Stepping Hill Hospital

Stockport NHS Foundation Trust Press Release

The discovery of a book belonging to a nurse who worked at Stockport’s Stepping Hill Hospital during the First World War has provided an artistic glimpse into the lives of both soldiers and nurses at the time.

The journal has also allowed one local woman an insight into the life of the grandmother she never met, and opened “a new chapter in their family history”.

Mary Hicks worked as a nurse at Stepping Hill Hospital in the first part of the 20th century. In 1906 she started an ‘autograph book’ where patients who Mary cared for recorded their thoughts about staying in the hospital through sketches, poems, messages and doodles.

When the First World War started, Stepping Hill became a military hospital which cared for wounded soldiers coming back from the front line. From 1914, most of the entries in Mary’s book came from soldiers. The pages reveal a mix of emotion and humour on the trials of the war, with many writing about missing their families and loved ones.

Nurse Hicks left nursing when she married Ernest Bromley in 1920. She had four sons with her husband during the next decade, and died in 1965.

Since Mary Hicks left Stepping Hill, nothing is known of what became of her book over the next 96 years. During that time her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren had no idea of its existence, and no-one at the hospital was aware of it either.

This all changed when a chance Twitter message sent from a second hand bookstore, 285 miles away in Launceston, Cornwall alerted Stepping Hill staff members to the book. Hospital staff retrieved the book and then turned detective to track down the family.

The hospital tracked down Sally-Anne Bromley, the granddaughter of Mary Hicks, who was living just four miles away in Cheshire.  Sally-Anne (44), runs the Bulls Head pub in Poynton, which has been a family-run business for 40 years. She was shocked when she got the call and overwhelmed when she saw the book.

Sally-Anne said, “This is a new chapter in our family history. When I was contacted about the book I was a bit apprehensive at first, as it was so unusual and came totally out of the blue.  At the same time I was also very intrigued about it, as I never met my grandmother because she died before I was born.

“I was thrilled when I actually looked at the book. It was clear the patients must have found her caring and great company to write so many messages.

“The chances of this book turning up were so small, but I’m so happy it has been brought back to the hospital. I feel like I know my grandmother a little now in a way I never did before.”

The journal entries include a wounded doctor writing, “We go to fight, an enemy strong and bold. Whose cruel acts, and awful deeds, are not yet fully told. And we are still determined. Defiant to the last”.

A Royal engineer from London accompanies his drawing in the book with the words, “Far, far from Ypres I long to be, where German snipers cannot pot me. Thinking of me crouching where the worms creep, waiting for someone to sing me to sleep”. A soldier shot in the leg at the Battle of Loos in October 1915 describes his journey from Northern France to Stepping Hill Hospital.

Another wounded soldier from New Zealand, who had battled in Africa and Europe, wrote in the book, “A wounded soldier could not have a better friend than nurse Hicks”.

Drawings range from cartoon caricatures of nurses, patients, over-burdened hospital orderlies, put-upon husbands and men with an eye for ladies, to lifelike drawings of churches and the patients’ much-missed sweethearts.

Ann Barnes, chief executive of Stockport NHS Foundation Trust, which runs Stepping Hill, said, “We are absolutely delighted to have found this book. Stepping Hill Hospital has a rich history, and this book brings to life the relationship between patients and nurses, as well as giving an insight into the emotions of the war. We’re very pleased to have provided Sally-Anne and her family this glimpse into her grandmother’s past too.”

For more on this story see this report from Granada Reports.

You can also see an online version of the book here.