Where did all the bandages come from?  Who supplied the nightshirts, gowns and bed-jackets for soldiers in hospital?  As this article shows, almost all were hand-made by groups and individuals world-wide, often paying for the materials out of their own pockets.  The Central Work Rooms at Burlington House gathered together willing women from all parts of the suburbs and those who lived further afield set up Work Parties where local women could contribute their time and skills. There were more than 2,700 of these Work Parties and War Hospital Supply Depots at home and abroad, and now their contribution has been largely forgotten, but without them supplies of dressings and garments to many hospitals would have been non-existent. They certainly deserve a mention, and their work recorded as an example of the importance of voluntary work during the Great War.

Details of 2,787 registered War Hospital Supply Depots and Work Parties will be found HERE. They do not include those groups that worked at Burlington House, nor private individuals who were registered as single home-workers.


     The Central Work Rooms were instituted in 1915, when it was considered desirable to co-ordinate the activities of working parties throughout the country and thus avoid overlapping. By the kindness of the Royal Academy some of the galleries at Burlington House were placed at the disposal of this Department, and the Rooms were opened on October 22, 1915, under the Presidency of the Countess of Gosford.
     The aims were to register and co-ordinate existing sources of hospital supplies, and open up fresh sources; to act as a central bureau of information of all kinds as to special hospital needs and the particular articles which were urgently required; to receive and train in the Rooms themselves workers who might subsequently apply their training in organizing and instructing country Working Parties, to promote uniformity by supplying standard patterns of hospital and surgical requisites, in correct material, in paper patterns, and in books of instruction; and to register as Home Workers individuals who were unable, owing to ill-health or distance, to unite their work with that of existing Work Parties. As the work developed with the greatly increasing needs of the hospitals, the Central Work Rooms increased the number of departments, among which were included the issue of materials (flannel and wool) either free or at cost price, to registered Work Parties; of the Central Work Rooms certificates to all qualified workers at home and abroad; of all the Government Voluntary Workers’ Badges given for Red Cross work; and of Special Badges to the Heads of Work Parties after a year’s good service.
     The various rooms were devoted to garments, bandages, roller bandages, triangular, swabs and dressings, knitting and cutting.

     The following was the system adopted for members working in the Central Work Rooms:
Each member on being enrolled (registration fee 5/- for full membership, half-fee for short time workers) was allotted a registered number and a blue linen Red Cross overall bearing the same number, which remained the property of the Society. White caps and sleeves were provided by the workers themselves. To promote regularity and steadiness of work a complete and exact record of attendances of each member, giving daily and total number of each half-day of three hours, was kept. Each member on arriving gave her registered number to the Secretary to be recorded. A latitude of 30 minutes was allowed to members travelling from a distance. The hours of work were: - 10-1 and 2-5. In later years, in consequence of air-raids, the necessity for lighting economy, and difficulty of travelling, the Rooms were closed in winter at 4.30. The only time, except during brief summer and winter vacations, in which the Rooms were not open to the public was the period from September 24 to November 19, 1917, during which the rebuilding of the portion of Burlington House shattered by a bomb explosion in the air raid of September 24 was necessary. During the whole of this period of rebuilding, however, despite broken roof, glassless windows and doors, and without any heating apparatus in the wintry weather of October and November, the Central Work Rooms Staff carried on their work every day. A small party of workers co-operated in the making of 400 new overalls in order to replace those destroyed by the explosion.

     On completing three months’ regular work, members were entitled to the Government Voluntary Workers’ Badge, to be returned should work cease during the war. On completing 100 half-days (300 hours) within four months, members were qualified for the Central Work Rooms certificate; and, at Headquarters only, for the Joint Badge of the British Red Cross Society and Order of St. John. On completing 200 half-days (600 hours) a red chevron was attached to the sleeve of the overall; two chevrons for 300 half-days; three chevrons for 400 half-days; a purple and silver chevron for 500 half-days, and a gold embroidered crown for 1,000 half-days. Many members remained working in the Central Work Rooms from the first to the last day they were open. The total number of half-days registered was 107,480, representing three hours each, irrespective of late-comers whose attendances were not recorded towards the Certificates.

