What is now an idyllic country park was once the scene of a bustling military hospital. As the British Army’s first purpose-built hospital, Royal Victoria was a unique and ambitious project which would help change the face of the medical world.
Birth of a hospital
To begin this fascinating story we must step back over one hundred and fifty years, to the Crimean War. In the midst of a devastating conflict, which saw the deaths of as many as 18,000 British troops, the army began to collapse. With no transport, poor shelter, and insufficient clothing and food, the fate of a wounded soldier was hopeless. A complete lack of medical supplies on the field, and no structure for removing wounded from the front, meant many did not receive much-needed medical attention. And for those that made it as far as a hospital bed, the scene was little better. Conditions were terrible, hygiene poor, and filth inescapable: indeed, a soldier may well have had a higher chance of survival outside these appalling hospitals. Into this horror stepped a young Florence Nightingale, and she swiftly set to work improving cleanliness and restoring hygiene. When reports of her success reached the ears of Queen Victoria, she was inspired. Visiting Fort Pitt – the primary hospital for wounded military - she was shocked by the foul overcrowded conditions being suffered by patients. She quickly set to work rallying support for a new hospital, and in January 1856 the site on Southampton Water was purchased and design work commenced.
On 19 May 1856 – above a sealed box containing building plans, coins and the first Victoria Cross medal – the queen laid the foundation stone before a crowd of 11,000 people who turned up to witness the event. The build for Royal Victoria Hospital began.
Fit for purpose?
Florence Nightingale was keen to be involved with the hospital’s design, but she was severely concerned by what she saw. The building’s corridors were to be a quarter of a mile in length, an open route for the spread of disease, and the cramped wards had few windows to let in natural light. There were certainly those who agreed with her concerns, but with insufficient time for a redesign only minor changes were made. Did you know – 30 million bricks were used to make the hospital.
The hospital finally began functioning in March 1863, its 138 wards and 1000 beds steadily filling with wounded British troops from across the globe. Whilst the majority were returning from India, there were those from as far as New Zealand, Canada and China, to name but a few. It truly was a hospital to serve an Empire. With patients from across the globe, tropical diseases were in abundance. This made for interesting medical research and part of the large building was soon converted into laboratories, the scene of many an interesting scientific breakthrough. The most notable of these was the discovery by Sir Almoth Wright of a vaccine for typhoid.
As well as a place of healing, the site at Netley was to become a place of learning. In addition to the research labs, which continued to make advances in tropical medicine, the Army Medical School moved on to the site in 1863. The expansive grounds surrounding the hospital became a training ground for orderlies and ambulance crews, whose task it was to ensure the safe and speedy removal of wounded from the battlefield. Women from the Red Cross were sent to Netley to train as military nurses after the arrival of the first nursing staff in 1869, and doctors undertook medical training at the site.
The World Wars
It was not until the onset of World War One that Royal Victoria Hospital’s role began to shift. With the numbers of wounded at an all time high, additional space was required and a hutted British Red Cross hospital was erected in the grounds behind the main building, more than doubling the number of available beds. In total some 50,000 patients were treated by the two hospitals during the war, including famous war poet Wilfred Owen who was admitted with a case of shell shock.
The hospital was once more mobilised for service when World War Two commenced in 1939, dealing with the more severe cases that could not be treated by the increasingly specialised facilities on the war front. Netley became ever more involved in psychiatric care and the asylum building, erected in 1870, treated numerous patients including Hitler’s deputy Rudolph Hess. The site was handed to the US Forces in 1944, both their Army and Navy doctors moving into the main building and hutted hospital in the grounds. An estimated 68,000 casualties were treated before the Americans returned the hospital to the British Army in July 1945, including some 10,000 Germans who would later become prisoners of war.
With the awful conditions on the war front, everything was done to make patients at Netley as comfortable and content as possible during the two world wars. From outdoor entertainments and concerts, to crafts, to pony and carriage rides, there was something to keep patients active and amused. A large YMCA building was erected in 1940 to offer indoor activities in its large billiard room and entertainment hall.
After the wars
Following the war, the hutted hospital became the primary site for patient treatment, and the grand main building became increasingly run down. A large fire in 1963 damaged vast sections of the building and in 1966 the decision was made to demolish the derelict hospital, retaining only the Chapel. The asylum remained in use until 1978 when the final patient left Netley. A parade through the village, followed by a ball and firework display at the Officers’ mess, marked the closure.
The site was purchased by Hampshire County Council and in 1980 Royal Victoria Country Park opened its gates to the public. To this day, the park is a popular site offering stunning views, enchanting woodland, and a relaxing atmosphere. Grassy fields and tall trees now cover the land once occupied by the stunning hospital, but where its physical presence no longer exists its history still remains.
Royal Victoria was the largest military hospital of its time and, despite being demolished after just a little over a century, its service to the British Empire was undeniably of great value. Within the Chapel, the last remaining piece of this vast building, you can discover for yourself its dramatic history in our Heritage Centre. The old YMCA building now accommodates the Park Office, tea rooms and a large function room. Sections of the railway can still be seen, embedded in the ground of our Chapel car park. The hospital cemetery, opened in 1864, reminds us of the military men who tragically lost their lives when the care of Netley’s doctors and nurses was not enough to repair the wounds of war.
Our Heritage Centre and a special History Trail through the park give light to the fascinating account of this site. And when you walk its charming woodland or enjoy its sensational views across the water, take a moment to remember its surprising past, this history of a hospital.
History Trail map (Pdf 5mb)