THE COOPER FAMILY
Nan Ino Herbert Cooper, 10th Baroness Lucas and 6th Lady Dingwall, set up WW1's first 'country house hospital' when she opened her family home, Wrest Park, to wounded soldiers. In 1918 she hired Sir Edwin Lutyens to make alterations to Bell House.
Born in 1880 in Blandford, Dorset, Nan Herbert was a ‘resourceful and fiercely independent’ woman. Nan was said to be an ‘ardent theosophist’, interested in mystical and occult religions. Once she gave away a house in the New Forest that she had inherited to the ‘Purple Lotus Mother’ of the ‘Universal Brotherhood’ for a theosophist school. She lived for a while in the early 1900s in Cuba where she was director of the Cuba Raja Yoga School, part of a chain of theosophist schools.
After training as a nurse in London, when WW1 broke out in 1914 she took over the setting up and running of her family home, Wrest Park, as a hospital for wounded soldiers. It was the first and probably the best-run of the country house hospitals. Nan hired twenty nurses, noting in her diary: ‘an assortment of nurses came and went – two or three who drank, one who took drugs, stewardesses who wanted to do war work, and probationers who preferred sharing a chair with a patient to finding an empty one’. When there was no matron available, Nan took that on role too. In her diary she wrote: ‘No one had a matron in view, nobody could find one; so finally it was settled I was to step into the post experimentally, and retain it subject to the approval of the medical staff. My dream that night of a huge wave with crest breaking mountains high over my head, expressed my feelings’. Wounded soldiers were met at the local railway station and taken straight to the ‘louse house’ then to the wards. Nan operated a strict policy of moving soldiers on to local convalescent homes as soon as possible, in order to make room for the ever-arriving patients. There were three wards, an operating theatre and x-ray room and while Nan ran the hospital with an energetic and disciplined approach there were also activities to keep up morale such as amateur dramatics, cricket and billiards. Nurse Butler, an Irish woman with ‘wild blue eyes’ and an impish sense of humour used to dress up as an aristocrat and amuse the patients by regally touring the wards asking, ‘And how are you my poor fellow and where were you wounded?’. Nurse Butler also invented a game called ‘Shooting the Dardanelles’ where ‘one of the wheel-chair men’ had to ‘make his way down the length of the ward, whilst all the bed patients opened fire on him with slippers, pillows or anything else available’. A close family friend, J M Barrie of Peter Pan fame, was inspired by Nan to get involved, spending time with the patients and also becoming a sensitive sounding board when difficulties arose between members of staff. Barrie donated £1,000 to help support the hospital and on his regular visits he organised games and entertainments for the patients. Dr Sidney Beauchamp, another family friend, agreed to act as doctor and over 1,600 injured soldiers were treated.
On 14 September 1916 a serious fire put an end to Wrest Park’s time as a hospital, though all the patients were safely evacuated. This may have been when Nan moved to Bell House, as she took a lease around April 1916. In November 1916 Nan’s fighter pilot brother, Bron, who had already lost a leg in the Boer War, went missing when his plane was shot down over Germany. Nan, who had been in Cuba when their father died, rushed to her nearest family, cousins in Taplow where they waited for news and Nan was said to be ‘beyond telling good and brave’ and anguished every time a telegram came or the telephone rang. It wasn’t until December that they heard he had been shot down. He was buried in Germany. Nan then succeeded as the 10th Baroness Lucas and the 6th Baroness Dingwall, as the titles descended in the female as well as the male line. Female peers were not eligible to sit in the House of Lords until after the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act and even then they had to take the government to court in order to exercise that right. They did not win their case until 1958 so Nan never got the chance to take her seat. She was extremely rich, having inherited a large part of her father’s fortune and also over £100,000 from her brother.
In 1917 aged 37 she married Howard Lister Cooper and the couple moved into Bell House, Charlotte Barclay having gone abroad to recuperate from an illness. Their two daughters, Anne Rosemary and Rachel were born while the family were living there. Howard left from Bell House to fight in WW1 where he was mentioned in dispatches and won the Air Force Cross. After the war, like other chatelaines of large houses, Nan found staffing an issue. In 1919 when advertising for a scullerymaid she took the step of mentioning the wages the person would be paid (few adverts did this at the time). The maid was to be paid between £24-26 p.a. and would report to the chef. Perhaps she hoped this honesty would attract more replies than stating the usual ‘good wages’.
After the war Nan had part of the interior and the stables remodelled by. In 1918 Sir Edwin Lutyens submitted plans for the ‘elongation of the existing study towards the south and on the upper floor the construction of two bathrooms and a wardrobe room over an existing flat [roof]’. The application also included a proposal for the removal of the existing conservatory situated at the south end of the drawing room. The Estate approved the alterations but declined to allow the removal of the conservatory which they considered to be in good condition and attractive to future tenants. In March 1919 Lutyens applied to enlarge the entrance hall and provide another bathroom on the upper floor. Again the Estate approved the plans. In October Lutyens asked for ‘conversion of the principal portion of the stable block into quarters for married servants’. The plan entailed the formation of two small flats, one on the ground floor and the other on the upper floor with an estimated cost of £1,400. The Estate were happy because ‘there would still be a garage in the unaltered part of the building’. However, two rainwater pipes from the stable roof discharge into the yard of No. 2 Bell Cottages so the Governors approved the plans subject to the water from the stable roof discharging onto Bell House property instead. Lastly, in 1920 Lutyens submitted plans for alterations to the butler’s pantry, enlarging the servants’ hall and forming a new larder at a cost of £374. Lady Lucas also asked for deferred permission to add two new bathrooms and a housemaids’ pantry at a cost of £384. The Governors gave consent.
In 1921 the Estate granted Nan permission to let the house, fully furnished, to Simon Fraser, the 14th Lord Lovat, his wife Laura and their children, including the future MP Sir Hugh Fraser. The Coopers left Bell House in 1923 though not without a slight altercation with the Estate over dilapidations to Trewyn (what is now Pickwick Cottage and which was evidently still included in the Bell House lease). Lady Lucas wished the dilapidation costs to be nominal as she had spent over £5,000 on Bell House. The Estate were unmoved and insisted on her paying costs of around £600 before she moved to Sussex Square. Before the war Howard had been training as a motor engineer and was possibly racing cars at Brooklands but after the war he continued in the army, retiring as a Lt Col. In the second world war Nan worked as a Land Army girl and in the Women’s Voluntary Service.