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Mary Williams

(1861-1922) – VAD Hospital organiser

Mary Williams ran the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) hospital at Launceston during the war and turned her family's second home, at Werrington, into a convalescent hospital which could hold up to thirty patients at a time. Bedrooms were renamed the South, Pink and Blue Wards; Mary later received a CBE for her war work.

Credit: Caerhays Castle and photo from Lawrence House Museum, Launceston

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Mary Williams of Tregullow was the eleventh child of Sir Frederick Williams, baronet.  In 1884, she

married her cousin John Charles Williams, who had bought Werrington Park near Launceston in 1882.  John and Mary were able to move into Caerhays after his mother’s death in 1884, with Werrington becoming their second home – a place for hunting, shooting and fishing.   Their four sons were of just the right age to enlist when the First World War broke out and two were killed in action in France. 

During the war, well-publicised recruiting drives were held at Caerhays Castle.  Mary Williams was in charge of the Voluntary Aid Detachment hospital in Launceston.   Werrington also became a Red Cross Auxiliary Home Hospital for up to thirty convalescent patients at any one time.   Additional beds were crammed into the South, Pink and Blue bedrooms, which now became wards.  The drawing room also became a ward. Bedrooms in the staff quarters became an annexe with further beds, a surgery, dressing stations and a quartermaster’s room, and further beds were even set up in the corridors.  The servants’ hall became the patients’ dining room, while the twenty nursing staff took over the library as their room. Only the billiard room kept its original purpose.   

Mary was awarded a CBE for her war work but died of diabetes in 1922.  Her husband survived her by seventeen years.

The Voluntary Aid Detachment was founded in 1909 after the Boer War with help from the Red Cross and Order of St John.  It attracted young women, and some men, who were often of a higher social status than the trained nurses they assisted.  Originally VADs were intended to serve as home front nursing orderlies, ambulance drivers and cooks and VAD hospitals opened in most large towns in Britain.  Despite VADs lacking the skill and discipline of the trained nursing profession, shortages of trained nurses led to some VADs being sent overseas.  They had to be over 23 years of age and have more than 3 months hospital experience.  The poet May Cannan, who was the fiancée of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s son Bevil, served as a VAD before and during the war.  She went to Rouen for a month in spring 1915 and ran a railhead canteen for soldiers.

Key words: women, nursing

Credit: Caerhays Castle and photo from Lawrence House Museum, Launceston