Heaven and hell

13 September 2018

Back on the first floor we entered the upper gallery of the hospital chapel. In front of us was a glorious stained glass window and a beautifully painted ceiling. For the poor wounded soldiers, fresh from the horrors of the front line, the sense of peace and quiet here must have felt a little like heaven. We stood for a moment or two drinking in the atmosphere and then walked slowly along the line of pews reading the stories of some of those who once worshipped here. 

Before the restoration work, the chapel windows were in a sorry state. As much of the original glass as possible was retained and replacement glass was specially made to match the old glass as closely as possible. Surprisingly, none of the beautiful ceiling is original. For many years the chapel roof and guttering leaked and the ornate plasterwork of the ceiling was damaged beyond repair. Once the chapel had a new roof and guttering, the damaged plaster of the ceiling was stripped back and restored by a specialist lime plasterer using traditional methods and a paint conservator, who matched the original paint. The work took several months and more than six layers of plaster but the end result is stunning and is as close as possible to the original.

Once we’d walked right around the gallery and read the stories that have, so far, been uncovered, we headed downstairs to explore the main hall. Once this would have been the main chapel where services were held but now it is a museum telling the story of the lost hospital.

When it opened, in March 1863, Netley hospital, with around a thousand beds in one hundred and thirty eight wards, was the largest military hospital in Britain. In fact it was more like a small town than a hospital. It had its own reservoir, gasworks and pier. Later it would even have its own electricity station.  It had cost £350,000 to build but, grand and gigantic as it was, the new building was anything but practical.

The cast iron pier, built for patients arriving by boat, was only five hundred and sixty feet long and didn’t reach the deep water. The big hospital ships couldn’t reach it and the poor patients had to be transferred onto shallow draft boats to disembark.  In 1866, a railway line was built from Southampton Docks to Netley and, four years later, when the hospital was especially busy during the Second Boer War, it was extended into the hospital grounds. Even this had its difficulties though. The new station was behind the hospital and the gradients were too steep for the trains of the time, some needed a locomotive at either end to travel the last quarter mile from Netley station to the hospital.

The beautiful building was not ideal for use as a hospital either. The long corridors were on the sea facing side of the building and the windows of the wards faced north east into the inner courtyard with a rather uninspiring view of coal bunkers and out houses. There was little light or air and the ventilation was poor, meaning unpleasant smells lingered. There were also no isolation units to stop the spread of disease. All in all, for a purposely built hospital, other than it’s good looks,  it left a lot to be desired.

During World War I, when a Red Cross hutted hospital had to be built behind the main building to cope with the sheer number of wounded, around fifty thousand soldiers were treated at Netley. In World War II sixty eight thousand casualties were treated there, including French soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk. Once the war was over, the hospital carried on treating soldiers returning from overseas service but it was becoming more and more costly to maintain. The last inmates were some Hungarian refugees in 1956. Two years later the hospital closed and the building slowly began to crumble.

If it hadn’t been for a huge fire in 1963, it might still have been saved, although it would probably have ended up as fancy apartments, much like the officers quaters on the north west corner of the park. The fire left the building in such a state it was completely demolished in 1966. Only the chapel was saved.

The hospital may have been lost but the people of Southampton and Netley have gained a wonderful park. The newly restored chapel come museum has also preserved the history of the building. Stories of the soldiers who were treated there are slowly being gathered and more will grace the pews in the gallery as time passes. Many photographs and artefacts are on display, giving an insight into what it must once have been like for those unfortunate enough to end up there.

Even though the wards were smelly, dark and filled with sights and sounds most ordinary people would find it hard to tolerate, for wounded soldiers like Pappy, it must have felt like stepping out of hell and into heaven. To be able to walk in beautiful grounds and stare out to sea may have helped some of them heal far better than any of the medicine on offer. Others may have found solace in the quiet of the chapel, with its beautiful stained glass. Of course, some would have to return to the mud and blood of battle, others would be buried in the cemetery in the woods.

For me the visit to the chapel brought me closer to Pappy. Here I was walking in his footsteps, seeing some of the things he had seen. Of all the artefacts, the uniforms were the most poignant. These slightly moth eaten garments were once worn by nurses, doctors and, most importantly for me, the patients. The light blue uniform jacket on a plain white mannequin was the exact same as the one Pappy would have worn.

We’d spent more than an hour slowly walking around the chapel, reading all the stories, looking at the the exhibits and drinking in the history. Now, it was time to go back out into the sunshine and, for the sake of being thorough, walk to the final two corners of the old building.

On the southern corner we learned about the American troops who took over the hospital in 1944 in preparation for D Day. Rumour has it they drove their Jeeps up and down the long hospital corridors and played baseball in the grounds.

The eastern corner showed us that soldiers from all over the empire and beyond were treated at Netley so it must have been an unusually multicultural place for those times. It also showed the final days of the hospital, the fire and the bulldozers that demolished it. This seemed a fitting place to end our tour.

Our heads were filled with all we had seen as we strolled back across the park towards home. Almost a hundred years have passed since Pappy walked in these grounds and more than forty years since the hospital was demolished. The ghosts still seem very close here though.

In recent years, as the generations who remember world war are slowly lost, a new movement has begun to grow. There are those who believe one minute of silence in a year is too much and that, in wearing poppies, we are glorifying war. They try to forget the madness of the past and pretend it has nothing to do with them. History is what makes us all though and war is anything but glorious. It’s about mud and blood, noise, horror and death, and looking back is the only way to remember that and learn from it.

We must also remember those men who gave everything for us. The peace they fought so hard for may not have come but one minute or one day in every year is a small price to pay compared to the horrors they endured. When the next mad dictator or religious zealot (and goodness only knows there are enough of both still living and breathing) starts trying to take over the world, we will all be glad of the brave men who are willing to sacrifice everything for us.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon

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Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

6 thoughts on “Heaven and hell”

    1. There are several places like that, where it feels as if I’ve stepped into another time, or come closer to those I’ve lost. This is certainly one of them. Without it I wouldn’t even be here.

  1. I know I’ve already commented on this post Marie, but thought I would pass on a piece of info for anyone going to Cornwall on holiday soon…just outside the small village of Rock is a church, St. Enodocs, in the churchyard of which both Lawrence Binyon and John Betjeman are buried.
    Incidentally the church was completely buried under many feet of sand for years until it was excavated by local people, a fascinating place…

    1. Thank you for that Lee. I have a friend who visits Cornwall regularly and loves history. He will find this fascinating. If I ever get the chance I will go and have a look.

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