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.

Remembering those from WW1

As we remember those who perished fighting the war, SLHHP would like to specifically remember those who were brought from the front line to the Guildford War Hospital, Warren Road.


In 1916, Warren Road Hospital was taken over by the military to treat wounded soldiers from the front.

Wounded soldiers at Guildford War Hospital
Wounded soldiers at Guildford War Hospital
Dining Room
Wounded soldiers in the dinning room at the Guildford War Hospital – possibly at Christmas.

Australian soldiers were also treated here….some never came returned home. One such soldier was Private Francis Arthur Boyle of Queensland Australia. Boyle signed up to the 17th Battalion on the 18th January 1916 and fought in Belgium and France in the same year. By November, he was severely wounded – gut shot wound – and brought to the War Hospital here in Guildford. Sadly, he died of his injuries on Sunday 31st December 1916 and was buried at Stoughton Cemetery four days later. The sister in charge of the ward where Boyle lay was Linda Bell, and he’s what she said of his last days:

” He was unconscious for days before his death and died quite peacefully, his sister-in-law present. He was buried with full military honors in the Stoughton Cemetery, his sister-in-law attended. As I hope to leave for Australia and come from the same town as the late Pte Boyle, I intend to call and see his people…”

Her letter shows the compassion shown by the nursing staff at the hospital. Bell, herself was an Australian national, had seen her own share of tragedy when, on her way to Cameroon in 1915, the ship she was sailing on sunk at sea, drowning her colleague. Bell was saved but she lost everything. Despite this, she courageously sailed again soon after. An article which appeared in the British Journal of Nursing (April 1915) detailing her tragic voyage, stated “She evidently possesses the qualities necessary for war nursing,” and we’d have to agree.