In 1888 Mary married Lord Herbrand Russell and she gave birth to one child, Hastings, 11 months later. In 1891 Lord Herbrand’s father died and two years later, on the death of his older brother then tenth Duke, Herbrand succeeded to the Dukedom and his and Mary’s life at Woburn began.
It was here that the Duchess’ outstanding achievements and record in the sphere of hospital work commenced. Mary’s interest in medical work dated back to her school days when she listened with keen attention to the Red Cross lectures given at Cheltenham Ladies College. Her attendance at these lectures was not authorised as she was not a member of the Red Cross class. However, by sitting near the open door and giving much divided attention to her own work, she was able to hear enough of the lectures to rouse her youthful enthusiasm for the subject.
All this interest took practical shape in 1898, when she opened the small Cottage Hospital in Woburn Village. Mary served in every department from floor scrubber to theatre sister and was never too busy or too proud to undertake even the most mundane of tasks.
After five years the original hospital building was replaced by a model hospital designed by the Duchess herself. The new model Cottage Hospital, medical and surgical, opened to meet the needs of the neighbourhood in 1903. It continued in that service under the Duchess’ supervision until the outbreak of war. It was not until 1914 however, when she was nearing 50, that she saw the chance to attain her goal and strenuously embraced it.
Her diary from September 7, 1914 reveals: ‘Admitted the first soldiers from Bedford to the Cottage Hospital. I little thought when we built it ten years ago that we should ever see the Red Cross flag flying over it.’
Under the Duchess’ supervision, the riding school and tennis court at Woburn Abbey were converted into a second and much larger hospital to hold 80 beds, an operating theatre, X-ray room, kitchen bathers and offices. Later, four smaller rooms were added to provide a further 20 beds. A long veranda in the Abbey garden known as ‘the covered way’ was used as an open-air ward, a facility that greatly benefited patients suffering from septic wounds.