POLISHED until they gleam, the brass plaques tell a tale of loss and love.
Killed at Ypres, killed at Ypres, killed at Ypres many read, though others lost their lives in other bloody battles on the fields of Flanders or the beach of Gallipoli.
These letterbox-sized remembrances to those who were killed by German artillery fire or grenades 100 years ago during the First World War, paid for by the grieving families they left behind, now line the wall of the entrance to the veteran’s accommodation at Whitefoord House, the Canongate home of around 80 ex-servicemen and women.
But for years they were left to tarnish and blacken in boxes after being taken down from above the beds which used to line the home’s dormitories during a modernising refurbishment.
Discovered again recently they have been rededicated and rehung, along with oak plaques commemorating the dead – one which was designed by Sir Robert Lorimer, the creator of the National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle, for a Mrs W G McLaren who lost both her sons while they served in South Africa.
It was the same Mrs McLaren of Bannockburn whom today’s veterans, and all those who have found shelter at Whitefoord since it opened its doors in 1910, have to thank for there being a place for them to stay when they found themselves demobbed and jobless or divorced and homeless, suffering post-traumatic stress disorder or drinking too much.
It was her donation of £10,000 which kick-started the plans of two Seaforth Highlanders, Charles Pelham Burn and Chilton Lind Addison-Smith, to open a fit-for-purpose home for veterans down on their luck.
“They were in Edinburgh and discovered the terrible conditions many veterans were living in back then,” says Whitefoord’s marketing and fundraising manager Susie Hamilton.
“They found 80 soldiers crammed into a hall with nothing but loose straw to sleep on and fire a major risk to them. They set up a meeting with people interested in the welfare of veterans and it was decided to find a residence for them.
“The great and good donated and they raised enough to rent Whitefoord House and then they received Mrs McLaren’s donation and so they bought the place outright.
“More money had to be raised to furnish the place and so a bazaar was held in Waverley Market and every Scottish regiment had a stall. It was amazing how quickly it all happened.”
And so the Scottish Naval and Military Veterans’ Residences was founded as a charity, and Whitefoord – which had once been the town home of Sir John Whitefoord before he lost his money in a banking crash – opened with spacious dormitories able to offer 220 men a home, or somewhere to sleep.
“It was massive,” says Susie, a former Royal Navy engineer. “There were older veterans who had a military pension who would pay for their rooms and stay permanently, and then there were the casuals, the destitute who could stay the night and get their breakfast. Then there was the First World War and everything changed.”
In 1914, A and C companies of the Royal Scots were billeted at Whitefoord, and the following year saw more than 100 of the National Reserves take up residence. By 1915 Whitefoord closed its casual dorms because all the young veterans had signed up again and gone to fight in France.
The war took its toll on Whitefoord in other ways. The Secretary of the charity, Captain William Johnstone Reid of the Seaforth Highlanders, went off to fight and died in 1915 from wounds received in action. Another of the executive committee Lt Col James Clark – who was also chair of the St Leonard’s school – was killed in action at Hooge on May 10, 1915 and at least four sons of committee members never returned.
And by the time the war was over the demand for its facilities was overwhelming. In fact it is believed Whitefoord has, over the years, given comfort and shelter to at least 2000 veterans of the Great War.
“So many men died, but the number of returning veterans was also very large,” says Susie. “But at the same time other charities were set up to help, so it wasn’t all just on the SVR [Scottish Veterans Residence as the charity is now known]. There was the Earl Haig Fund and Erskine – we all had to work together. In fact the first poppy factory set up by Lady Haig was in Whitefoord.”
She adds: “But it was also a time when more people, rather than the just the titled and well-off, realised the need for Whitefoord. When it was opened people were able to sponsor a bed and put a plaque above it commemorating someone they had lost in service, mostly from the Boer War or from India. After the First World war there were many donations and the plaques all related to a loved one they had lost during the battles. Some of those are the plaques which we found and have had put up again to commemorate the centenary of the war.”
A second residence was also gifted to the charity as a result of the war. Rosendael in Broughty Ferry was given to the SVR by the Kyd family who lost their son Frank at the Somme, giving the charity a chance to expand.
These days Whitefoord is very different. The exterior is painted a calming white and blue, the dormitories are long gone and of course residents no longer have to do odd jobs and can’t be banned from drinking – although those with problems are offered support and help. Nowadays it’s a place where each veteran has his or her (though there are only two female residents) own room with en-suite facilities.
“We have older residents who come to us because they are widowed and don’t want to live alone. Then we have younger men who’ve maybe only served a short time and who need help to move on to employment and finding their own place. And we have the men in the 40s to 60s age group who are maybe divorced and become homeless as a result and need somewhere safe and secure. We are here to help them all and help them move on too.
“Everyone has a support plan. We do have a waiting list but it’s never very long as people do move on and back out to general society. Our turnaround is high, but for those who want to stay, well this is their home and we can look after them for as long as they want. We have 79 people staying at the moment but we have 87 rooms to offer. We’ve also just built a new place in Glasgow which has 51 flats for younger veterans as through Afghanistan and Iraq their numbers are increasing.”
Whitefoord costs around £2.5 million a year. “Most of that is paid through housing benefit received by our residents,” said Susie. “So they pay their way. But it doesn’t cover the utilities or food or anything else we do like buying carpets and clothes or razors for those moving on or who just have nothing, so we have to fundraise. We work with other charities like the Earl Haig Fund who fundraise and then donate money to us, and of course there are grants, but we do need to raise around £100,000 a year.”
Susie adds: “It would be good to think we could shut down tomorrow because there was no need, but that’s just not the case. We help anyone who has served even just a day in the services, and we will be doing it for as long as we can.”
Three meals a day but no pay made for austere stay
WHEN veterans wanted to stay at Whitefoord House in 1910 they had to sign a form promising to behave themselves which stated they agreed “to abide by all the rules and regulations of the residence. I fully understand that I am to get no wages but will receive full board and lodging”.
Drinking, smoking and gambling were banned, beds had to be made by 5.30am on weekdays and 8am on Sundays, and residents had to “perform duties allotted to him to the best of his ability and work the allotted number of hours”.
These could include making firewood, waste paper sorting, joinery, gardening, house painting, window cleaning and addressing circulars.
Dominoes and draughts could be borrowed in the evening, as could library books though they were warned they would be “held responsible for their safe return”.
Three meals a day were provided, porridge and bread and margarine for breakfast, stew and potatoes for dinner, and tea which was mostly bread and margarine – with jam on Wednesdays and Sundays.
By June 1912, 1579 casuals had passed through Whitefoord House while 108 boarders were staying there permanently and paying for their maintenance.