     In connection with the Knitting Department, a new industry was promoted by the British Dogs’ Wool Association, that of hand-spinning of the soft wool of long-haired dogs (Pekinese, Chows, Pomeranians, etc.) into yarn and knitting it into warm, very light garments, cardigans, gloves, socks, mufflers, etc. The combings of this wool were collected, sorted, sterilised and then carded and hand-spun. Great interest was taken in this new industry by the National Salvage Council and the Textile Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum, where, since the closing of the Central Work Rooms, some of these dogs’ wool garments have been exhibited.
The total number of articles made in the Central Work Rooms were:-
Garments 75,536, bandages 705,499, a total of 781,035 articles sent to the Stores Department. The number of ladies working in the Rooms was necessarily limited by the space available; in all 1,202 members were enrolled.

     The articles made in the Garments Department included dressing –gowns, shirts (day, night, enteric, helpless case), pyjamas, bed-jackets, kitbags, operation gowns, pants, surgeons’ overalls, hot-water bottle covers, pillow-cases, etc. Of special interest were 1,000 sleeping suits for Mesopotamia where the sufferings of the sick and wounded were greatly increased by the inflammation due to sandflies, against which ordinary pyjamas were no protection. These special suits were made sand-fly proof, with sleeves to cover the hands, trouser ends shaped to fit the feet, and a hood with muslin veil to cover the head. The surgical requisites made included bandages (many-tailed, T., roller, capelines, triangular, abdominal, shoulder, hip, limb, chest and stump), swabs, flat gauze sponges, pneumonia jackets, sphagnum moss dressings, etc.

     The Home Workers registered numbered 1,617. They paid a registration fee of 2/6, provided their own materials, received a registered number, printed labels for dispatch of parcels and regular information as to immediate hospital requirements. Working directly in connection with the Central Work Rooms, they sent in 318,000 garments, and 220,499 surgical articles. These were sorted, checked, packed and dispatched through the Central Work Rooms to the Stores Department. Home Workers qualified for the Central Work Rooms Certificate by sending in 50 approved garments or 100 bandages. And a list, based on the time necessary for making the various articles and specifying the kind and number of articles which would entitle the worker to the Certificate and Government V.W. Badge, was drawn up for their guidance. The latter had to be returned if there was failure to maintain regular work, which was defined to be the sending in of not less than four garments (or an equivalent number of bandages, i.e. 20 roller bandages = 1 garment) each month.

     The Work Parties and Depots registered numbered 2,823 in all parts of the world as well as in this country, representing many thousands of workers, in Havana, Cuba, Jamaica, Savanna, San Francisco, Panama, Ecuador, Brazil, Sierra Leone, Transvaal, Tangier, Casablanca, Mazagan, Larache, the Bermudas, the Azores, Madeira, Assam, Alexandria, New Zealand, Oporto, Paris, Rome, Naples, Turin, Florence, Milan, Anacapri, Amsterdam, Santander, Astillero and Barcelona. The fee for registration was 2/6 per Party irrespective of the number of workers. Every Party was enrolled (a) under its registered number, (b) by the County, and (c) by the name of its Head. To all Parties were sent a small Red Cross flag, bearing their registered number, labels for dispatch of their supplies direct to the Stores Department, papers giving the conditions under which their respective members could qualify for Certificates and Voluntary Workers’ Badges, and periodical information as to Hospital requirements.

     In regard to the conditions it was recognised that no hard and fast regulations could be laid down as applying to all Parties alike. It was obviously not possible for a small country Party with limited financial means, and whose members were possibly poor working women sacrificing their scanty leisure, to comply with regulations as to hours and output suitable for a town Party easily attended by well-to-do members with leisure. All Work Parties therefore were desired to draw up Rules governing their own Party, and it was left to the discretion of the Head of each Party to make the claim on behalf of her workers and vouch for their meritorious work. Every application received individual consideration, and special regard was had to circumstances of difficulty in poor country districts.

