The Royal Pavilion and its WW1 Hosptial

The Royal Pavilion

The Royal Pavilion was built as a pleasure palace for King George IV. George had first come to Brighton in 1783 for medical treatment, but he loved the town so much that he wanted a home here. In 1786 he rented a house, and soon began converting it into a palace.

George kept making changes to the building and its grounds. First it became a ‘Marine Pavilion’, a smaller version of the palace we can see today. He then had new stables and a riding school built for his horses, where Brighton Dome and the Corn Exchange are today.

The Pavilion as we see it today was finished in 1823. George had liked pictures he had seen of palaces and other buildings in Asia, and he wanted something similar for his seaside home. The outside of the Pavilion looks very much like an Indian palace, but the inside is more Chinese in style.

George died in 1830. His niece, Queen Victoria, did not like the Pavilion and sold it to the people of Brighton in 1850. The building was used for entertainments and events, and Brighton Museum was first set up here in 1861. But it was not really needed for anything essential, so in 1914 it was offered for use as a hospital. It became one of the most unusual and famous hospitals of WW1.

The Indian Hospital (1914-1916)

When war was declared in August 1914, Britain’s army was very small. In order to stand a chance against the much bigger German army, its leaders had to find more soldiers to fight on the front lines.

Britain asked for help from the Indian Army. At that time India was part of the British Empire. The Indian Army was commanded by British officers, but most of the soldiers were Indians. It had never fought in Europe before.

Most of the Indian soldiers came from small villages and farms in northern India. Many joined up because army pay was much higher that what they could have earned from the farms they worked on. But some men also joined up because they wanted to show their bravery. Others felt a strong loyalty to the British King-Emperor George V.

Would any of those reasons have persuaded you to fight?

When the Indian soldiers arrived in France, they quickly joined British soldiers on the front line. Life in the trenches was tough. They faced machine gun fire, exploding shells and poison gas. Many soldiers were injured. Others became sick, often because of the cold and damp trenches.

In December 1914 the Royal Pavilion opened its doors as a special hospital for Indian soldiers. Being a former royal palace, it didn’t look very much like a hospital at all! The men found themselves lying in beds staring up at golden chandeliers, and at ceilings and walls covered in dragons and other mythical creatures.

What do you think the Indian patients would have thought about these decorations?

The hospital staff worked hard to make sure that the different religious beliefs of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims were all respected. Nine different kitchens were set up to prepare food in special ways. Signs went up across the hospital in different Indian languages, such as Urdu and Gurmukhi.

The Indian men who died in the hospital were treated with great care. Hindus and Sikhs were cremated on a hill near Patcham. The Chattri memorial stands on this spot today. Muslims who died in Brighton were buried in a special cemetery in Woking, near a mosque.

The Pavilion Indian hospital closed in January 1916. The Indian Army had left Europe at this time, and was now fighting the Middle East. With the Indian soldiers now far away, there was no need for a special hospital in Brighton anymore.

The Hospital for Limbless Men

In 1916 the Pavilion reopened as a Hospital for Limbless Men, to care for the many soldiers who had lost an arm or a leg through fighting.

The hospital was as much about preparing the men for their new lives as it was about making them better or giving them artificial limbs. Their injuries meant they wouldn’t be able to fight in the army any more, and many of them wouldn’t be able to return to their pre-war jobs either.

How do you think you might have felt in their position?

A workshop was set up on the lawns outside the Pavilion to train the men. Classes ran from 10am to 12pm and from 2pm to 4pm daily. The men could choose to learn carpentry, motor mechanics and metal work, amongst many other new trades. A sign above the door to the workshop read ‘Hope Welcomes All Who Enter Here’.

What do you think was meant by the sign?

The men were also encouraged to take part in hospital life in other ways. Some joined football and cricket teams, and played against men from other military hospitals in the area. Some wrote poems, jokes and articles for the Pavilion Blues magazine, a magazine written by the men and sold to other patients and to the people of Brighton. There was even a recreation room, where the men could go and play cards and billiards with their friends, or watch performances from local theatre and musical groups on a small stage.

Over 6,000 men were treated in the building’s time as a Hospital for Limbless Men, many leaving for their new lives with newly-fitted artificial limbs.

The Limbless Hospital closed in 1920, and the Pavilion was finally given back to the people of Brighton.