Magazine article History Today

The Star and Garter Home

Magazine article History Today

The Star and Garter Home

Article excerpt

What for over fifty years I had believed to be the biggest war memorial I had ever seen, the Star and Garter Home for ex-servicemen (and recently women, too), stands four-square in vast neo-classic monumentality dominating the top of Richmond Hill, against the gates of the royal park, overlooking the whole Thames Valley. The Surrey Hills and Windsor Great Park are on the horizon, the bend of the Thames and Eel Pie Island (once the Mecca of Edwardian houseboats) lie below, the Home Park and Hampton Court in middle-distance -- the 'Home Counties' indeed.

But memory always needs checking by records, and official histories should be weighed against contemporary press reports. I even remember as a little boy visiting my uncle there, who lost his leg in 1914 and took his life in the river below in 1936. But he was never there, not on the rolls. The Star and Garter was for the totally disabled: 'The patients admitted are all soldiers and sailors who have been paralysed by being shot through the spin, or brain, the larger proportion being totally paralysed below the waist', said the brochure for the opening on January 14th, 1916. Uncle must just have been visiting one of his old comrades, helped by mother, hindered by me. He was in and out of the Roehampton Hospital for limbless ex-servicemen, the other side of Richmond Park, wearing that dreadful thick-blue serge, familiar from Stanley Spencer's paintings. But then I also remember thinking that churches were war memorials and that a soldier called Christ had died for us all at Paschendale. The whole river bank was like that. The Earl Hague workshops for making the Armistice Day poppies were in Richmond too.

That whole section of river bank between Hampton and Kew practised the cult of the Glorious Dead in a particularly intense form. My mother's cousin Elsie at Twickenham ran the Primrose League, the local poppy sales, 'The Lest We Forget' and the women's Conservative and Unionist Association, and had them hopelessly muddled as all part of that same cult. Indeed, like my father, she refused to recognise the Second World War: it profaned the memory of 'the Glorious Dead' of the Great War, and of all those hospitals visits and taking comforts and suitable reading matter to the colonial regiments camped in the Great Park, the Home Park and Richmond Park, all royal. Elsie told her husband, when he phoned to say that the Admiralty had ordered him to take his river boats to Dunkirk, 'Don't be silly George, don't you know there's a war on' -- the only time, my mother Floss said, that she mentioned it.

Why so intense a cult there? The East Surrey Regimental depot was at Kingston and it was cut to pieces in the first Battle of Loos and the retreat through Belgium in October and November 1914; and the Kings Royal Rifles, my uncle's regiment, while based in Winchester took many recruits from the area, largely through the Church Lads Brigade, also the Dr Barnado's Home on Kingston Hill. So the horror and the heroism hit that area early. And royal and aristocratic patronage was readily available when it became widely discussed that with the war-wounded crowding all existing hospitals, there was no specific provision for the totally disabled.

Edward VII's widow, Queen Alexandra, had a house in Richmond Park, and along the river bank, Kingston Hill and Richmond Hill, were still many fashionable residences of the fast set of the aristocracy and the nouveaux riches. Before the commuter railway, the old Star and Garter Hotel had been the pinnacle of high fashion, a couple of hours trot down from town into fresh air and an elegant pretend-privacy; exiled-crowned heads galore had stayed there. But by the 1890s, E.M. Barry's monstrous masterpiece of 1864 (in the same French chateaux style as Charing Cross Station), was falling into disrepute and disrepair.

So when the Auctioneer's and Estate Agents' Institute raised the money in 1915 to buy the then empty and semiderelict pile, Queen Mary was prevailed upon to be patroness and to appoint a most prestigious governing body including Sir Arthur Stanley, GBE, CB, MVO, MP (chair), Viscountess Cowdray, Viscount Farquhar, Lord Leverhulme and the Surgeon General. …

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