Runwell Hospital in a time of war (1). Memories of wartime. (Updated and republished).

And the mine explosion in the hospital grounds that resulted in the production of parts for the Blood Transfusion Unit.

The crater left by a mine explosion in the Runwell Hospital grounds, behind the Staff Houses, in October 1940.

Second picture is of a piston for air pump for blood transfusion unit made from metal of landmine in 1943.

Here is a photograph of the mounted piece of landmine that was given to Trevor Williams by Miss McMullen. It was made by hospital engineer Mr. Flack from the left over pieces of mine he recovered to make the new piston for the blood transfusion unit.

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  • My grandmother, Rosetta Esther Margaret Comber, nee Avis, (29/9/1894-17/7/1945) died in Runwell Hospital in 1945. Was Runwell Hospital being used as a general hospital then? Does anyone have any more details?

    By Marylyn Kittle (24/09/2021)
  • Runwell did have a maternity unit during the war, I think it was based in the old Harper Unit opposite the Admin building.

    By Termite (15/07/2021)
  • To Eileen Ferguson

    What was your mothers name and date of birth?

    By Lisa Goodrum (24/10/2020)
  • My mother worked at Runwell with Miss Macmullen during and after the war. She had come from Southern Ireland. My mother died some years ago but spoke very fondly and with admiration for Miss Macmullen.

    By Janette borges (25/09/2020)
  • My mother was born at Runwell Hospital. I am not sure what hospital that was in 1941. Her name is Mary Christina Haines. Does anybody know if there was a maternity wing there?

    By albert (16/06/2019)
  • I don’t know if anyone can answer me but I have a question. My mother died in Runwell in 1945, it was supposed to have been used briefly as a regular hospital. She died of being given the wrong blood as she was O neg. and was given O pos. by mistake. My father never disclosed where he buried her due to a feud with her father, and we lost all contact with everyone. I am now looking for her grave to give me some peace as I am 75 and would like to know anything. Was it used in 1945 for regular women’s medical?

    By Eileen Ferguson (10/01/2018)
  • Hello Trevor,

    Your late uncle, Jack Salmons, was a friend of my Dad, Sandy Humphrey, who worked at the hospital from when it opened in 1937 until 1964 (apart from the war years when he was in the army).

    As a boy living in the Runwell staff houses, I recall many times the name Jack Salmons being mentioned, and I met him at least once. He was heavily involved in supervising the patients on the hospital farm, which had pigs and a dairy herd.

    By Lyn Humphrey (30/08/2015)
  • Hi Lyn

    I have a vague memory of my parents talking about the destruction of the New Cross Woolworths by a V2, but I had no idea my father was anywhere near when it happened.  Indeed I am surprised to learn he was in New Cross at all, as it was way out of his bailiwick.  The exigencies of war I guess.   Incidentally that he took your mother along to help is a real compliment, as he was very careful in administering ECT.  She must have been someone he trusted.  I remember your father; he was viewed as a stalwart of the hospital.

    I was much amused by your description of the ‘incursion’ into our grounds after we left.  I suppose it must always have seemed like a secret garden, forever hidden behind a six-foot fence flanked by coniferous trees.  The pond in the sunken garden was initially full of goldfish, and there were fountains and rushes.  A heron came by one day and ate the fish, and the fountains died shortly after.  One year newts mysteriously appeared.  Their numbers fluctuated with the weather, being plentiful in a wet summer, like 1958, and non-existent in a dry summer, like 1959; when the water returned, so did they.  I was quite surprised to read that “there was a gap of several weeks before Dr. (Fraser-)Steele moved in”, because my father told me that Fraser-Steele never moved into the house and bought one in Wickford instead.  Can you enlighten me?  

    I am very pleased that my reminiscences have been enjoyed by some former staff children.  I was stimulated to write them when I came, quite by chance, across an article on-line about Runwell’s imminent closure, complete with photographs showing the sad decay of both buildings and grounds.  Given how much work my father and others had put into the hospital, I felt I should try to describe what it had been like in its heyday and show that, in contrast to the prevalent view of asylums as satanic prisons where hapless inmates were victims of sinister experiments, Runwell was a happy place where patients were given exceptional care and treatment.  I hope I succeeded.  Whenever I flagged, Duncan Stewart prodded me on, and when I finally finished he found appropriate photographs to go with the text.  We owe him a great debt for his website on the hospital – an immense labor.  Incidentally there are some errors in my text, the most glaring being my describing the War Ministry as coming down to view a bomb crater behind Rettendon House, whereas in fact it was the land-mine crater shown above, perhaps the first such.

