West Hampstead artist goes in search of the ‘ghost of the Grey Lady’

Nicola Lane holds the copy of a negative of wounded Belgian soldiers at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital

Nicola Lane holds the copy of a negative of wounded Belgian soldiers at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital - Credit: Archant

Nicola Lane’s podcast uses letters to the Ham&High to reveal how Victorian philanthropist Mary Wardell founded a hospital where infectious patients could isolate

Artist and filmmaker Nicola Lane from West Hampstead has made the podcast In Search of the Grey Lady

Artist and filmmaker Nicola Lane from West Hampstead has made the podcast In Search of the Grey Lady - Credit: Archant

The letters pages of the Ham&High, and an urgent plea to open a new hospital where patients with a deadly infectious disease could isolate.

No it’s not 2020 but the 1880s, and the diligent letter writer is Mary Wardell from Belsize Park.

Now her letters and other archival material will be read out by staff, patients, and volunteers at the hospital which she helped to found for a podcast series.

West Hampstead artist and filmmaker Nicola Lane, a patient at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore, set out to uncover its history after a chance remark about the ghost of a grey lady.

View of the hospital in the 1920s Courtesy of the RNOH

View of the hospital in the 1920s Courtesy of the RNOH - Credit: Archant


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“A receptionist at the prosthetic unit mentioned a grey lady ghost. I found that fascinating so I decided to explore the many layers of history on the site,” she says.

“When I heard about Mary Wardell I assumed the ghost must be hers, but it became clear that grey lady ghosts are most connected to the First World War.

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“But the more I discovered about her journey to establish the hospital in the 1880s, the more fascinating it became as a glimpse into a single woman of that period and all those other single women who had an effect on the times.”

The National Heritage Lottery-funded ‘Searching for the Grey Lady: A Ghost From WW1 at the RNOH’ sets the scene with Wardell, a spinster of independent means living in Stanley Gardens (now Primrose Hill Gardens) with her sister Margaret, and an outbreak of scarlet fever.

The old operating theatre from a found negative Courtesy of the RNOH

The old operating theatre from a found negative Courtesy of the RNOH - Credit: Archant

“The podcast has been built from her copious correspondence to the Ham&High and other papers,” explains Lane.

“She worked with the London poor who were being ravaged by epidemics of infectious disease including Scarlet fever, which spread through all classes. She said we must find somewhere for these people to convalesce so they don’t spread the infection.

“Many middle class women worked as she did to mitigate the terrible conditions of the time. The hospital was an absolute passion for her. She was driven by that determination and got eminent medical men to support her.”

The site was purchased from the estate of a Camden pork butcher who died half way through building a house in Brockley Hill. Funded through public subscription, it was opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1884 as the Mary Wardell Convalescent Home For Scarlet Fever. It operated a private omnibus to ferry patients from hospital without infecting public transport users and was disinfected after every trip. Attendants wore bright red uniforms so locals could steer clear of them.

It was always short of funds and Wardell continued to raise money until the First World War when it became a hospital for wounded Belgian soldiers.

Wardell even convalesced there before her death in 1917 aged 84. It was bought by the RNOH in 1920 and housed a training school for ‘Crippled Boys’ in the 1930s.

Although the RNOH has since been redeveloped, parts of the original building are used as offices. During the pandemic it became a trauma hospital to take the pressure off neighbouring Covid wards.

“The hospital has evolved in response to national crisis and change including transforming itself into a trauma hospital to free up hospitals like the Royal Free and Whittington. Mary bought the site for its beauty and health benefits, and that’s still there,” says Lane, who lost a leg in 1968.

“I am fascinated by archive and memory,” she said. “The history that has disappeared and rediscovering what has been lost or forgotten, including a woman like Mary Wardell. She’s invisible but her achievements are still affecting us today.”

After finding Mary’s will, Lane learned that she had requested to be buried in St Lawrence’s churchyard near the hospital. But she couldn’t find her grave and lockdown prevented her from searching parish registers in the London Metropolitan archive.

“In a way Mary Wardell is the Grey Lady. She’s the founder of that site but she left so little. I found not a single photograph of her, yet there are photographs of all the eminent men who helped her. In her will, she wanted no fuss. I suspect there is more to find if I go looking.”

‘Searching for the Grey Lady: A Ghost From WW1 at the RNOH’ is available from December 4.

http://pegleg-productions.co.uk/

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