     Workers under the age of sixteen were not eligible for Government Badges, but schools, or a class of young workers, could gain the Certificate, either as a separate Work Party duly registered, or if the school or class had worked for a registered Party. The Central Work Rooms further gave much appreciated recognition to a class of very hard workers, necessarily excluded from gaining the Voluntary Workers’ Badge by the terms of its award, those who had collected eggs for hospitals, worked free in hospital gardens, collected funds, and in other ways done special service. To these, upon due application on their behalf, Red Cross Badges were allotted. The issue of the Special Badge of the Central Work Rooms was to Heads of Work Parties of not less than 10 members, after a year’s work subsequent to date of registration.

     The question of increasing cost of materials became a serious one for poor Work Parties towards the end of 1917, and it was then arranged that free materials (flannel and wool) should be issued through the Central Work Rooms to these Parties, and at cost price to those who could afford payment. All applications for materials from registered Work Parties were checked and entered by the Central Work Rooms and returns of the number of garments made. The materials were sent in bulk by the Stores Departments to the Parties. In Ireland the registered Work Parties in Ulster drew their supplies of this material from the Belfast Depot; in the rest of Ireland the Work Parties received their material from Dublin; the St. John’s registered Work Parties in Ireland drew theirs from, and returned their garments to, London.

      The Patterns Department of the Central Work Rooms developed into a very large and important section of the work. It was found, shortly after the Rooms opened, that the existing patterns of hospital garments needed considerable revision and correction in order to economise both the material and the labour of workers. It was necessary entirely to re-cut every garment pattern. In this, the Central Work Rooms had the voluntary assistance of the outfitters, Messrs. Hodgkinson, who placed their experience at the disposal of the Red Cross, and remodelled the designs in accordance with present-day requirements. The Central Work Rooms then had these revised designs cut out in paper patterns, and, further to facilitate making, had each finished garment photographed, as well as diagrams drawn for the use of the cutters-out. The results were embodied in the Pattern Books, which gave full information as to material, amounts, directions and diagrams for cutting out, and (as diagrams do not always convey the desired result to learners) the illustration of the garment completed. The garments of which patterns were thus supplied were pyjamas, flannel vests, flannel pants, taped bed-jackets, dressing gowns, day shirts, night shirts, patients’ operation gowns, enteric shirts, helpless case shirts, felt slippers, hospital slippers and nightingales.

     The same method was adopted and embodied in the Pattern Books in regard to knitted articles, of which single leaflets were also prepared for the making of day socks, heelless bed socks, woollen slippers, knitted caps, knee caps, helmets, cardigans, fingerless mittens, woollen gloves, heelless operation stockings and cap scarves. For all these articles both for garments and knitted goods, the patterns were continuously revised and kept abreast with the changes in quality and quantity necessitated by war conditions and the variation of supplies. Alterations in the widths of flannel and in quality of wool necessarily entailed consequent alterations in the pattern directions.
In regard to bandage patterns, the Central Work Rooms were indebted to leading surgeons, the guidance of whose war experience as to hospital requirements was invaluable. The distribution of so vast a number of patterns was carried on through the Central Work Rooms by means of the Work Parties, the Home Workers, the members of the Rooms themselves, and through the general public who obtained specimens, patterns and direct advice from the Pattern Department and who by a visit to the Rooms could learn the whole process from cutting out to the finished article displayed on the lay figure. Over 41,000 paper patterns and books were thus distributed; and of garments and bandages, etc., patterns cut out in correct hospital material, 6,134 were supplied.


Source:  Reports by the Joint War Committee of the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem in England on Voluntary Aid Rendered to the Sick and Wounded at Home and Abroad and to British Prisoners of War, 1914-1919

Details of 2,787 registered War Hospital Supply Depots and Work Parties will be found on this page. They do not include those groups that worked at Burlington House, nor private individuals who were registered as single home-workers.

War Hospital Supply Depots and Work Parties