Medway Maritime Hospital is vast. It serves a population of 360,000 people in the Medway towns and parts of Swale. The hospital employs about 3,000 people, and has an annual budget of more than £100 million.
It is, of course appropriate that Medway Hospital inserted the Maritime in its title when it expanded exponentially in the late 1990s: for its roots, like most of the towns, are firmly planted in the sea.
The original hospital was built after a suggestion by the Duke of Clarence (later William IV), Lord High Admiral in 1828.
The Melville Hospital – named after Lord Melville, a first lord of the navy who pioneered funding for naval medical services – was built near the main entrance of Chatham Dockyard and could accommodate 252 patients, mostly sailors, but some yard workers injured at work.
It was a welcome improvement – previously the sick and wounded had been billeted either in private accommodation or on hulks in the Medway. The sanitary conditions of rotting hulks on the Medway scarcely bears thinking about.
As the arms race quickened and the fleet expanded at the turn of the 20th century, the hospital needed to expand and Windmill Hill was chosen as the site. The main corridor of the hospital, designed by ITC Murray, was more than 1,000ft long and the whole site covered 39 acres.
The staff comprised nine medical officers, one head wardmaster, seven sisters and 70 sick berth ratings. It was opened officially by King Edward VII on 26 July, 1905.
Freddie Cooper, sage of Gillingham and former mayor of that borough – sadly no longer with us – wrote to the News in with his reminiscences of the old naval hospital.
He said: “My first acquaintance with the hospital was about 1935 as a teenage member of Rainham Cricket Club. Some of us looked forward to being chosen for the fixture against the staff of the Royal Naval Hospital because it was played on a ground roughly in the centre where some of the car parks are now with probably the only marl [well looked-after] wicket in the area.
“It was a small ground obviously prepared by a groundsman who had plenty of staff, where I had the good fortune to score 49 runs. My grandfather had promised me a bat when I scored 50 but when I wrote to him he still told me that I needed to score 50 which I did not accomplish before he died.
“The other indelible memory is of having only demerara sugar on the tea table which we didn’t see elsewhere and I have often wondered why the Senior Service was favoured.
“While I was proud to play at Berengrave Park the ground was very different from our wicket which we had to prepare before the game after working on Saturday morning. We still had buttercups and had to clear cowpats as the ground was let to Mr George Longley to graze his cows His £25 paid our annual rent.”
It sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?
Mr Cooper continued: “My next connection with the hospital was just before the war when I was invited to play tennis on courts at the back of the executive houses on the southern side which are now used as offices.
“My family were friendly with Mr William English who was Secretary to the Admiral and the executive houses had beautifully kept courts. Here again labour was in abundance at a time when there was a great deal of unemployment.
“My brother and I were fortunate to have the use of a neighbour’s court as long as we kept it cut and marked out. I later was able to use the courts at Valley View Road when the ground was bought by the Kent Electric Power Company.
“I suppose my next connection with the RN Hospital was in 1957 when I was Deputy Mayor of Gillingham and the mayors of the three towns visited the patients in the hospitals on Christmas morning. I think by then the RN Hospital was closing and I visited a lonely patient who seemed to be the last one left. I recall the long centre corridor with wards off each side.
“By the end of the 1950s it became apparent to some of us in local government that St Bartholomew’s Hospital, Rochester, and All Saints’ at Luton were quite inadequate and that the health authority were not going to build a new general hospital on the Hoath Lane site that had been bought for that purpose some years before so we pressed the authority to use the empty RN Hospital, not intending that it should become the permanent general hospital which it has become.
“The results are plain to be seen and the Health Authority has recently transferred ownership of the Hoath Lane site to Medway Council. I cannot believe that the present site will be adequate much longer if population increases as expected.
“By 1962-63 when I was Mayor of Gillingham I think the hospital had been taken over by the National Health Service. I suppose that it must have been around 1960 when I was chairman of Fair View Junior School which was overcrowded with about eight mobile classrooms. The education officer negotiated for the use of some of the empty wards to accommodate some of the classes.
“Many parents were concerned that the children’s education would suffer but we allocated some of our best teachers and the results were enlightening as the children looked upon themselves as the privileged ones and their examination results were some of the best in the history of the school.
“There must be many men and women who recall their period at the hospital.”
A school in the old wards
Freddie Cooper was right. Step forward Pam Cole (née Pritchard), of Carvoran Way, Wigmore, who wrote: “I spent what was my third year at Fairview Junior School at the naval hospital in 1964-65. We were bused down each day and I think the buses all had letters to make them identifiable to each class.
“Ours was B and quickly nicknamed B Bomb as it was a bit of an old crate and we used to have bets on when it would break down! Our classrooms were the old wards and had highly polished wooden floors and a fire in the middle of the room that we all used to gather around in winter.
“The desks were between the fire and the entrance door with the back part of the ward left empty and used for group activities. What was the old sluice room at the far end of the ward was out of bounds and many stories were circulated about it, and indeed, the ward itself being haunted – kids love to scare the wits out of each other, of course!”
Accommodation was by no means luxurious: “The classroom blocks were joined by open corridors with a roof over them but it was very cold and wet in winter. Our dinners were brought in large metal containers (presumably from the nearby Upbury Manor school). It was my first taste of school dinners as I lived near Fairview and had always gone home before. I can remember not liking the dinner very much.”
(I still have nightmares about my one term of school dinners. I get a headache even thinking about gipsy tart – SR)
“During the better weather each class was allocated a plain outside wall on which we all painted a mural. Ours was based on an island with buried treasure and was very enjoyable to produce and we were proud of the results. Our teacher was Mrs Masters and yes we did feel special as the pupils who went to school at the hospital. I was sad to return to Fairview for my fourth year.”
Mr Cooper said a number of parents were concerned that their children were getting the right sort of education at an old hospital. On that subject, Mrs Cole adds: “I can’t remember if my mother was one of the parents to express concern over my education at the time but it certainly didn’t do me any harm as I passed my 11-plus the next year and went on to grammar school and subsequently teacher training college where I qualified as a teacher of music in 1976.”