Caption: Nurses attending patients at Leith hospital, Leith, Edinburgh, 1917

At 7pm on Sunday the 2nd of April 1916 the Edinburgh City Police were warned by military authorities that the city was under threat of an air raid. By 9.05pm an order had been issued to take air raid action.  The Red Cross was notified and told to prepare.

Only a week earlier the Leith Town Council had issued guidance in the local newspaper about what to do in the event of an air raid. This included instructions for reducing light visibility on vehicles, street lights, shops and houses. Church bells and public clocks had been silenced between sunset and sunrise. The council also decided not to use any sound signals to alert the public in the event of an air raid, concerned that a siren would rouse people and encourage them to rush out on to the streets. Past experiences suggested that casualties had always been worst amongst these crowds. It was also thought that the noise might attract the enemy, that people may become complacent to the alarm if occurring too often, and that the sound may prove dangerous or fatal to those suffering from dangerous illness or heart weaknesses.

At Leith Hospital on Mill Lane, Amy Innes Lillingston, then aged 37, was one of the nurses working with the Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment. When interviewed by Margaret Brooks for the Imperial War Museum in 1975, she recalled that on the night of the 2nd of April all of the trams were called to a stop on the streets outside and that she, along with the other hospital workers, were ordered to move the patients. Everyone was carried downstairs to the lower levels of the hospital.

Forty-five bombs fell across the city that night. Twenty were dropped on Leith between 11.25pm and 12.05am. Inside the hospital, tensions must have been ever heightening as they heard each of the bombs dropping closer and closer. Amy clearly remembered when the 11th bomb fell; an explosive, it landed on the roof of a bonded warehouse at Ronaldson’s wharf, about 300m to the north-east of Mill Lane. The warehouse belonged to Innes and Grieve Ltd., wholesale wine merchants and the proprietors of Uam-Var whisky. Then full of whisky, the warehouse was soon ablaze.

“The flames were something terrible. Our hospital had every light out but the whole of the windows were red with the glare…” 

Caption: Exploded German bomb in the grounds of Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, 1916

Four incendiary bombs, designed to start fires, fell within 100m of the hospital along the length of Mill lane. One struck the roof of the Church manse on the opposite side of the lane. Inside the building the minister, his wife and their servant were in bed but, fortunately, all made a miraculous escape. The manse was set on fire and completely destroyed causing £1,000 worth of damage. The next fell on the gravel right outside Leith hospital mercifully missing the occupant sheltering inside. Two more fell on Mill lane: one landed in front of the school and the other in the yard of the Hawthorn & Co’s ship building company, fortunately also causing minimal damage.

Amy remembers seeing the Zeppelin as it passed by:

“Just like a great, long torpedo up in the sky.”

The Chief Constable of Leith Police, John Macleod, concluded that, based on the location where each bomb fell, those in charge of the Zeppelin must have been following the course of the Water of Leith from the Leith docks into the heart of the city. His reasoning was that all but the first bomb, which landed in the dock, fell within about 100 yards of the water. As the city was silent and in almost total darkness, there would have been little other evidence revealing the streets below.

Almost a dozen people lost their lives across the city that night including: a one year old boy, son of Robert Robb, who was killed by a fragment of shell, a 66 year old man called Robert Love, a discharged soldier name David Robertson, a carter named William Breakley, as well as 6 men and boys on Marshall Street, and a young girl named Cora Edmond Bell. Amy recalled:  

“And I remember the horror because 11 people were killed. We thought it was perfectly awful. And just think now what the numbers are compared to 11 people.”

The outbreak of war in 1914 had brought many problems and strain to the hospital, which is now a listed building. The Government had asked for the capacity of the hospital to be increased from 108 to 158 beds, a feat which was only achieved by using every available inch of space. Naval and military wounded were soon occupying every corner, but the increase in capacity was juxtaposed by a reduction in staff as both doctors and experienced nurses were called to the Front.

The original building, constructed in 1850, was designed by architect Peter Hamilton. As fresh air and light were considered healthy in the 19th and early 20th centuries he incorporated numerous large windows which helped to make the wards well-lit and airy. In 1886 Dr Sophia Jex-Blake, the first practising female doctor in Scotland, was granted permission to bring her female medical students from the newly established Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, to attend the hospital for clinical instruction. She later stated that:

“But for the co-operation of the Hospital, it would have been impossible to establish a medical school for women in Edinburgh.”

Image copyrights:

Nurses at Leith Hospital, 1917: © National Museums Scotland

Exploded German bomb: © National Museums Scotland

Children’s Wing, Leith Hospital, 10 Mill Lane: © K Liddell

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