Samuel K. Parish, MD
|Royal Victoria Military Hospital Netley|
Hospitals are built to respond to the health needs of a community. In the military, the state of healthcare is often not realized until a crisis stretches the limits of the health system. The crisis most often is war. Such was the case in mid-19th century Great Britain. The Crimean War (1853-1856) resulted in over 20,000 British deaths with some 16,000 from diseases unrelated to war injuries, primarily cholera. Reports of unsanitary conditions and inadequate medical care of soldiers created a public outcry. The least society could do for those asked to fight for their country was to provide good health care to treat the wounded and sick. Prominent advocates for military health reform came from Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale.1
During the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale was directing a team of nurses at the military hospital at Scutari (Constantinople) in Turkey. She believed strongly in the Sanitarian Movement and saw the deadly effects of poor sanitation, lack of fresh air, and unhealthy diet. She was instrumental in calling for a Royal Commission to address the military health issues. Her professionalization of nursing care and hospital operation was respected throughout the country, drawing the attention of Queen Victoria. A new hospital was evidently needed to treat military patients and educate future doctors and nurses.2
In a formal ceremony on 19 May 1856, Queen Victoria participated in the laying of the foundation stone for the Royal Victoria Military Hospital (RVMH), commonly referred to as Netley Hospital. Florence Nightingale’s input on hospital management was highly respected, but she was not present when the plans were approved. She was very displeased by the poor design of the patient wards and the lack of natural light and ventilation, which she deemed of utmost importance to healing.3
Netley was chosen as an ideal coastal location in Hampshire county of southern England. It was named after the medieval Netley Abbey on Southampton Water southeast of Southampton. The peninsula, bordered by river Itchen on the west and river Hamble on the east, was also known as Spike Island, although not an island by definition. The government acquired two hundred acres of land for the hospital and its supporting infrastructure.3
The construction progressed over the next seven years and RVMH finally opened on 11 March 1863. At the time it was the largest military hospital and longest building in the world. The three-storey hospital stretched a quarter mile from east to west with an impressive façade of red brick, Portland stone, and granite pillared porticoes. The east and west wings connected by the central wing, which enclosed a Royal Chapel and Museum of Natural History. The 138 wards had a 1,000 bed capacity, divided into A, B, and C blocks.3 The infrastructure to support the massive medical facility included a reservoir, gasworks, and a railway line.4
The Queen’s Royal residence, Osborne House, was located on the Isle of Wight less than ten miles south of Netley. During her life she visited the hospital many times and awarded three Victoria Crosses to wounded soldiers there.4
In addition to patient care, another primary mission of the hospital was medical education for nurses and doctors. The Army Medical School moved into RVMH on 1 April 1863 and remained there until 1902. It was a training ground for civilian physicians preparing to serve in military roles.4 Arthur Conan Doyle opens his first novel, A Study in Scarlet, “In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army.”5 The narrator, Dr. John Watson, introduces the reader to the most famous of all fictional detectives, Sherlock Holmes. Netley Hospital would have been well-known to Dr. Doyle as he practiced medicine in nearby Portsmouth.6
The Second Boer War (1899-1902) brought an increased patient load to the hospital, serving as a prelude to the massive influx during World War I. The 1,000 bed original plan was severely inadequate during the Great War (1914-1918). To meet the demand, the Red Cross built single story huts to the rear of the main hospital to expand capacity up to 2,500 beds.4 The hutted hospital buildings were more modern and more comfortable than the aging RVMH where “the poor patient either froze in winter, or blistered in heat in the summer.”3
Netley Hospital was showing its age following the Great War but history had further plans. World War II hit close to home when nearby Southampton became a target of German air strikes in late 1940. Its location as a strategic military shipping port and site of manufacturing facilities for Royal Air Force (RAF) planes made it a target for the Luftwaffe.7
