the front cover and frontispiece of the notebook

Autograph book presented to Mrs E. F. Darlow


This beautiful book dates from 1919. The letters E.F.D., embossed on the front cover in gold, are the initials of Ellen Frances Darlow, for whom the book was specially made to thank her for her work as commandant of a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) Hospital in Northwood, Middlesex, during World War I. It was a hospital that was very unusual – perhaps even unique – in being housed in a church.

Across the UK there were over 3,000 temporary wartime hospitals run jointly by the Order of St. John and the British Red Cross Society. The patients at these VAD hospitals generally did not have life-threatening injuries but needed time to convalesce.

The hospital in Northwood came into existence thanks to the generosity of the congregation of St John’s Presbyterian Church who lent the church’s buildings – but initially not the church itself – for use as a hospital.

The first commandant, in charge of the hospital, was a woman called Mrs Carmalt-Jones, while Mrs Darlow was the quartermaster, responsible for looking after all the hospital’s provisions. Mrs Carmalt-Jones reported that “the Quartermaster [Mrs Darlow] is excellent, her accounts well-kept and all food is ordered by her”.

In June 1915, Mrs Carmalt-Jones moved to become the matron at the Allied Forces Base Hospital at Etaples, northern France, and Mrs Darlow became commandant of the Northwood VAD Hospital. Mrs Darlow’s husband, Rev. Thomas Darlow, was also involved, running discussion classes at the hospital.

When the hospital was first set up they had difficulty in getting the War Office to send them patients. Mrs Carmalt-Jones wrote in a letter at the beginning of November 1914, “Our hospitals of 36 beds, have been ready over a week and if you can do anything towards getting patients for us we should be very much obliged. This Detachment is in the rather unique position of having turned a congregation out of their church! And they do not fear to let us know it!”

On Thursday 19 November they finally received their first 18 patients, 14 English and four Belgian. Two days later they were sent another nine. The hospital was in full swing. Initially having 36 beds, the hospital quickly grew. In spring 1915 they hired a small house next door, Lea Croft, and 10 extra beds were installed there. In autumn 1915 an additional ward was constructed in the field beside the church, providing an extra 50 beds.

The beginning of Battle of the Somme resulted in an urgent need for yet more beds and so by the end of July 1916 the church congregation had given up the church itself and begun worshipping instead in a temporary iron hall known affectionately as the “tin tabernacle”. The hospital now had 100 beds, but it still needed more. In March 1917, they asked to take over the tin tabernacle as well, and so from May 1917 onwards the congregation worshipped instead at the nearby Emmanuel Church.

After four years, relief finally came on 11 November 1918 with the signing of the armistice which marked the end of the war. Mrs Darlow immediately asked that the ward in the church itself be closed so that the congregation could move back in. This was done within a week and the congregation returned to worship there on 8 December 1918. The church still exists to this day and is known now as St John’s United Reformed Church.

On 31 January 1919 Northwood VAD hospital closed, having nursed 2,374 ill and wounded soldiers over the time of its operation. To thank her for her work in leading the hospital, Mrs Darlow was presented in 1919 with the beautiful red leather-bound book.

A dedication on the first page reads, “We your neighbours and friends hope you will accept the accompanying Salver as a token of the appreciation of the good work you have done, and the devotion you have shown as Commandant of our Hospital during the Great War.” A salver, such as the dedication refers to, is a tray, usually made of silver, which is often given ceremonially.

Following the dedication are fourteen pages of autographs including those of Mrs Maud Featherstone, who took over from Mrs Darlow as quartermaster, and Mr Christopher Addison, who was a member of the Church Committee which saw the opening of the church and later, as a Liberal Party Politian, was appointed to set up and lead the Ministry of Reconstruction.

In total there are nearly a hundred signatures, showing just how appreciated Mrs Darlow’s work was. She also received both a War Service Badge and an MBE in recognition of her work.

A lot of research has been done into VAD Hospital Northwood which has informed this collection highlight. In particular:

Toms, P. 2007. The VAD Hospitals at Northwood and Eastcote during World War I. Ruislip, Northwood & Eastcote Local History Society Journal. Pp. 10-21. Available online:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Northwood Community Arts. 2014. The Northwood VAD Hospital, St John’s Church, 1914-1919. TSL Publications. Available for purchase:


The Museum of the Order of St John would like to thank all those who have supported and continue to support its work. In particular, the Museum would like to thank the following for their generosity: