LETTERS from the First World War uncovered during building work at the Brighton Dome Corn Exchange have given a fascinating glimpse into what life was like for hospitalised soldiers.
The personal letters, some in fragments, were found along with other items including cigarette packets, newspaper cuttings and a toothpaste tube.
And their location, in rear cladding on the Corn Exchange, implies soldiers may have sneaked out of the ward to read their letters privately, according to Michael Shapland, historic building specialist at Archaeology South East.
He says, “The letters came from behind the rear cladding to the timber frame of the Corn Exchange, rather than from within the timber frame. Essentially, the letters could only have got there by being dropped from above into a narrow void behind the Corn Exchange hall, rather than being inserted at ground level from within the hall itself.
“The interesting thing about this context is the presence of a skylight precisely above where the letters, together with the other ephemera, would have been dropped. We can, therefore, begin to tell a little story here, whereby soldiers packed into the busy infirmary ward itself would have sneaked off to quiet corners of the building such as the roof-space to have a fag
One letter, dated 20 April 1918 from a JC Cocks, a patient at Queen Mary’s Hospital, Roehampton, to his friend Brown, a patient at the Pavilion hospital, reads, “I dare say you are expecting a letter from me as to how they are treating me at the above. Well, it is not too bad here at all, it is a little out of the way, we find this especially so in bad weather as amusements are not next door to the hospital as at the pavilion. I am being fitted with a [illegible] arm (a French make) it is very light in weight and will suit my purpose very well. I don’t think this arm is suitable for manual labour & what I have seen of the arms I should think a Anderson + Whitelaws would suit you.”
In another letter, a private writes from Boulogne base, “Dear Fred, I hope you are much better now. I have had another turn in hospital. I fell down and grazed my eye and knee and got some fluid under the knee cap: but it has got quite alright now. I was carrying a tray of Beef and tripped over a sack of harness.”
A third letter, which was torn into fragments and dated 25 August 1918, was addressed to ‘My Dear May’ from a patient in ‘Section D 120, The Pavilion, Brighton’.
Among the collection of other items found with the letters were a knife, match and cigarette packets, bottles, newspaper cuttings including from The Times of India, sweet wrappers, a toothpaste tube and boot polish.
Dr Michael Shapland will give a talk about the finds and Quaker burials discovered on the site called From Quaker Cemetery to Great War Hospital: New Archaeological Discoveries at Brighton Corn Exchange at the Brighton Dome, Church Street, Brighton, from 1-2pm on Sunday September 10 as part of Heritage Open Day.
Above: the First World War letters and, below, the collection of objects found at the Brighton Dome Corn Exchange