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The Royal Cornwall Infirmary during the First World War

This series of photographs by local photographer A W Jordan documents the presence of nurses and wounded soldiers at the Royal Cornwall Infirmary in Truro during the First World War. More recently known as Truro City Hospital, the Infirmary has now been converted into homes. However, the history of the building goes back much further. The construction was completed in May 1799 by William Wood, who was also the architect and overseer of the nearby Lemon Street development. The matron, porter and other members of staff were “elected” in the June of that year, with the first patients being received on the 12th of August. This means that the Royal Cornwall Infirmary was the first hospital in Cornwall, followed by the East Cornwall Hospital at Bodmin in the 1850s, the Miner’s Hospital at Redruth in 1871 and the West Cornwall Hospital at Penzance in 1874.


The building began life as a single rectangular structure with an extension to the back, initially allowing for 20 beds – 10 for men and 10 for women, on separate floors. In the Infirmary’s first year, a total of 47 patients were admitted. Generous public donations meant that proposals for a new extension were carried out by 1869 for a price of £123 18s 0d. When the Royal Cornwall Gazette visited in the July of that year, they described the accident ward as “being illuminated by gas brackets” and the “walls enlivened by paintings”. This was the first of many extensions and alterations that were carried out during the 19th and 20th Centuries. The surgical side of things was also improved throughout this time. The number of operations performed and casualties dealt with were increased by four and six times respectively, thanks to improved surgical techniques. At the beginning of the 1900s there was a rise in specialisations: the operating theatre was modernised and the field of abdominal surgery was opened up by the use of anaesthesia. In 1889 the Infirmary concentrated on opthamology, in 1894 a dental surgeon was appointed and in 1912 the eye department acquired its own operating theatre. Mr G Petherick of St Austell had presented the Infirmary with a new X-Ray plant in 1907. However, there was no electricity to run it, and so he had that installed too.

During the First World War, the Infirmary provided accommodation for a large number of wounded soldiers. In 1914 they offered 50 beds to the War Office for serious surgical cases from the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry war casualties. The Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry was established during the 1881 Army reforms by merging the 32nd (Cornwall Light Infantry) Regiment of Foot with the 46th (South Devonshire) Regiment of Foot. The new regiment was named after Queen Victoria’s eldest son: the future King Edward VII. On the outbreak of the First World War, the 1st Battalion was deployed straight from Britain to the Western Front in August 1914. They spent all but six months of the conflict there, with the interval in Italy from November 1917. The 2nd Battalion arrived on the Western Front in December 1914, staying there for 11 months before shifting to Macedonia.

The first contingent of wounded arrived in Truro in June 1915. They were carried from the railway station in conveys of ambulances. One of A W Jordan’s photographs shows the first batch of patients on June 16th, displaying wounded soldiers in an open car outside of the station. Other photographs from this time exhibit nurses rolling bandages and operations in progress. Some of the most interesting images show nurses and patients, a few of them in military uniform, posing outside of the Infirmary. Other pictures display a lighter side of the convalescence process, with wheelchair races, games of croquet, and nurses and patients playing cards on the ward at Christmas.

The Royal Cornwall Infirmary was not the only hospital in Cornwall to offer beds during the First World War. In fact, the number of hospitals in Cornwall increased during this time. In 1916, the Royal Naval Auxiliary Hospital was created in the Truro Union workhouse at the top of Tregolls Road. The usual inmates were moved out and the establishment opened with 150 beds, run by volunteers and the Red Cross. Other hospitals included: the Camborne Auxiliary Hospital in Tregenna, Redruth Officers’ Auxiliary Hospital in Scorrier, Penzance V.A. Hospital on Morrab Road, the Auxiliary Hospital in Launceston, the Auxiliary Hospital for Officers in Fowey, Trefusis in Falmouth, and the Convalescent Hospital for Discharged Sailors and Soldiers in Newquay. In addition to this, local people opened canteens for the walking wounded, and schools and public halls were requisitioned for temporary nursing care.


The end of the First World War was not the end of the Royal Cornwall Infirmary’s association with conflict. When the Second World War broke out, the protection of the hospital was one of the first issues acted upon. “Ramparts” made out of 25,000 sandbags, which were filled with earth excavated during recent extensions to the building, were constructed and “sitting-up patients” were sent home. However, on the 6th of August 1942, two enemy fighter bombers each dropped a 500 kg bomb on Truro. One exploded mid-air above Agar Road after having hit the ground north of the Cathedral at the bottom of Campfield Hill. The other fell near the main entrance of the Infirmary, destroying the dispensary, the ends of the medical ward, and the male and female surgical wards – virtually demolishing the south wing of the hospital. Nine to twelve people were killed, including a ward sister, a nurse and three visiting relatives. Despite this disaster, the Infirmary continued on, becoming a part of the National Health Service in 1947 and remaining until the 15th of January 1999.


Visit us and learn more about Cornwall in World War One at the ‘Heart of Conflict‘ exhibition. Running until June 2017. 


  • M Foster
    January 17, 2017 | Permalink | Reply to this comment

    A beautifully written post giving such a wonderful insight into such an interesting part of Cornwalls history.

  • Neville H Paddy
    September 14, 2020 | Permalink | Reply to this comment

    I was one of a dozen boys playing cricket in Hendra Playing Field Truro. A beautiful summers evening at 7.40pm on 6th August 1942, all was peaceful and serene. Two German Fighter Bombers suddenly appeared flying very low and began machine gunning. One flew in the direction of the Railway Station and the other flew over the Viaduct and towards the Cathedral. They were both still machine gunning and turfs from the playground flew into the air. Seconds later a huge explosion was heard in the direction of the RCI. This was soon followed by another explosion which appeared to be North of Truro. We boys ran for our lived down to the bottom Playground Hedgerow adjacent to St George’s Road.
    We though one among us had been shot for him hand and arm were covered in blood. We could see thick black smoke and flames leaping from the direction of the RCI. Two men on bicycles and carrying water buckets and hand pumps went hurriedly down St George’s Road and beneath the Railway Viaduct. We rushed the still bleeding boy to his home in Hendra Vean. His mother and another lady were watching the bombing incident from their front gates. When seeing the injured boy for the first time both women fainted and collapsed onto the pavement. Soon a crowed had gathered and an off duty nurse began removing glass from the boys hand and arm where he had fallen when escaping the enemy attack. It was not until later that we learned of the dead and wounded caused by the bombing. I heard the Wireless Broadcast by Lord Haw Haw from ‘Germany Calling’. He half apologised for the bombing of the Unmarked Hospital which the German Pilot mistook for a factory with a large chimney stack. On the roof of the Hospital was always spread a huge Red Cross flag but as the Pilot approach the target from such a low level he did not see the Red Cross spread across the roof of the Hospital.

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