Although Wardown House was opened as a military hospital for wounded troops, hundreds of soldiers were still treated along with civilians at the Bute Hospital in Dunstable Road during World War One, greatly adding to its workload.
In the three months up to September 1914, for instance, 269 patients had been treated, 142 of them soldiers billeted in Luton for only six or seven weeks. The extra fees paid by the military, plus £142 raised by some of the troops themselves, were beneficial to the Bute's finances, however, allowing equipment such as much-needed, up-to-date X-ray equipment to be purchased.
The Bute Hospital was made possible by the gift of land in Dunstable Road by the Marquis of Bute in October 1879 and public fund-raising. The new hospital, opened on September 27th, 1882, replaced the small Luton Cottage Hospital opened in High Town Road on May 6th, 1872, and for several years continued to carry the Cottage Hospital name.
In 1902 it was decided to raise funds to build an extension with two new modern wards, costing £4,100. The new wards were opened on July 2nd, 1904, by Mrs Wernher, of Luton Hoo. Another scheme of reconstruction started in 1910, leading to the opening of an extension on July 8th, 1912, that included a new operating theatre at the rear.
The Bute continued to be Luton's principal hospital until 1939 (there was also the workhouse Infirmary - renamed St Mary's in 1929) when the new purpose-built Luton and Dunstable was opened on February 14th by Queen Mary. Work on the new hospital had begun on March 31st, 1937, and the foundation stone was laid on June 28th that year. It was built on a ten-acre site at the junction of Dunstable Road and Lewsey Road purchased in 1934 from Electrolux for £3,800.
In The Luton News of Thursday, March 4th, 1915, an unnamed in-patient provided an insight into the daily life of the Bute Hospital at the time. The writer, who said he had just had the misfortune (or good fortune, as the case might be), to spend a week within the confines of the Bute Hospital, described an average day there. The following are extracts.
The day commences at 5 am when the night nurses, still on duty, commence to make the coverings of the beds presentable, this operation being repeated several times later in the day. The patients are provided with warm water in large bowls and the ablutions of the morning proceed. Those unable to use their limbs are carefully tended by the nurses.
About six o'clock follows breakfast of tea and bread and butter, which forms the chief item of the daily menu, apart from the midday meal. It must be remembered that the hospital depends on voluntary contributions, and only plain fare is expected for the magnificent payment on the part of the patients of 3s 6d or 5s per week. But those who wish may, of course, provide their own delicacies, and, at any rate, the hospital is a godsend to our poorer neighbours.
The collection of the fresh eggs from the lockers at the side of the beds is usually left to one of the convalescent patients. After breakfast the patients enjoy their books, and the morning and local journals find a ready sale in the hospital.
By and by the day nurses make their appearance. Hot milk is served at 9 am, and proves a very welcome item in the day's agenda. And so the day proceeds and the movements and the work of the nurses are observed by eyes filled with gratitude for those kind souls who minister to their needs with such kindness and with so evident a zeal.
The nurses have a hundred and one duties to perform, including the cleaning and dusting, the dressing of wounds and limbs, hypodermic injections, the taking of temperatures and marking of the cards which hang over each bed.
Later on, at intervals, the doctors in charge of the "cases" in the wards come to make their observations, and, accompanied by the matron or sister, proceeds round the wards, pronounce their opinions and give their instructions. Midday soon comes along, and the tempting two-course dinner is an item of importance in the programme of the day.
There are endless little happenings in the day which never fail to interest and amuse, and pain is happily relieved very often in the pleasant and sympathetic social intercourse and in the humorous interludes which inevitably arise from the waggish remarks of the more high-spirited of the patients.
The flitting to and fro of the nurses on their busy errands, the arrival of a fresh patient, the visit of an old one and other incidents all go to the diversion of what would otherwise be rendered tired and blasé by the enforced idleness of physical incapacity.
Wednesday and Sunday afternoons are looked forward to with eagerness, for then relatives and friends make their appearance, bringing delicacies and flowers and other sources of joy to the sick and weary.
Tea and supper over, the time for sleep is nigh, and 8 o'clock sees the almost complete extinguishing of the lights. Prayers are said by the nurse, and the ward then presents a quiet and peaceful scene.
The night nurses flit to and fro like ghostly shadows to the tired eyes of the still wakeful sufferers, and the quietude may perhaps be broken by the delirious cries of a woman in agony in an adjoining ward, by the groans of a man in extreme pain, or by the pitiful wail of a suffering child. Maybe a man on the other side of the ward anxiously awaits his removal to the operating theatre, and he goes with a manful courage. By and by his inanimate form is brought carefully back on the stretcher, for he still remains under the influence of the anaesthetic and he breathes laboriously the while the doctors and nurses guard over his life.
And the night goes on until one falls into slumber, to awake next morning in the full light of electricity (in the winter it is, of course, still dark at 5 am). The daybreak is at hand and proclaims the reaching of another step towards life and health.
This, then, is some idea of the life of the Bute Hospital, second to none in the country for comfort and efficiency.
[Principal sources: The Luton News and "Hospitals in Luton & Dunstable, An Illustrated History" by Margaret R. Currie]