Agnes Withers – The first matron of Guildford War Hospital in 1916 – by Liz Lloyd

A Withers letter

When Guildford War Hospital was established in Warren Road in 1916, its first Matron was Agnes Harriett Withers. Miss Withers who was 40 at this time, had been born in Somerset, the daughter of a dairyman, and trained as a nurse at the General Infirmary and Gloucester Eye Institute. On completing her training she continued to work in Gloucester as a Staff Nurse before moving to Brighton Hospital for Women as a Sister Midwife from 1901 until 1904. After a year in charge of a private medical and surgical Home in Ipswich, Agnes was interviewed to join Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service. She was recommended for a position at Louise Margaret Hospital in Aldershot and a year later she moved to the Military Family Hospital in Curragh. In 1911 her breadth of experience was rewarded by appointment as matron at Shorncliffe Military Families Hospital in Folkestone.

Towards the end of 1913 the QAIMNS Reserve was prepared, ready for the event of war. Agnes Withers was one of only 300 trained nurses in the Reserve, although by 1919 it was made up of 10,404 fully trained staff. In September 1914, Miss Withers was told to prepare herself for travel to Malta but this was cancelled and she remained at Shorncliffe Hospital until her appointment as matron in Guildford on June 10th 1916. Agnes worked at Guildford war Hospital for 13 months before being posted to Salonika via France on July 26th 1917. Her duties establishing the Military Hospital at Guildford were recognised by the Royal Red Cross Second Class awarded to her by the King in April 1917 and she retained a link with Guildford, having her post sent to the Williamson sisters who lived in Epsom Road, Guildford.

Agnes continued as Matron in Salonika until the end of the war, receiving the Greek medal for Military Merit before being posted to Malta as Sister-in-Charge. When she left Salonika in 1919 she was given a glowing report by Lieut-Col. Gates, the Officer in Charge. He said that Miss Withers was, “of even and cheerful disposition and displayed great energy and zeal for the welfare and nursing of the sick and wounded. Her tact and high standard of conduct have made her respected and liked by the whole staff of the hospital.” He added that she was, “A good organiser and manager who obtains the best work from her staff with the minimum of friction. Her determination and personality make her thoroughly capable of managing a large staff.”

In 1922 Agnes was finally allowed to return to England for a long leave which she spent with the Williamson sisters in Guildford before starting work at Chatham Military Families Hospital. She was probably relieved to return to Louise Margaret Hospital in Aldershot in 1924, where she worked until her retirement in 1926. She obviously continued to enjoy travelling as during her retirement Miss Withers can be found on the passenger list of ships to Gibraltar and Port Said and she also visited Switzerland. Her residence from 1922 until at least 1945 was in Guildford and when she died in 1952 her funeral service was at Woking Crematorium.

Join us for an evening talk

We are very grateful to Marian Powell who will be giving a talk at The Spike on her life as a nurse. Marian started as a cadet nurse before commencing her training at the new Group Preliminary Training School (PTS) at St. Luke’s Hospital in October 1956, after a memorable interview with Matron Coyle!

This promises to be a very enjoyable evening and will include hat folding demonstrations! Entry is free and there will be light refreshments and a collection for the Royal Surrey’s Stereotactic Radiotherapy Campaign.

Do come and join us!


Nurse training

In October 1956, the brand new Group Preliminary Training School (PTS) for nurses was opened bringing together student nurses from Haslemere, the Royal Surrey and St. Luke’s. It was a real turning point in training as it was the first group PTS to be formed in the area, if not the entire country!  The new building extended from the Nurses’ Home at St. Luke’s Hospital, and all new student nurses lived there for three months. Prior this, student nurses trained in their hospital’s own PTS only.

Student nurses in the classroom

Student nurses in the classroom
Student nurses in the classroom

The Group PTS rest room

The PTS rest room
The PTS rest room

Student nurses writing a letter home from her bedroom in the PTS.

Student nurse writing a letter home.
Student nurse writing a letter home.

Anatomy class

Student nurses having an anatomy lesson
Student nurses having an anatomy lesson

If you trained at the group PTS at St. Luke’s Hospital we’d love to hear from you!


Twenty-five years at St Luke’s by Matron Brigit Coyle

Bridget Coyle was Matron of St. Luke’s Hospital from 1942 – 1960 . In 1955, Coyle celebrated 25 years at the hospital – here is her account of St. Luke’s from 1930 to 1955.

Matron Brigit Coyle, taken just before retirement
Matron Brigit Coyle, taken just before retirement

It is a privilege for me to have the opportunity to write about my twenty-five years at St. Luke’s and I call to mind a few of my memories and some of the changes which have taken place during that time.

When, on 18th January, 1930, I came to St. Luke’s as a Ward Sister, it was known as Warren Road Hospital and was under the Guildford Board of Guardians, but in that same year it passed to the control of the Surrey County Council. The staff consisted of 1 Resident Medical Officer, 7 trained nurses and 20 probationers, patients numbering 150.The hospital was at the time recognised as a Preliminary Training School for nurses in affiliation with Lambeth Hospital, London.

