The Second Battalion Artists’ Rifles leaving Richmond Park for a route march, headed by their band, 1914
From July 2014 to July 2015 the Hearsum Collection displayed a free exhibition at Pembroke Lodge about Richmond Park’s important role in the First World War.
The Park had army encampments, including a large camp near Roehampton for volunteer rifle regiments and a depot between Roehampton and Robin Hood Gate for the Royal Naval Air Service. Units were trained in the Park for battle, with the cavalry practising their charges across the grasslands.
In 1916, a military hospital for injured South African troops was built in the Park, accessed via a new gate at Cambrian Road. The 12-acre site between Conduit Wood and Bishop’s Lodge was to house over 600 beds, workshops and a concert hall.
The hospital, which continued into the 1920s, performed over 2,000 operations and treated over 9,500 patients, maintaining morale with activities such as concerts and fancy dress parties. Patients, staff and volunteers wrote and published a magazine. Examples of The Springbok Blue – with articles, pictures, poems and cartoons – are preserved in The Hearsum Collection and some are featured in the exhibition.
As the war progressed, German Zeppelin bombing raids terrorised Britain, killing hundreds of civilians. The Government offered £25,000 to anyone who could create a weapon against this new threat. In response, an English inventor, Harry Grindell Matthews, created an “electrical light ray” system, using selenium cells. In a secret experiment on Pen Ponds in December 1915, he successfully demonstrated his invention, using a remotely controlled boat to detonate mines at a distance. Matthews won the £25,000 but the invention was never used, as other means of dealing with Zeppelins were eventually adopted.
The huge effort to fight the war meant that at home many women took on jobs previously reserved for men. To release more soldiers to fight on the front line, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was formed in 1917, and a unit served in the Park.