helpline 01494 601 400

Life at Epilepsy Society during WW1


1 July 2016

Today is the centenary of the start of the battle of the Somme, which ran from 1 July 1916 to 18 November 1916. We look back at how the First World War changed life at Epilepsy Society - then known as 'the colony' - and at the tough life ex sevicemen often endured when they were sent to live here.

The Epilepsy Society site in Chalfont St Peter was not untouched by the effects of the war, as described by Jean Barclay in the book A Caring Community:

At the outbreak of war in August 1914 there were nine male attendants at the Colony who were nearly all ex-soldiers.  They soon rejoined the Colours and some of them were replaced by conscientious objectors.  Nurses were also in short supply and in 1917 Matron applied to two agencies for four staff.

The farm

In 1917 the Farm and Building and Works Department was staffed by the Bailiff and ten men who had been exempted from war service or had yet to be called up.

In place of farm workers who had gone to war, women colonists helped with the stock and with haymaking, but from 1917 Land Army girls were engaged.  Accommodation was provided for them in Home Field near Skippings Farm. 

An important feature of the war years was a steep increase in prices and a shortage of drugs and provisions which, with the reduced number of staff, may have contributed to a higher than usual death rate.  In 1916 11 colonists died instead of the usual two- six.

The Ex-servicemen's homes

Several of the more capable colonists obtained work outside but, as epileptic evacuees and ex-servicemen took their place, this is not reflected in the wartime numbers.

Many soldiers and sailors had been discharged from the Army and Navy because of war-induced epilepsy and late in 1916, following discussions with the War Pensions Statutory Committee (later the Ministry of Pensions), the committee agreed to provide homes at Chalfont for them.  In January 1917 it was decided that three homes would be needed and that they should be quickly with costs covered by the Red Cross.

Conditions for ex-servicemen at Chalfont

A Special Sub- Committee on Discharged Sailors and Soldiers with Epilepsy was set up in April 1917 to draw up conditions and application forms for epilepsy colonies.  The form for Chalfont included details of life at the colony and a section on 'Conformity with Regulations' which stated that the men had to keep to the rules of the colony, such as smoking only in specified hours, drinking no alcohol, keeping within the colony boundaries and being willing to do housework.  It was a lot to expect of young ex-servicemen who had seen something of the world.

Homes for servicemen

The new homes were named after distinguished naval and military leaders who had died in the war- Lord Kitchener, General Sir Stanley Maude and Admiral H.L.A. Hood

The fees charged to the Ministry of Pensions for the ex-servicemen were 15s. a week (paid direct from the men's pensions), and the men were allowed 2s.6d. a week pocket money.  In January 1918, when all fees were raised, the ex-service charges became £1 a week.


Many of the men admitted over the next two years left after a short stay.  It was very difficult for the men to settle down and they were full of complaints.  In June 1918, 14 of them complained about the employment of conscientious objectors, but the committee explained that discharged soldiers were unobtainable. 

The men wanted more freedom and it was decided as a month's experiment to let all male colonists go for walks without an attendant.  The men were also disappointed at the lack of suitable employment and at the pittance they received. 

In September 1918 the Ministry of Pensions sent circulars to the epileptic colonies saying that they were primarily places of employment and should offer more than they did.  The committee could not agree to the men working inside or outside the colony at ordinary rates and paying the full cost of maintenance from their earnings but the ministry's suggestion that the soldiers wear a distinctive armband would be considered.

Armistice came on November 11 1918 and the 18th was declared a peace holiday for the colony.  Today, Kitchener and Hood buildings are still standing amid more modern buildings, a daily reminder of the war years at the Chalfont centre.