Within months of the First World War breaking out in July 1914, halls, schools and houses across the country were transformed into makeshift hospitals to deal with the rapidly growing number of wounded and mentally ill soldiers.
The town hall in Highbridge Street, Waltham Abbey, was one such auxiliary military hospital, treating hundreds of casualties from December 1914 onwards.
The convalescent hospital opened after the hall was offered to the War Office by Waltham Holy Cross Urban District Council, one of the predecessors to today’s Epping Forest District Council.
A diary entry at the time by a Mr Charles Farndell shows the haste with which the hospital was set up, going from town hall to medical unit in just a week-and-a-half.
“Orders were received to mobilise this V.A. Detachment on November 24 1914.
“The town hall was cleaned and prepared for a hospital and equipped for 32 beds, nearly everything being lent or given – a dressing room behind the stage had to be turned into a bathroom with bath and geyser.
“An empty (brick) shed was converted into a kitchen, a sink put in, water and gas laid on and two gas stoves.
“This was all done by December 4 and the first patients (five) were sent on from Colchester next day.”
The other beds filled up quickly as devastating trench warfare injured and killed many young men in Europe.
In 1915 a total of 351 cases were admitted to the hospital, 56 of them suffering from a mental illness, likely caused by the harrowing use of artillery and gas shells.
As the number of casualties rose, beds in the main hall increased to 50 in 1917 and a hut was later added with another 14 beds and a bathroom.
Photographs from the time show beds close together, with no screens and little room between them.
“It must have been really crowded,” said Chris Sumner, chairman of the Waltham Abbey Historical Society.
“Any infectious patients were taken to an isolation hospital on the edge of town, which was already there.
“They must have been really worried about infection running through this crowded town hall hospital.”
As well as the main ward, the town hall also had an operating room, a day room and offices.
The hospital was administered by the women of the Essex 16 Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD).
The Lost Hospitals of London website says: “Trained by the British Red Cross in first aid, bed-making, feeding a patient, giving a patient a blanket bath, and keeping a ward clean, their role was mainly a supportive one as nursing assistants.
“However, the rules of their constitution were elastic and they undertook a great variety of work - as cleaners, cooks, ambulance drivers and administrators - according to the needs arising.”
Commandant of the hospital, Honoria Mary Fisher, received an MBE and many British Red Cross war medals were also given out to the nursing assistants.
Having helped hundreds of young men recover during what was once described as the “war to end all wars”, the hospital is believed to have closed in 1919.
Although the hall returned to its normal civic use, Mr Sumner said the auxiliary hospital left an important legacy.
In 1921 the Waltham Abbey public made donations to help open the Waltham Abbey War Memorial Cottage Hospital, which stayed open in Farm Hill Road until 1980.
Mr Sumner said: “After the war, the town made a very sensible decision that rather than erect a war memorial, they would build their own hospital within Waltham Abbey.
“The town hall hospital had made the town realise the importance of having their own hospital.”