IT WAS a pioneering medical centre that cared for the traumatised casualties of the First World War, but after it closed its doors to patients Kingston House Hospital was largely forgotten.
Now an academic researching her family history has uncovered the extraordinary story of the Gothic mansion that served as Scotland’s first national neurasthenic hospital, treating thousands of damaged men who returned from the trenches suffering from shellshock.
Yvonne McEwen, honorary fellow at Edinburgh University and director of Scotland’s War Project, was looking into her grandfather’s experiences during the First World War when she came across letters referring to a hospital stay in 1919. She has now revealed her findings to mark Remembrance Sunday.
McEwen knew her grandfather had not been admitted to Craiglockart in Edinburgh, the best-known hospital for shellshock casualties where patients had included the war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, so she began investigating other possibilities.
Eventually she came across an old cutting from The Scotsman that pointed to Kingston House, a grand, turreted mansion overlooking Liberton Braes and built by wealthy Edinburgh businessman William Christie in the 1860s. “I had been looking for this place for the best part of 20 years,” she said.
McEwen learned that in March 1918, after the council bought the property for £13,500, Kingston House was converted into a hospital. Unlike conventional hospitals where the war wounded were treated, this facility was designed to deal with the neurological problems suffered by many returning soldiers. At the time the authorities were at a loss as to how to help men suffering from a debilitating number of symptoms including nervous tics, nightmares, random violence and unreachable trance states. The term shellshock was not coined until 1915. By 1938, more than 128,000 men were diagnosed with the condition.
In 1918, specialist care in Scotland was limited and until Kingston House opened its doors, it was only available to officers admitted to the Craiglockart War Hospital.
“Craiglockhart only treated officers,” said McEwen. “The condition was often given the more genteel term ‘neurasthenia’ for officers. Shellshock was considered by the military authorities to be a sign of weakness and a condition of the working class.”
McEwen learned that Kingston House was opened by Colonel Sir Arthur Griffith- Boscawan, parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Pensions. The hospital was run under the supervision of the ministry but equipped by the Scottish branch of the Red Cross.
Dr Cunyngham Brown was appointed to oversee the treatment of shellshocked men. A former medical officer in the army, he was released in order to take up his position at Kingston House. He was assisted by a matron, Florence Norrie Rhind, who trained at Leith General Hospital and worked for a time in Serbia.
Among the treatments offered at the hospital was “talking therapy”, something that was first tried at Craiglockart but had not been available to ordinary soldiers and sailors.
McEwen’s research also suggests that the men were educated about their condition and, in some cases, taught a trade that would help them make a living after they were discharged.
“Kingston House was the only hospital of its kind in Scotland and it was anticipated that the University of Edinburgh would consider it suitable for the study and treatment of neurasthenia,” said McEwen.
Patrick Doherty, McEwen’s grandfather, who inspired her research, was a sergeant in the 16th Irish Division who fought in the Battle of the Somme at Guillemont. “It was one of the worst engagements of the Somme,” said McEwen.
In September 1916, Doherty bayoneted a Prussian soldier who cornered him in a walled garden. Six days later he was blown off his feet by an explosion at Ginchy, but survived.
Doherty’s physical wounds healed but the mental scars remained. Between 1918 and 1933, he was unable to hold down a job for more than six months and was treated in a number of institutions.
He was refused a war pension, a decision that astonished Dr Ninian Bruce, a leading neurologist working in Edinburgh at the time. McEwen read his remarks in her grandfather’s medical records. “Dr Bruce said he believed the Ministry of Pensions had taken leave of their senses and that my grandfather was one of the most deserving cases he had ever come across,” she said. Among the institutions where Doherty was treated was Kingston House, something McEwen gleaned from letters written by her grandmother that spoke of visiting Doherty in an Edinburgh hospital.
Despite the pioneering work carried out at Kingston House, the hospital closed its doors in 1925. No reason was given for its closure. The mansion later became a school and then a hotel. It is now a luxury flats development.
McEwen is now appealing for anyone with relatives who were patients or staff to get in touch as she tries to build up a more complete picture of Edinburgh’s forgotten war hospital.
“In Scotland we were pioneering so much rehabilitative treatment and the establishment of this hospital meant we were also pioneering psychological treatment,” she said. “It was our loss – and a tragedy – that it never got a chance to develop as other types of rehabilitative care did.”
As for her grandfather, in the end it wasn’t medical treatment that provided a mental balm. In the 1950s, he began helping to build Nunraw Abbey in East Lothian. “There were a lot of men there who had been through both wars, who became brothers and found peace. Clearly it was a community where he found peace too,” said McEwen.