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The hospital that served the forces for 120 years

Date: 08 November 2019

Field of RemembranceFrom the carnage of the Crimean war sprang a new revolutionary hospital, purpose built for the forces, the Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley.

Work began in 1856 on the hospital following the public outrage at the treatment, or lack of it, of soldiers during the war.

Facilitated by newly invented telegraph, William Russell, filed stories for the Times newspaper of woeful neglect of soldiers' health and treatment. Spurred on by Queen Victoria and the friendship between Florence Nightingale and Lord Palmerston, the government agreed to fund a new large military hospital to cater for at least 1,000 patients. A south coast site needed was needed, where casualties from the Empire could disembark and Netley was chosen.

The design suffered from all the pitfalls of compromises by a committee. The building design created what was then the longest building in the world. It was grand and the architecture was superb, but the main corridor was along the front of the building facing the Solent. However, the wards opened out onto the back courtyard giving inadequate ventilation and no views. Nevertheless, the hospital improved the recovery rate for casualties. And sadly there were plenty of them. In 1870 alone, more than 2,500 patients arrived from India and another 700 from other parts of the Empire.

Lack of adequate transport to the hospital was another barrier. Netley station was at least three quarters of a mile away. That meant patients being off-loaded and carted along indifferent roads to the hospital.

Queen Victoria stepped in. It was she who asked why the railway was not extended to the Hospital. The chairman of the London & South Western Railway was persuaded to finance the line, which opened in 1900. However, the line fell steeply away from Netley station down to a platform at the rear of the hospital. This caused real problems to enginemen in damp weather pulling heavy ambulance trains.

During the First World war, Netley was busy again. Special ambulance trains were quickly developed by all the railway companies made up of  ten coaches. Eventually, 25 'home' trains, operated this side of the Channel. These were heavily used. During the course of the war nearly 8,000 ambulance trains left Southampton Docks alone, with some 1,200 of these going to Netley.

Some 50,000 patients were treated during the 1st World War. However, this rose to 68,000 in the 2nd World War. Prior to D-Day, the hospital was transferred to the American Army, with even heavier ambulance trains of 14 coaches used once hostilities commenced.

After the war, activity thankfully rapidly declined as did Netley itself. It was demolished in 1966. Today only the chapel remains, serving as a visitor centre to the country park.

Ian Coward

An edited version of an article which appeared in Christ Church, Cookham's November's parish magazine

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