Major Powell-Cotton battles on

As an important seaport Ramsgate became a strategic hospital base and some of the largest buildings in Thanet such as Chatham House College, the Granville Hotel in Ramsgate, and Yarrow Children’s Home in Broadstairs, were used as temporary hospitals. Additional beds were also placed in the Ramsgate General Hospital.

Generous residents such as the explorer Major Powell-Cotton of Quex Park in Birchington, and Thanet’s MP Norman Craig of Fairfield in Broadstairs immediately placed their estates and their cars at the disposal of the authorities. The patients allocated to Quex Park must have had quite a shock to discover they were sharing the premises with cases of stuffed animals!

Major Powell-Cotton arranged transport for these wounded soldiers from the railway stations to the various VAD hospitals across the island. Private cars were available to carry ‘sitting’ cases and expenses were borne by the owners of the vehicles, who included Mr. Munro Cobb and Mr. Thornton Bobby, names of local businessmen still familiar in Thanet today. ‘Cot’ cases and ‘sitting’ cases were conveyed from local train stations to the various hospitals by a “convoy” of various trucks, vans etc. acting as ambulances. Stretchers were ready on the platforms piled high with blankets and local women manned huge urns dispensing welcome cups of tea to volunteers and patients.

Major Powell Cotton advised the Commanding Officer at Dover Disembarkation Office daily of the number of vacant beds in Thanet. He regularly worked eighteen hour days from 5am to 11pm! By September 1915 there were more than 700 beds available for the wounded soldiers in Thanet.

After a visit to the KCC History and Archive Centre in Maidstone I discovered a file of correspondence from Major Powell-Cotton, who as Chair of Thanet’s Emergency Committee, of which all Thanet’s mayors were also members, wrote on an almost daily basis to Mr W B Prosser of the Central Organizing Committee based at Sessions House in Maidstone. He did not mince his words! On 21st December 1915 he wrote:-

The General Opinion in Thanet is that should an emergency ever occur, absolute chaos will ensue, led by the various military and other bodies giving out contradictory orders.”

He was concerned that five or six different military and naval authorities would, as instructed by the War Office Circular Gen No 5/490, act on their own, without attempting to consult any civil authority.

On another occasion Powell-Cotton wrote:-

“The various military and naval authorities in the island, with the exception of Ramsgate Naval Office, not being in touch with the Emergency Committees, or apparently unaware of their existence, makes the careful organization you mention of doubtful value.”

He also corresponded with Major-General Hay, Staff Officer for Emergency Measures, 2nd Army Central Force.

In June 1915 he was suggesting that the 3 large hoppers and 3 large lighters which had been moved from Dover Harbour to the River Stour at Sandwich could be used to create an extra bridge for moving troops and equipment across the river as the one existing bridge was very ancient, narrow and congested.

In 1915 the finishing touches were given to Thanet’s evacuation orders to be implemented in case of an invasion in accordance with the DORA Act of 1914. The alarm signal would be 2 maroons and residents would act in accordance with  the evacuation orders issued by special constables in each colour coded section of the town and surrounding area. The people were to bring all necessary clothing, boots, blankets etc.,to protect them from the weather; also their money, and available food. All children under five years of age had to be labelled with their names and addresses. They were to take no household goods with them and were  assured that the police would look after their houses! They had to lock up their houses and then proceed to the place of Assembly.

There were separate routes for

1)      pedestrians,

2)       motor cars and other petrol-driven vehicles,

3)      all other serviceable vehicles, horses, mules and donkeys.

Those on foot had to proceed to Pluck’s Gutter from where they would be re-directed. They were not allowed to use the main roads or the railways.

Drivers were asked to bring such stocks of petrol, tyres, spare parts for motor cars etc., picks, spades, sledge hammers etc. that may be useful for military purposes. Conveyances would, if possible, be provided to collect and carry the aged, infirm and young children, and those in charge of them only. Everyone else had to proceed on foot. Petrol cans that could not be carried had to be opened and drained away. Waggons and carts for which there were no horses available were to be destroyed or set on fire. In the flour mill the flour had to be sprinkled with petrol or paraffin or otherwise rendered unfit for food.

In the event of a bombardment inhabitants of houses were to go into the cellars or lower floors. If the houses were on the seafront where they could be exposed to direct fire from the sea, inhabitants were advised to leave by the back door and seek shelter elsewhere. First they had to

  • shut off the gas at the meter
  • extinguish all oil lamps
  • have candles or night lights to hand
  • have pails of water and a box of damp sand or ashes ready to put out fires

They were told NOT to touch unexploded bombs, but when the raid was over to inform the police. They were also warned that gathering into crowds or watching the bombardment from an exposed position could lead to unnecessary loss of life. If an aircraft was seen or heard overhead then crowds should disperse and all persons should if possible take shelter.

In May 1917 Powell-Cotton was complaining about the

“Considerable amount of unnecessary trouble, loss of valuable time, and correspondence the Emergency Committee has been put to”

Concerning the contradictory instructions received about any horses remaining on the Isle of Thanet. The military authorities had planned a census but Major Powell-Cotton argued that

these horses with drivers and carts, have been already assigned for removing individual women and children and the Emergency Committee have heard nothing to cancel this arrangement.”

Major Powell-Cotton regularly worked eighteen hour days from 5am to 11pm! His wife ran the VAD

Hospital at Quex Park assisted by a matron and a small professional staff. Her own staff did the cooking and the laundry.

Quex Park, or Kent VAD 178 Birchington had beds for thirty to forty patients. In summer, some beds were moved on to the verandahs. Quaint cabinets contained surgical instruments, bandages, stacks of lint and cotton wool, and in the pack store the walls were hung with a curious collection of masks, a souvenir of one of Major Powell-Cotton’s safaris. The first ward had been the main drawing room.

In the conservatory, with its curved crystal roof full of tropical plants, sat and reclined men in blue and red. The Museum was a room of hospital beds sharing the space with shrouded display cases and skeleton heads and limbs of many rare beasts. In the garden soldier-patients could relax and enjoy their beautiful surroundings after enduring months on end in the Flanders mud. Only three men died at Quex Park during the 1914 – 1918 war.




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