Highbury ceased to be a family home after Joseph Chamberlain’s death in 1914 and in May 1915 it became an Auxiliary Hospital for treating wounded soldiers, particularly orthopaedic cases. Throughout Britain many buildings including schools, colleges, church halls and private homes became auxiliary hospitals for nursing the growing numbers of casualties. The auxiliary hospitals were under the direction of a general hospital, in Birmingham this was the First Southern General Hospital at the University’s Edgbaston campus. This hospital nursed the most serious cases that were then sent to other hospitals to convalesce, though such hospitals carried out operations and further treatments.
When Highbury opened it provided 150 beds in nineteen wards in the principal bedrooms and reception rooms, with an operating theatre in the former smoking room of Austen and Neville Chamberlain. The large central hall was the dining room and the Palm House was a recreation room with a billiard table. A large wooden hut, the gift of Sir Barry Jackson, served as an open air ward and was positioned opposite the front door. A gym was set up in the former potting room. The staff were a mixture of professional nurses and Red Cross and St John Voluntary Aid Detachments under the direction of a Commandant and a matron, and a quartermaster who was in charge of the finances. The VADS were mainly women but men also volunteered for duty, and the VAD roles included nurses, dispensers, parlourmaids, housemaids, drivers, clerks, and cooks but there were also paid domestic staff together with male orderlies employed by the military. Highbury was run by a committee chaired by the brewer, Sir John Holder, who lived nearby at Pitmaston, and other committee members were the wives of the directors of Kynoch’s Ltd, the ammunition firm whose employees paid for equipping and running Highbury plus an allowance from the War Office for the feeding and clothing of the patients. When the Chamberlains had left Highbury in December 1914 the furniture and pictures not wanted by the family, together with the exotic plant collections, including the orchids, had been auctioned off.
Increasingly Highbury had to provide more beds, the Palm House became a ward in June 1916 and by February 1917 several of the glasshouses in the south facing ranges had been adapted as wards. By August 1918 the number of beds had been increased to 240. The main lodge had been used to provide accommodation for nurses from December 1915 whilst others slept in the former servants’ rooms in the attics. Chamberlain’s study and the dining room became treatment rooms for electrical massage. Workshops for teaching trades were set up in the rest of south range of glasshouses and instruction in poultry keeping and gardening was given in the kitchen garden.
In January 1918 Highbury came under the control of Military Orthopaedic Hospital at Hollymoor and a year later it ceased to operate as an auxiliary hospital run by VADs passing into the control of the Birmingham War Pensions Committee, and treated disabled ex- soldiers until 1932.