    I do remember Michael Thomas, though I hardly knew him.  When I was young I played with the staff children, but after I was packed off to boarding school I wasn’t around much.  I vaguely recall that he got me to play once in a cricket match between staff and children – a real sacrifice on his part given my lack of skill with both bat and ball.  Hard for me to grasp that this was all well over 50 years ago.

    I would be interested to have a copy of your mother’s letter, if you don’t mind that is.  Is there any chance you have it scanned and could send it to me by e-mail?  If you e-mail me at I could reply with my personal address, which I prefer not to put out in a public forum.  MXT by the way is the name of my company.

    By John Strom-Olsen (20/04/2015)
  • Hello Mr Strom-Olsen,

    This very week I came upon an old letter written by my Mother (then Joyce Ellen) during the War. She was a nurse at Runwell, and was telling how she’d been selected to accompany YOUR father to London regarding ECT matters.

    It turned out to be the day when one of the worst civilian tragedies of the war occurred; the New Cross Woolworths was bombed, with the loss of 168 lives. They happened to be in the vicinity and ended up helping. She described some heartbreaking scenes. I wasn’t aware of any of this, were you?

    Both of my parents worked at the hospital after the war (Sandy Humphrey was my father), and we lived in the staff houses. They always spoke very well of your father.

    I well remember when your family moved away, because I and several of my friends then explored the grounds of your vacated property! We meant no harm, and were fascinated by the miniature ‘canals’ in your garden, connecting two square ponds that were teaming with newts (Great Crested & Palmate)! We carefully removed no less than 43 (how’s that for memory?) and put them in our own smaller ponds. I think there was a gap of several weeks before Dr Steele(?) moved in, and when we last checked your ponds, we were saddened to see they were dry, with no sign of the remaining newts.

    I’ve found your website article on Runwell Hospital absolutely fascinating, and so have several other ex-children of the staff houses, with whom I’m still in touch. One of them is Jem Thomas, son of the Secretary, who lived in St David’s, near to you. His older brother Michael is about your age; you may have been friends.

    I well remember Mrs Stokes’ PO at the end of the Chase; a very little lady. My ration card had her details on it for eggs etc.

    If you (or anyone else) wanted any further details from me regarding any of the above, please contact me.

    By Lyn Humphrey (19/03/2015)
  • Hi Trevor

    I remember the name Edwin Williams, but cannot put a face to it.  I look forward to seeing your photographs.

    And I understand the hospital is now demolished and replaced by a substantial housing development.  What this will mean for the traffic I cannot imagine.  I have to tell you that in the late 40s and early 50s Runwell Road was pretty quiet.

    By John Strom-Olsen (21/10/2014)
  • Hello Mr. Strom-Olsen. I’m sorry for taking a while getting back to you. I found your comments really most interesting. Another name you might remember was a gentleman who served at the hospital and was great friends of my late father and his family. He was Mr. Edwin Williams.

    I will publish my other photographs shortly for you. My late father spoke very highly of your father, a much respected man.

    By Trevor Williams. (08/04/2014)
  • This is very interesting to me as my father was Runwell’s first superintendent and was responsible for developing research there. You might be interested to read what I have written about him and other things on the hospital in those days on the hospital website To turn the page click on the logo at the bottom right. Tom Hall was a laboratory technician that my father brought with him when he came to Runwell from Whitchurch Mental Hospital. You will see a picture of him in my reminiscences (about p 10) He and my father use to sail together at Burnham. Flack was the hospital chief engineer and as your entry makes clear a most ingenious man, and a very decent man too. I mention the Dornier being shot down, and the fact that Flack made my father a paperweight out of the propeller tip. Sadly he died prematurely in the early 1950s of a heart attack. You will see him in the photograph on page 1 of my reminiscences seated at the far left hand end. I would be interested in seeing more photos if you have them.

    By John Strom-Olsen (14/03/2013)
  • The above photographs as well as the man who took them I dedicated their existence to a gentleman whom I could simply remember as Tom. Having now trolled through masses of paperwork, I came across the report I had originally made out at the time, and can now reveal with extreme thanks the man’s name responsible for a wonderful photographic history of Runwell Hospital at War….Mr. Tom Hall.

