A Bush hospital in the heart of England

07 June 2016 by Craig Blanch

The Great War had already entered its third year by the time the first edition of Coo-ee!, the magazine of one of the most remarkable “Australian” military hospitals of the war, was released. Coo-ee!, first published in England on 10 November 1916, was the journal of the Bishop’s Knoll War Hospital. The inaugural edition was dedicated “to the first thousand sick and wounded Australian soldiers who were patients at Bishop’s Knoll Hospital”.

Bishops Knoll

The founder and patron of the hospital, British born Robert Edwin Bush, had made his fortune as a pastoralist in Western Australia. The twenty-two year old Bush arrived in Australia in 1877 and soon established a pastoral empire of some 2 million acres in the Gascoyne region. In 1890 he was nominated to Western Australia’s first Legislative Council under responsible government and served until 1893. He returned to England in the years leading up to the war and took up the palatial residence, Bishop’s Knoll, in his ancestral hometown of Bristol.

Within days of the declaration of war, Bush and his wife Margery moved into a small cottage on the estate and immediately began converting their home into a hospital for wounded and sick soldiers. By the 26th August 1914, Bishop’s Knoll was converted from a stately manor to a supplementary military hospital, with a 100 bed capacity. The first patients arrived in September - British casualties from the costly Battle of Mons fought the previous month.

    Pre-war opulence*The room transformed into Ward 1 of Bishop's Knoll Hospital*

In October, with Australia now committing its own contingents to the war, Bush sought to repay the country that had given him so much. He offered the Australian government, through the Australian War Contingent Association, exclusive use of his hospital for the care of Australian casualties. The authorities quickly accepted, but Bush was so taken aback at the conditions imposed, including that he relinquished control of the facility, that he quickly withdrew the offer.


Bishop’s Knoll’s reputation for patient care and management grew and by year’s end the British War Office ordered that it form a section of the 2nd Southern General Hospital.  It proved to be something of a family affair. Bush’s brother, Lieutenant Colonel James Paul Bush, had established the 2nd Southern General Hospital prior to the war and commanded the complex until 1917. The decision by the war office also gave Bush’s hospital the right to receive patients directly from the front - high praise indeed for a private institution at the time.

Not content to merely administer Bishop’s Knoll, Bush would often act as an orderly while Margery spent the war as quartermaster as well as head cook in the kitchen, assisted by their daughter Charlotte.


Bush brushed aside the failed negotiations with Australian authorities and by his own initiative dedicated his hospital to the treatment of members of the Australian Imperial Force exclusively. By late 1915, Bishop’s Knoll was accepting wounded and sick Australians from Gallipoli, including John Hamilton who had won a Victoria Cross at Lone Pine. Hamilton was recovering from illness at the hospital when he first learned of his decoration.

John Hamilton VC in standard hospital uniform*

Ernest Morris Hughes, the son of Australia’s wartime prime minister William Morris Hughes, was also a patient at Bishop’s Knoll. “I cannot express how grateful we are to you, your husband and nursing staff”, wrote Hughes’s mother to Margery, “for the very kind treatment and attention Ernest received during his stay at your Hospital.” In contrast, the prime minister ruled that as Bishop's Knoll was not under Australian administration, Bush would not be eligible for tax concessions for monies spent supporting the hospital.


Private Wilfred William Stumbles of Wollongong, NSW was admitted from Gallipoli in October 1915. Of Bishop’s Knoll he wrote: “I was 1 of 12 lucky ones who were selected to be sent to this hospital. [Bush is] the finest man you could ever wish to meet and personally superintends all the doings of the hospital. So far as hospitality goes, they cannot do enough for us. Motor car drives, pictures and variety shows, and teas. I can safely say that three days out of every six we are out somewhere.”

Typical of the outings enjoyed by patients at the hospital*

Stumbles’ opinion was typical of those that found themselves at Bush’s facility. Private George Jeffs of South Gippsland, Victoria, writing to his father shortly after his arrival at Bishop’s Knoll with shrapnel wounds, penned “This hospital belongs to some rich gentleman, who has fitted it out all through with the best of hospital stuff out of his own pocket. He came around the first night and gave us plenty of cigarettes, and he comes up every morning to see how we are getting along, bringing along the daily papers. There is the motor car when we get up and concerts and everything, and about a nurse to every two patients, so we are in for a pretty good time.”

Convalescing in the winter garden of Bishop's Knoll*

Jeffs returned to the front only to be killed in action near Gueudecourt on 12 December 1916, realising one of the hospital staff’s greatest fears. There were others including Lance Corporal Ernest Russell McLure, who was released after treatment for severe nephritis in May 1917 and killed by a single sniper’s bullet near Broodseinde in October, and Lance Corporal Reg Perrin, nurtured back to health from severe gunshot wounds in 1917 only to be killed by an enemy shell near Harbonnieres a few months later. Mr A. G. 'Archie' Powell, the editor of Coo-ee! and described by Bush as a god-father figure to the Australians, wrote that it “seems the cruellest stroke of all. Many men were nursed back to life and strength at Bishop's Knoll, only to be sent back to those insatiable trenches..."

Private George Jeffs. He recovered from his wounds at Bishop's Knoll but was killed in action later in France.