Sixty miles northeast of Netley, the normally tranquil Bushy Park was being transformed into a military camp. By early 1944 it was converted into Camp Griffiss, the Supreme Headquarters of Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF). From there, General Dwight Eisenhower directed Operation Overlord, the code name for the Allied forces assault on German occupied north-east Europe.8 The American forces needed a hospital to serve as a primary site to deal with the expected influx of casualties. RVMH was in the right place to serve one of its last major roles in its long history. By mid January 1944, RVMH was transferred to the U.S. Army to establish the 28th U.S. General Hospital at Netley, which would become U.S. Army 110th Station Hospital, occupying a single story building on the northern side of the property. By February 1944, the main building of RVMH was occupied by Base Hospital 12 U.S. Navy (SNAG 56).9
The entire region was covered with American soldiers. Military vehicles were parked along most of the streets and the Southampton Water was covered with ships preparing for the inevitable trek across the English Channel. The Normandy invasion known as D-Day would be the largest seaborne invasion in military history.3
American nurses who worked at RVMH recalled the preparation and influx of casualties from the invasion. There were large numbers of shellshocked soldiers and rapid surgical interventions for the wounded, with removal of bullets and shrapnel, debridement of large wounds, the first use of penicillin and sulfa, and then transfer to other military hospitals for definitive care. Some of the wards held over thirty patients, though originally designed for less than half the number. There were an estimated 68,000 wounded treated by the American staff while it occupied RVMH. One year later on July 14, 1945 the hospital was given back to the British Army.10
Following World War II the hospital fell further into disrepair, as it was no longer cost-effective to maintain the structure. Although D block remained open as a psychiatric facility, the main hospital was closed in 1958. An extensive fire in 1963 added impetus to the Army’s decision to get rid of the remaining building. By 1966 the demolition of the main hospital commenced, nearly 110 years after the foundation stone was placed by Queen Victoria. The central Chapel was preserved intact as an historic museum and visitor center on the property, later to be named the Royal Victoria Country Park.3 A climb to the top of the chapel tower still provides a panoramic view of the surrounding cities, forests, and waterways. From there a visitor can imagine all that transpired through several wars.
For a short time in June 1917 the famed World War I poet Wilfred Owen was a patient treated for shell shock at Netley before being transferred for psychiatric treatment to Edinburgh.11 Owen penned a preface to a collection of poems published posthumously which stated, “This book is not about heroes … Nor is it about deeds or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, dominion, or power, except War … The subject of it is War, and the pity of War.”12
For a century the Royal Victoria Military Hospital experienced the pity of war, the loss of life and limb, the permanent physical and mental scars suffered by the best of each generation. Those who worked there and passed through its doors as patients are mostly gone now. It remains in photos, stories, and the collective memory as a symbol of human response to the tragedy of war and the attempt to offer hope to those who risk everything in the fight for freedom, our veterans.
- Military Medicine Timeline. http://www.nhs.uk/Tools/Documents/Military%20history%20timeline%20read-only.htm. Accessed January 5, 2015.
- Gill C. Nightingale in Scutari: Her Legacy Reexamined. http://cid.oxfordjournals.org/content/40/12/1799.full. Accessed January 9, 2015.
- Hoare P. Spike Island: The Memory of a Military Hospital. London, UK: Fourth Estate. 2002.
- Netley Hospital. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Netley_Hospital. Accessed January 4, 2015.
- Doyle A.C. A Study in Scarlet. New York, NY: The Modern Library. 2003. Reprint of original Ward, Lock, & Co. edition published in 1888.
- Arthur Conan Doyle. http://www.biography.com/people/arthur-conan-doyle-9278600. Accessed January 14, 2015.
- Southampton During the Blitz and Second World War. http://www.stga.org.uk/southampton-during-the-blitz-and-second-world-war.html. Accessed January 13, 2015.
- Camp Griffiss. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camp_Griffiss. Accessed January 4, 2015.
- Hudson H. The Story of SNAG 56. Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/TheStoryOfSNAG56Book. Accessed January 5, 2015.
- Oral History-Support for Normandy June 1944: Recollection of Nurses. The Navy Department Library. http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq87-3e.htm. Accessed January 1, 2015.
- The Wilfred Owen Association. http://www.wilfredowen.org.uk/chronology. Accessed January 14, 2015.
- Poems by Wilfred Owen. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1034/1034-h/1034-h.htm. Accessed January 10, 2015.
Samuel K. Parish, MD is a family medicine physician in Naples, Florida. The Kentucky native and alumnus of the University of Kentucky College of Medicine has twenty-four years of experience in healthcare ranging from non-profit and for-profit medical groups and private practice. In addition to his medical affiliations, he is a member of the Florida Writers Association, The Thoreau Society, and life member of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society.