Brighton Museums will explore the city's role as a centre of recuperation and healing for the Centenary of the First World War
The curious domes of Brighton's Georgian pleasure Palace, the Royal Pavilion, have welcomed many visitors in their time. But during the First World War the Mayor of Brighton, John Otter, hit upon the idea of using the Mughal inspired home of George IV as a hospital for Indian soldiers.
© Brighton & Hove City Council
Brighton had already become a centre for the recuperation of troops, with hospitals and converted schools spilling over with soldiers in their distinctive "hospital blues" uniforms, but approximately 12,000 Indian troops were treated in the town between late 1914 and early 1916.
The Pavilion’s role in this story is relatively well-known in Brighton – and a much-cherished aspect of the history of the city’s response to the war.
Less well remembered is the protective fence erected around the grounds. Some say it was to keep the Indian and the local populations apart, but inside the needs, beliefs and diets of the men were - by all accounts - sensitively catered for.
The role of the Pavilion was cemented when the Maharajah of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh, opened the Indian Gate within its grounds as a thank you to the town for its military hospitals in 1921.
Brighton Pavilion and its Indian soldiers is just one of the themes being explored as Brighton Museums plan for the First World War centenary with a range of exhibitions and events across various sites.
The Royal Pavilion already has a permanent display, the Indian Military Hospital Gallery, which explores the building’s role in the Great War through archive photographs, letters, talks and a new programme of tours. Now Brighton’s wider role as a healthful hotspot for recuperating soldiers will be explored in an outdoor exhibition, Dr Brighton’s War: Hospitals and Healing in Brighton during WW1 (July 9 – August 31 2014).
As a seaside resort the city was ideally suited to entertaining young men and distracting them from the horrors of war. More importantly, Brighton played its part in retraining the seriously injured and preparing them for their integration back into society after life-changing injury.
The exhibition features images from photographs, postcards and posters held in the Royal Pavilion and Museums’ collections and, with its location right on the seafront, it has the potential to engage thousands of people.
Another exhibition central to the city’s programme for the Centenary is War Stories: Voices from the First World War (July 12 – March 1), currently in development at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, where curators are researching stories and interviewing local people, recording family histories and sourcing memorabilia.
Focussing on the experiences of 12 people whose personal stories reveal the impact of the war, it promises a range of voices and perspectives; from soldiers on the Western Front and women on the front line, to a conscientious objector and a child growing up in wartime.
At the relatively sedate Preston Manor, to the north of the city, Steeplechasing Shell Holes: A Young Man’s War (April 1 – September 30) will tell the story of Vere Benett-Stanford, the heir to Preston Manor who served in the Royal Artillery in France via his personal archive material including photographs, letters and medals.
Evidently the history of Brighton and the First World War can be explored on many levels, but perhaps the most enduring legacy can be found on the Downs above the city at the Chattri.
The memorial and cremation site for the Indian soldiers who didn’t recover from wounds sustained serving the empire remains a symbol of a town’s role and the attitude of its people.
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