Netley: Queen Victoria’s Great Hospital

It was in 1856 that construction began on a purpose-built hospital for injured British soldiers. Opened on 11 March 1863, the Royal Victoria Military Hospital at Netley, Southampton, was the largest of its kind in the world. Although the hospital was demolished in 1966, the chapel (pictured) – the only remaining build of the Netley site – stands as a reminder of Britain’s great military past and the enduring legacy of Queen Victoria.

Origins of Netley Hospital

The origins of Netley Hospital lay in the Crimean War (1854-1856), more specifically, the condition of the British military. When reports first hit the British press that nine in ten casualties were dying from disease, rather than wounds, a widespread feeling of outrage swept the nation. In a royal visit to Fort Pitt at Chatham, Queen Victoria witnessed first-hand the inadequate provisions made for her wounded soldiers. Furthermore, in a meeting with Florence Nightingale at Balmoral Castle in 1856, the Queen was deeply affected by stories of the hardships suffered by her soldiers in the Crimea. A brand new, purpose-built military hospital was, Queen Victoria stated, the only way to right this unacceptable wrong.

It was the Queen’s Surgeon, James Clark, who first suggested Netley as a possible site for the new hospital. Since the Middle Ages, Netley had been used as a mustering place, training ground and encampment for British troops so it already had a strong military association. A survey was then carried out by Captain Laffan of the War Department, and confirmed the site’s suitability. Five fields of the 109 acre site were purchased from Thomas Chamberlayne, the owner, for £15,000 in January, 1856, and, four months later, Victoria and Albert visited Netley to lay the foundation stone.

Although the foundations were now in place, a bitter conflict ensued over the design of the new hospital. When shown the plans for Netley by Lord Panmure, Secretary of State for War, Florence Nightingale (pictured) was outraged at what she saw. Small, cramped wards with few windows and quarter-mile-long corridors raised serious concerns about ventilation and the spread of infection. Nightingale immediately lobbied the Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister, to halt building work until its design had been resolved. Successfully persuaded by Nightingale, Palmerston instructed Lord Panmure to down tools at Netley but his attempt was in vain and construction on the hospital continued unabated.

Netley Hospital Opens

By 1859 building at Netley was complete. This impressive site, costing £350,000, contained a reservoir, three wells, swimming pool, gasworks, stables, 138 wards and 1,000 beds. In addition, a chapel, school, married quarters, prison cells and a cemetery transformed Netley from a mere hospital to a community. In March 1859, the three existing general hospitals at Dublin, Cork and Woolwich were closed down while soldiers receiving treatment were transported to the new hospital.

Netley was more than just a treatment facility. Aside from numerous research labs for the study of tropical diseases, Netley was also home to the Army Medical School and the Army Nursing Service, and acted as a medical training centre for doctors. Queen Victoria’s visit to the hospital in 1863, her first public appearance since Albert’s death, emphasised both her attachment to Netley and its wider national importance. Victoria would make a further 22 visits to Netley throughout the remainder of her reign.

Netley and the World Wars

During World War One, Netley’s significance and importance grew. Aside from treating more than 50,000 sick and injured soldiers, the Red Cross built a series of hutted hospitals behind the main hospital, doubling its total capacity. (A dedicated train-line, built in 1900, enabled ambulance crews  to easily transport wounded soldiers from Southampton Docks to the doors of Netley hospital). In 1944, Netley was taken over by the United States and successfully treated 68,000 soldiers during the remainder of World War Two.

The End of Netley Hospital

In 1958 the government deemed Netley too expensive to maintain. When diggers and cranes moved in to demolish the site in 1966, workers retrieved a metal casket buried below the granite foundation block laid by Queen Victoria. This time capsule contained coins and a copy of The Times from Victoria’s reign, plans of the hospital and an early Victoria Cross. The items were then preserved and put on display at the Royal Army Medical Corps museum in Aldershot. Since 1980 the site has been opened up to public recreation by Hampshire County Council.

Sadly, the chapel is all that remains of Queen Victoria’s great military hospital but this beautiful building gives you an idea of what once was.

To find out more, visit the Royal Victoria Country Park website.

Kaye Jones

Kaye is author of three History In An Hour titles: 1066: History In An Hour, Dickens: History In An Hour and The Medieval Anarchy: History In An Hour