    By T.A.Williams (28/01/2013)
  • Way back in the 1970s my late uncle, Jack Salmons, who lived in Henguist Gardens, Wickford, told me of the days he served as a male nurse at Runwell Hospital. But what really captured my interest was him relating the events that took place there during WW2. Jack Salmons was a well known Wickford character and, I suppose, my favourite uncle. He talked about the Landmines that dropped in the grounds in and around Runwell Hospital, and the damage they did to some of the wards, Rettendon Ward in particular, which I have photographs of in my album. But just before I go on I would like to say how these photographs came about (those above and others not present from the same set). Having spoken with my uncle, I wandered up to the hospital one Saturday morning. I didn’t know where I was going or to whom I wanted to speak, but I had to find out more about Runwell Hospital. I ended up somewhere near Pathology and met an elderly gentleman by the name of Tom, this much I can remember as if it was yesterday, but unfortunately his surname escapes me. I very quickly got talking to Tom about the war and he said, ” I photographed everything that went on here during the war, would you like to see my snaps?”. Oh my God, Easter, Summer and Christmas had just come all at once! Tom produced a set of small pictures showing those above which similar shots exist – damage to Rettendon Ward caused by the mine, bomb craters in the hospital cricket ground and by the nurses home, a photograph of a 1 kg German incendiary bomb still sticking out of the ground where it had fallen, a hospital fireman holding the same bomb (the hospital had its own appliance and small fire force). The only thing Tom never got to photograph was the German Dornier Do217M1 which crashed on the night of 21/22 January 1944, one of the very first aircraft to be bought down in what was then known as ‘Operation Steinbock’. [This, as history has recorded, was Hitler’s last attempt to bring England to its knees and was known as the mini blitz. It was doomed to failure from the start for we now had up to date night fighter aircraft, radar and radar predicted gun sites, and so by 1944 any marauding German aircraft were very quickly and efficiently despatched.] My elderly gentleman Tom, what a man, and because I cannot remember his surname cannot give him the credit he so rightfully deserves in taking those series of photographs. Obviously Tom let me copy his prized pics and at the time I was a full member of the Essex Aviation Group. I had the copies sized at 10×8, gave Tom his originals back, together with a set of new 10x8s, and a further set to Mr.Barry Addcock, who shared the same interest in collecting old photographs of Wickford. But in my quest for further knowledge of the hospital, luck was to come my way again. You may often have heard the saying, “maybe it was meant to turn out that way” and when my brother got married back in the 1970s he and his new bride moved into Cranfield Court flats in Market Road. They hadn’t been there long when they met an elderly lady who used to be, she told them, a sister at Runwell Hospital during the war. Visiting my brother one afternoon he told me of the lady and introduced me to her. She turned out to be retired Miss M. K. McMullen, MBE. Oh, the stories this lady told me. They had many forms of casualties at the hospital during the war and their blood tranfusion unit was working at overtime speed. At the time one of the Landmines dropped in the hospital, the machine decided to pack up. So a gentleman known as Mr. Flack, a hospital engineer, very soon discovered that the same metal used in the construction of the Landmine could be used to turn a new piston for the blood transfusion unit, hence the above photograph showing the broken piston and the new one. Miss McMullen related this story to me and then said, “Come into the garden will you, I have something I want to show you”. There sitting on the lady’s garden table was a small bakerlite plinth with a very large misshapen object which had been letter stamped. I picked it up and read the legend which said ‘Piece of Landmine  Runwell Hospital  Wickford  Essex  Attacked 16/10/40’. Miss McMullen said, It’s a good job I met you Trevor as that has been carted about with me since the war. I stuck it out here and was going to throw it away, so when you leave dear you can take it with you.”  Apparently Mr. Flack who had manufactured the new piston for the transfusion unit had decided to make Sister McMullen her own souvenir of the event, another wonderful Wickford character who was awarded the MBE for her service to nursing in time of war. I knew her as a sweet lady with a lot of knowledge and a love for a period long gone. So two pictures of a set and I dedicate their existence to my friend Tom whose surname I wish I could remember.

    By T.A.Williams (25/08/2012)

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