There were those patients who were beyond even the best of care, and their deaths were keenly felt. When Private Frederick George Robinson died, his attending doctor wrote to Robinson’s widow: “I can assure you that everything that was humanly possible from a medical and nursing standpoint was done for him but it was not to be. We had nearly cured him of his wounds, but indirectly the poison had got right through his system. We all felt your husband’s death very greatly, for he was with us for over four months, and during that long and dreary time he endeared himself to all who came in contact with him.”

Robinson’s burial took place in ‘Soldier’s Corner’ at Bristol’s Arnos Vale Cemetery, the final resting place of all Australians who died at the hospital. The next of kin were advised that Robinson “was accorded a Military Funeral, Gun Carriage, party of Pall Bearers and [a]bugler of the Gloucester Regiment…A party of Australian soldiers (patients) and Nursing Staff of the Bishop’s Knoll Hospital were present at the funeral. Mr R. E. Bush, Commandant of the Hospital was also present”.

Miss Gwen Prout who was awarded the Royal Red Cross for her services as matron at Bishops Knoll Hospital in 1917* 

Private John James Simpson was mortally wounded during Australia’s first major engagement in France at Fromelles. He died only a few days after arriving at Bishop’s Knoll but his passing was nevertheless marked with the same solemnity. Simpson’s coffin was draped in an Australian flag with floral wreaths and borne through the city on an open carriage. The funeral cortege included Bush, Powell, Miss Gwen Prout the hospital’s matron, and around 60 patients as well as nursing staff.

Private John James Simpson. He lived for only a few days after his arrival at the hospital.

Bush’s commitment to his patients is apparent in an incident he related to Powell when the latter was researching his Short History of Bishop’s Knoll Hospital. In the exchange Bush tells of a patient who it was obvious would not survive. “We did all that was humanely possible to save him but the poor fellow was shot to pieces. We knew that he had to die, so we put a nurse to stay with him to the end, and to help him through the last hard journey with human kindliness and sympathy.”

Stories of tragedy however could not overshadow the high opinion of the facility. The hospital received hundreds of letters from ex-patients and next of kin praising their care and devotion. Most patients resumed their duties and survived the war or were returned home due to their injuries.

Some re-emerged from the barest spark of life. For Sergeant Walter Richard Flindell, there was little hope. He arrived at Bishop’s Knoll with his right arm and leg shattered by gunshot wounds. The right arm was amputated at the shoulder joint and the leg at mid-thigh. For 10 weeks the worst was expected but he slowly improved. One of Bush’s most prized photographs, taken in 1920, was of a beaming Flindell on his wedding day with new bride Olive. He died in Perth in 1968, aged 75.

The flag of the Red Cross flew above Bishop’s Knoll from August 1914 until the hospital was decommissioned in early 1919. It is estimated that between 2000 and 3000 soldiers were cared for over the course of the war. During that time, the financial burden of establishing, equipping, staffing and running the hospital, as well as producing Coo-ee! was borne entirely by Bush.

Following the war, almost until the year of his death, Bush sent copies of newspaper articles of the annual Anzac Day Pilgrimage and Memorial Service held at Arnos Vale Cemetery to the families of those that had died at his hospital. He and Margery organised the Anzac services from 1921. He actively encouraged contact from former patients or the next of kin of those that died, particularly during his frequent visits to Australia.

In 1918 Margery's efforts were recognised with the Order of the British Empire. Robert was unsuccessfully recommended for a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George by the Western Australian government in 1920, a State Order that would have granted him a knighthood. He was later appointed Knight of Grace of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, a Royal Order of Chivalry in 1923.

With the war over, former patients founded the Bishop’s Knoll Old Comrades Society, with Powell elected as the society's Home Secretary. In 1939 Bush was visiting Australia and hosted the society for what would be his last time. Of the new war that threatened he said: “I can’t think that it can happen again. It is incredible that war should come upon us. But, if it does, Bishop’s Knoll is still there, waiting to minister to the boys who need help and comfort – of that you can be quite sure.”

Bush died at his beloved Bishop’s Knoll on 29 December 1939 before he could fulfil his promise, yet his family continued to pay a high price for service. Fifteen months after his death, his son, Lieutenant-Commander John Edward Scott Bush, was killed serving with HMS Kipling during the evacuation of allied soldiers from Crete in May 1941. One year later, another son, 20 year old Pilot Officer Richard Edwin Bush was killed when his aircraft was lost in April 1942. Flight Lieutenant Francis Colin Scott, the husband of only 11 months to Bush’s daughter Diana, was killed in action in October 1940.

Following Bush’s death, Bishop’s Knoll was bought by the Bristol Aircraft Company as a school for apprentices, and later used as a nurse’s training college. The grand old home was razed to build flats in the early 1970s. What remains of the hospital is this 35 kilogram bronze plaque that once adorned the entry foyer to the home. It was a gift to the Bushes from the British based Australian War Contingent Association following the hospital’s closure in 1919. It was donated to the Australian War Memorial at around the time of Bishop’s Knoll’s destruction.

*Images reproduced from 1917 and 1918 Bishop's Knoll Christmas albums from the AWM photograph collection.