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”.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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..."