Sister Rachel Crosby Grainger

- Stokesley Hospital's Unsung Heroine

Rachel Grainger was the only qualified nurse at Stokesley Manor House Hospital during the First World War. As Sister there, it was her responsibility to ensure that the Red Cross nurses who made up her staff understood and carried out their tasks professionally. This made Rachel the key figure in the care of the wounded soldiers sent to recuperate there. However, as the hospital was one of the so-called Base Hospitals set up under the aegis of the Red Cross, the Stokesley Hospital is usually connected in the popular mind with the name of Ann Gjers, its commandant. Mrs Gjers was indeed responsible for the hospital and without her industry and personal 'clout' it may well not have succeeded. Nevertheless, the expertise of Sister Grainger was undoubtedly crucial to the welfare and recovery of the patients, and a recognition of her work seems long overdue.

Rachel Crosby Grainger was born in Hartlepool in 1887. Her father, Barton Grainger had been born in Robin Hood’s Bay but moved to West Hartlepool when he was four. Barton was a well-known figure in his adopted town. He was a butcher by trade but also involved in property-buying and politics. He was also a member of the Wesleyan church and at one time choirmaster of the Wesleyan church in Musgrave Street. He was elected to Hartlepool’s first town council and was made a town Alderman in 1895.


Left: Barton Grainger’s shop in Hartlepool

Centre: Barton Grainger in his ceremonial robes as Alderman in the town

Right: Rachel's First Hospital - the Cameron Hospital in Hartlepool


In the 1901 census, Rachel is shown as living with her family in Stockton Street, Stranton, Hartlepool, but she trained as a nurse at the miners' hospital in Eston and by 1911 she was working at the Cameron Hospital back ib Hartlepool. This hospital had been erected in 1905 with money from a gift given by the Cameron family. It was a general hospital with 2 wards and a total of 40 beds. Rachel's subsequent rise to the position of Sister suggests that she was an intelligent, devoted and industrious nurse, qualities which would soon be in even greater demand when war broke out and wounded men were being sent back to England in increasing numbers for treatment.


Left: Rachel Crosby Ellerby (nee Grainger)

Former Sister at the Manor House VAD Hospital, Stokesley

- from the Ellerby Family Tree on the Ancestry website.

Right: Inscribed solid silver rosebowl

- presented to Sister Grainger in May 1918 to commemorate her work there.

Stokesley Manor House Hospital was one of the new 'Base Hospitals' (also known as Auxiliary Military Hospitals established to meet the wartime emergency' when it was expected that large numbers of military casualties would need to be accommodated. It opened to its first patients on 28th October, 1914 under its Commandant Mrs Anne Gjers and her Yorks/42 Voluntary Aid Detachment. Rachel became Sister at the hospital in October, 1915. Whether she had risen to this position before her appointment to Stokesley Hospital is unknown, but her new role was extremely demanding in that it carried the considerable responsibility of overseeing the work of the hospital's volunteer Red Cross nurses, whose own training was limited to first aid and basic patient care. It is a measure of Rachel's success that patients who had spent time at Stokesley are said to have talked about their experiences to their comrades after they had returned to the trenches, and always in glowing terms.

Apart from the medical care the men received, the hospital staff and local people did their best to provide them with a little luxury and entertainment. Dramatic 'productions' and musical evenings featuring staff and patients were staged at the Manor House, and several well-to-do local families entertained patients in their own homes - including the Turton family at Kildale Hall, the Marwoods at Busby, and the Richardsons at Potto. Such events generally included musicians, singers and plays as well as a tea. It must all have seemed a very far cry from Flanders Fields. For many of the wounded it must have been a glimpse into a wonderland - one which in other circumstances they would never have encountered.

Rachel herself appears to have been much loved and respected by her patients, some of whom wrote to her afterwards from France, to recall fond memories of the the times they had spent in Stokesley, and to express again their sincere appreciation of the treatment and care they had experienced. Rachel remained in her Manor House post until May, 1918. (The hospital remained open until January 1919). Many photographs of her survive, and in every one she presents as smiling, positive and happy. Perhaps it was as much for this side of her character as for her professionalism that Rachel's patients remembered her so fondly. The nurses and staff of the hospital must have seen her in the same light, as in May 1918 they showed their own appreciation of her work by presenting her with an inscribed silver rose bowl as a mark of their respect when Rachel left the hospital in May. She must have been a remarkable lady, as apart from her responsibilities towards her staff and patients she had her own health problem to contend with - an ear problem which in 1916 had already caused her to begin to lose her hearing. The exact cause of this was the subject of disagreement amongst the doctors who treated her, but it seems that there was little that could be done to prevent the disability progressing.

Not every moment of Rachel's time in Stokesley can have been spent in work however, and it was probably during this period that she met bank manager John Foster Ellerby. John had been born in 1875 at Nunthorpe, and was named after his father who had been a farmer. The 1911 census records John, aged 36, as living in Brook House Stokesley with his widowed mother. His occupation was listed as “bank clerk in charge”.1

At the outbreak of war in 1914, John would have been 39 and by the time conscription came into force he was already over 40 years old and so beyond the statutory age for military service. Living in the town himself, John may well have met and befriended Rachel whilst she was working at the VAD hospital in Stokesley. They were both of relatively mature age, but Rachel's work would have precluded her marrying earlier, as by the rules in force at that time she would not have been allowed to continue as Sister once married. Rachel undoubtedly loved her profession and certainly achieved a great deal in her career. The Stokesley Hospital alone (with 60 beds) had successfully cared for more than 800 patients, all of whom survived - and many of whom indeed were destined to rejoin the conflict. Towards the end of 1918, when Rachel was no longer working at the Stokesley hospital, the rules about married women not working were no longer a matter for her concern.


John Foster Ellerby and Rachel Crosby Grainger married on 29th October, 1918, just a fortnight before the Armistice was signed. John was manager of the Midland Bank (South Bank branch) and Rachel was back in Hartlepool, where the marriage (reported in the local press) took place in the Methodist Chapel in Victoria Road. On Rachel's marriage certificate (shown left) Barton Grainger, Rachel's father, is listed as 'retired butcher'. He 'gave away' his daughter at the ceremony, which was reported in the Hartlepool press. Rachel's profession, however, seems not have been acknowledged!

Rachel and John Ellerby had two children, Margaret Jane and John Foster.

Margaret was born in August 1919 and married John Pluck in 1946. Margaret died in 2010.
John Foster Ellerby Jr was born in March 1926 and married Jane Dick in 1953. John and Jane Ellerby lived in Stokesley for several years and all three of their children went to school there. John passed away in 2008.

Rachel Grainger and John Foster Ellerby were married for 35 years, until John died in 1953. On John's death, an obituary was written which Rachel copied into her diary. Her husband had obviously been a well-known figure. However, when Rachel passed away in 1971, she sadly received no accolades. It seems that in 1971 nobody remembered, or at least nobody thought to commemorate her sterling service in the First World War.

The authors of this site hope that this small tribute provides at least some of the recognition that is due for the work of this remarkable woman.

More information and pictures on the Stokesley Manor House Hospital

Click to see the VAD PHOTO showing the full staff of the Manor Hospital

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