WW2 photo of staff in fancy dress. Brigit Coyle back row wearing a turban
WW2 photo of staff in fancy dress. Brigit Coyle back row wearing a turban

In 1932 I was for a time acting Home and Theatre Sister, and in 1933 I became Night Sister. Being the only trained person on night duty, I was responsible for the supervision of the general wards, the deliveries in a 10-bedded maternity ward and the night theatre work. The theatre was then situated in what is now the committee room, and many times I assisted in carrying the patients up and down stairs. On coming off duty in the morning, I would often give a lecture to the nurses, as in those days we had no sister tutor. My off duty was four nights per month all taken together, and I can recall a period of ten weeks when I had to work without any off duty.

In 1934 I was promoted to the post of Assistant Matron with the added duties of day and night theatre sister. In 1935 our first sister tutor was appointed but we had to share her with the Farnham County Hospital and Milford Sanatorium. New construction was now under way and in 1936 the present modern nurses’ home with nurse-teaching department was completed, giving us 72 bedrooms instead of the previous 20; in 1937 the new boiler house, isolation block and observation block were built, and the old laundry converted into a staff dining room.

Matron Coyle and staff at St. Luke's Hospital 1950's.
Matron Coyle and staff at St. Luke’s Hospital 1950’s.

In 1939 the annexe wards and departments were built and equip-ped for the war effort and staffed by the Civil Nursing Reserve, some of whose members joined the permanent staff after the war and are still with us. Everyone worked frantically to get all the windows covered with wire netting and blackout. We were inundated by expectant mothers, evacuated from London, and St. Luke’s House was taken over to accommodate them. Elford was taken over as an ante-natal hostel. The present Out-patients’ department was turned into a first-aid post and decontamination centre.

In 1940, at fifteen hours’ notice, we had to admit 700 casualties from Dunkirk, and every available space in the annexe, main hospital and St. Luke’s House, was packed with beds to meet this crisis. The terrible burns received by some of those boys who had been rescued from a sea of burning oil, and who remained with us for many months, are still a ghastly memory. In this year St. Luke’s became a complete training school for nurses.

Photograph of nurses from 1950
Prize Giving 1950. Matron Coyle in black on the front row

In 1941 I was seconded as Matron to Woking War Hospital, the Southern Railway Orphanage; but next year Mrs. Guy, our Matron, was forced to retire owing to ill health and I returned from Woking to become Matron of St. Luke’s.

In 1943 a pathological laboratory, staffed by one technician, was started in April and the radiotherapy centre was opened. Pymhurst was purchased and opened to house our preliminary training school nurses. In 1945 the hospital was re-named “St. Luke’s.” The following year we applied to the General Nursing Council for recognition as a male nurse training school: this was granted in the same year and still continues.

In 1947 I was privileged to visit America to attend the International Congress of Nursing as a representative of the Surrey County Council Matrons’ Association. In January 1948, after much hard work, we opened Comeragh Court, Woking, as a home for 30 ambulant T.B. patients, but in July, when control passed to the Ministry of Health, this home went over to the Woking Group. This year the occupational therapy department was opened, and we also became recognised as a Part I midwifery training school.

Matron Coyle on the ward
Matron Coyle on the ward

In 1951 the visitors’ canteen was opened in the patients’ waiting room, and in 1952 the League of Friends of the Guildford Hospitals was formed and has since given us much valuable help. The interchange of student nurses between St. Luke’s and the Royal Surrey County Hospitals commenced in January 1952, and in April we first sent students for a period of training at the Milford Chest Hospital. In 1953, the new Group pathological laboratory was opened by the Minister of Health. And so to 1955 and the commencement of a new wing to the Nurses’ Home for the Group preliminary training school.

Matron Coyle at her home in Ireland post retirement
Matron Coyle at her home in Ireland post retirement

Visit to the ‘Workhouse – segregated lives’ exhibition

This month, we visited the Florence Nightingale Museum to see their new exhibition ‘Workhouses- Segregated Lives‘.

Photo of Florence Nightingale: Florence Nightingale from Carte de Visite circa 1850s

Photo showing some of the SLHHP team at the workhouse exhibition
The SLHHP team at the workhouse exhibition

Throughout the 18th and early 19th century, Florence Nightingale was a dominant figure in nursing. She revolutionised the way in which military hospitals were administered and used statistics to reinforce her ideas – quite unheard of for a female of Victorian society!

One of her biggest achievements was the introduction of professional nursing in workhouse infirmaries. Before these reforms, workhouse inmates cared for their fellow sick – what a job!

Nightingale was also interested in hospital design. The ‘Nightingale Ward’ system featured heavily in new Victorian hospitals – including new workhouse infirmaries such as the Guildford Union Workhouse. These long wards allowed for the circulation of fresh air and to admit sunshine in.

Photo showing the Spike goggles on display
The Spike goggles and workhouse coin on display

We found the new exhibition an interesting perspective of life within the workhouse and we were curious to see how a project of similar theme can be displayed for the public. We were most excited to see our workhouse coin, protective goggles and oakum – from the Spike Heritage Centre – on prominent display for the first time. The Spike goggles even featured in an article in The Guardian, which was very exciting! It’s certainly given us food for thought and we can’t wait to put together our own exhibition showcasing our research of St Luke’s Hospital – from a workhouse infirmary to a NHS hospital.

The ‘Workhouse – Segregated Lives’ exhibition is on at the Florence Nightingale Museum until the 5th July.