It seems common sense that what was the biggest hospital ever built, should be the biggest demolition job ever attempted for a hospital when the time came to knock it down! Both claims are recorded as factual statements.

What does the  word NETLEY mean to you?

Or

if not the word NETLEY, the words Royal Victoria Hospital, abbreviated of course to RVH?

If your answer is "nothing" or "not a lot", then you clearly do not belong to my era of Naval Service which was from 1953 until 1983. More about that in a minute.

Britain is a paradox when it comes to deciding which 'tool' to use, and whilst we are happier with the PEN {for it is mightier than the sword} we have often put our pen away and picked up the SWORD to defend ourselves, our friends or civilised ways including democracy,

              

and by so doing, countless thousands of our men died or were wounded [some to subsequently die].

For many years in our history, wounded personnel were treated piecemeal, some receiving the finest medical attention available whilst others were left to ship or regimental surgeons often dying from the post wound treatment rather than from the wound itself.

The treatment of the wounded changed with the help of Florence Nightingale, for what she achieved at the front, in the Crimean War [1854-1855], did not go unnoticed back home by medics and administrators alike.

Before the war in the Crimea had even finished, the authorities decided that a major hospital was needed which would treat the maimed and wounded. Apart from the obvious need for it to be large enough for the huge number of wounded and medically state-of-the-art to circumvent death due to post injury disease/surgery, it had to be  built in an area of natural beauty so as to make the recuperation and convalescent period as pleasant as possible, and had to be near to a major sea port also served by a rail head allowing ships and trains to offload their sad cargo.

The place chosen was on the North East shore line of Southampton Water, West of the River Hamble at a place called Netley, already famous for its beautiful Abbey and luxurious countryside. Here is a map of the area and an arrow pointing to the spot.

The great liners of the world including the greatest of them all the Queen Mary II, sail straight past, left to right coming into Southampton Docks and right to left going to New York, range at closest point of approach [CPA - a good old Naval navigation abbreviation] just 200 yards [183 metres]. The following list tells of some of the high points of the life of the hospital, which was named the Royal Victoria Hospital Netley.

  • Netley hospital was built in the aftermath of the carnage of the Crimean War, during which Florence Nightingale showed how bad medical facilities were in the Army. The foundation stone was laid by Queen Victoria on the 19th May 1856.  The hospital was completed in 1863 at a cost of 350,000 [25 million today in 2005].  It was the largest hospital ever built.  Under the 2 tons foundation stone of Welsh granite was buried something VERY SPECIAL, the contents of which will be revealed later on.
  • Florence Nightingale disliked Netley on account of its old-fashioned architecture, and tried to alter its plans but without success. The windows with wonderful views over Southampton Water were those of offices, administration areas and medical staff common rooms and the injured men looked out of windows [when they were able] looking down on out-houses and other buildings.
  • The main hospital was of a mile long. 30 million bricks were used in building the hospital with 3 million cubic feet of stone.  Materials used were local bricks and Welsh granite.  It housed 1 thousand beds.
  • The hospital is set on the shores of Southampton Water.  Its pier - by Eugenius Birch, who also build Bournemouth and Brighton piers - received hospital ships from across the Empire.
  • Netley was also the home, until 1902, of the Army Medical School . In Conan Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, Dr Watson trained here before moving to Baker Street in London.
  • In 1863 Jane Shaw brought 5 female nurses to Netley.  For a century the hospital was the home of what is now the Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps.
  • In 1873 the Russian warship Prince Pojarsky visited Netley and three of her sailors are buried in the Netley Military Cemetery. This cemetery is a must visit place for its graves and memorial stones tell a wonderful story.
  • Queen Victoria visited more than 20 times up to her death in 1901 and awarded three Victoria Crosses to patients at Netley.
  • During the South African Boer Wars of 1899-1901, Netley was very busy with casualties brought by ship to Southampton.
  • In 1900 a branch line from the rail head to the hospital's station was opened which was used for ambulance trains.
  • In 1914 a large Red Cross hutted hospital of some 1 thousand beds was built at the rear of the RVH to deal with the injured from WW1.
  • From 1914-1918 both Allied and German casualties were treated at Netley  during WW1: 20 thousand in the RVH and 30 thousand in the Red Cross Hospital.
  • In 1917, the famous WW1 poet Wilfred Owen was treated at the RVH.
  • During WW2 the hospital received casualties from Dunkirk evacuation and the Fall of France in June 1940.
  • In January 1944 the hospital was taken over by the Americans.  Following D-Day invasion in June many Americans casualties were brought back from France. GI's drove their Jeeps down the mile long corridors.  From January 1944 to July 1945 the Americans treated 68 thousand casualties including 10 thousand Germans.
  • In the 1950's the main hospital fell into disuse and in 1966 it was demolished leaving only the Royal Chapel which still stands and is being renovated.  However, this only affected the main hospital building, and other buildings on the site, chief of which were the officers mess and 'D' BLOCK [more of that in a minute] remain standing to this very day, the former as converted luxury accommodation flats and the later as a Hampshire Police training college: both buildings are some distance away from the old RVH itself.
  • In 1980 the 220 acre site became the Royal Victoria Country Park and the Royal Chapel is the Heritage Centre/Museum.

PLEASE READ THE TABLE ON THE RIGHT FIRST

 

In the table over to the right I have mentioned, in the penultimate bullet, BLOCK 'D'. Even though the main RVH was demolished in 1966, this block remained in service until its closure in 1978.

 

Block 'D' for thousands of Royal Sailors, including me, WAS "NETLEY" for this is where sailors who had mental disturbances and alcoholic drink problems would come to be treated or "dried-out". Through our ignorance, we were not aware, least not fully aware, that the VAST MAJORITY of the site, the RVH proper, [indeed the proper name for Block 'D' was Victoria House] dealt with ordinary Neurological, Orthopaedic, Surgical and Medical etc conditions.  Our mess-mates who had 'thrown-a-wobly' or who had witnessed giant flesh eating monsters climbing onto their beds because of DT's, were sent to Netley and not, emphatically not in naval speak terms, to BLOCK 'D' or to Victoria House. Netley was the 'nut-house' and the butt of our jokes and teasing.  The word NETLEY was used in everyday speech by all sailors and its applied meaning was universally understood. Sailors with medical conditions were sent to RNH Haslar, RNH Stonehouse etc in my time, and RVH Netley was where poorly soldiers went; Victoria House Netley was where all servicemen with Psychiatric problems went.  In earlier times, the Armed Forces has specialist VD hospitals and for the RN these were at Devonport [Egg Buckland] {beds for 30 officers and 180 ratings} and at Portsmouth in the Military Hospital at Hilsea {beds for 47 officers and 430 ratings}.

 

In the table over to the right, in the the first bulleted item, I mentioned what had been put underneath the foundation stone by the Queen and those responsible for the placing of the 2 tons stone, which was uncovered with great ceremony by those who moved the stone after the demolition of the RVH in 1966.

 

There, thinking and hoping that the RVH would stand there for eternity, placed in a copper box under the giant stone, was placed the original Victoria Cross which was made by Royal Appointment from the bronze of Russian Canons capture during the Crimean War, minted just 4 months before the Queen blessed the foundation stone. Also in the copper box was the Crimean Medal with four clasps and Her Majesty's Maundy Money for the year 1856. This precious and historical artefact is now in Aldershot being looked after by the Army.