury, in Islington on 29 September 1917 at the ages of 26 and 24 respectively. They had a house built in Edgware, Middlesex that they affectionately named ‘WREST’. They had three children who knew how special the Bedfordshire house and gardens was to their parents. A memorial bench now sits in the grounds of Wrest Park with the inscription:
“During the Great War Wrest Park become a military hospital. Our maternal Grandparents Daniel MacKinnon MacLean and Evelyn Annie Hughes first met here at that time. They had three daughters. The eldest of which was Mavis our mum.”
A plaque to Mavis’ memory also sits alongside:
”In memory of our dear mum Mavis Barton. 25.7.1918 – 7.12.2006. Always in our thoughts forever in our hearts. Murray, Neil, Judith.”
Wrest Park was the first country house to take in convalescing soldiers during the First World War, acting first as a convalescent home then becoming a base hospital, taking casualties directly from the front line. Owner, Auberon Herbert, 8th Baron Lucas was kept busy in London when war broke out so the task of preparing the house fell to his sister, Nan Herbert, a formidable woman who set to work with enthusiasm. Hospital beds were acquired, nurses recruited and a feisty housekeeper, Hannah Mackenzie appointed. It was Hannah who recruited the entire domestic staff, including the Hughes sisters. The renowned surgeon Dr Sidney Beauchamp, a family friend, agreed to act as doctor. Another friend, J.M Barrie, author of Peter Pan, gave £1,000 to support the venture. He would later be a regular visitor to the hospital organising games and entertainment for the convalescents. In all 1,600 men passed through the hospital’s wards. By 1916 it had a deserved reputation as the best country house base hospital.
We know a good deal about the running of the hospital because of Nan’s diary, and the numerous photographs she took with her box brownie camera, all carefully pasted into a series of scrapbooks by her daughter in the 1950s. The diary reveals a relaxed, almost holiday camp-like atmosphere at Wrest during this period. The men went boating on the lakes in grounds, fished, played cricket and football, put on concerts and theatricals in the staircase hall and went on regular outings. A far cry from the horrors of war.
Daniel and Evelyn’s story and many others from Wrest Park’s World War One history will be told in a temporary exhibition at Wrest Park from May 2015.
Wrest Park is open this Valentine’s weekend for visitors to share in their own romantic memories from 10am – 4pm. Visit www.english-heritage.org.uk/wrest