England’s Palace Of Pain: The Hospital Built For An Empire Of Soldiers

ENGLAND—A hospital orderly, wearing what resembles a butcher’s apron, poses with an equally ominous-looking trolley. Ward maids, country-looking girls, pose in utilitarian overalls designed for dirty work, rather than the pristine starch of nurse’s uniforms. A handsome stable hand, straight out of a War Horse and proudly holding a pair of equine charges, looks hesitantly into the camera’s lens. A quartet of stretcher-bearers wait on a dockside to unload an ambulance ship. A glamorous young officer poses in a cane chair. And in a seaside scene, convalescent soldiers socialize with their families on a pier that might be Bournemouth or Brighton. But behind them rises an enormous building, its vast array of pillars and arched windows seen through the trees.

The Royal Victoria Military Hospital at Netley was not only England’s biggest building, but also its “largest palace of pain”, according to a 1900 report. Set on the shores of Southampton Water in Hampshire, it was created in response to the Crimean war, and designed to serve an empire. It would end up ministering to an apocalypse. During the first world war, this sprawling brick behemoth – a quarter of a mile long – became a microcosm of what was happening across the English Channel.

Now, a century later a remarkable album of photographs has come to light to document the men and women who worked at Netley, who were healed there, or who died there. Published here for the first time, these poignant and oddly immediate images reveal the extent of this global conflict, and the way it involved civilians as well as serving men and women. Their faces tell untold stories. They were far from the action, but they were the ordinary people who serviced and fed the insensate and insatiable monster that was the war. 

When I began to write my book Spike Island: The Memory of a Military Hospital, I was amazed at how few records remained to document Netley’s story. The hospital stood, from its foundation in 1856 to its demolition in 1966, for more than a century. Yet almost nothing remained in the public archive to commemorate it. What emerged instead were family memories of 1914-18, the years that saw Netley’s resources at peak demand.

Thousands of men and women lived and died in this place, remembered in sepia-scored letters and postcards, and pictures taken by local photographers. Only a precious few, such as this album, survive to reclaim a site that was once world-famous. When Conan Doyle published his first Sherlock Holmes mystery, A Study in Scarlet, he told his readers that Dr Watson trained as an army doctor at Netley – its name was so well known that the author did not need to explain any further. The hospital was, after all, a town in itself, a 200-acre metropolis with its own gasworks, reservoir, school, stables, bakery and prison. There was a grand officers’ mess, complete with ballroom, and modest married quarters for other ranks. There was even a salty swimming pool, fed by a windmill pumping water from the sea.

But with the advent of industrialized war, Netley’s massive edifice proved unable to cope. Southampton Water was black with ships taking troops to the front (one half of all the British Expeditionary Force left Britain down this seaway) – and with ambulance ships bringing back their broken bodies.

In response to the imagined new scale of war, a vast “hutted hospital”, using wooden “kit-built” field huts (ironically designed by a German firm), was constructed on the plateau behind the main hospital. Patients wore blue woolen suits with white lapels and red ties, called “hospital undress” – a reminder to anyone who might encounter convalescent soldiers that they were still serving men (and not potential cowards to be handed white feathers).

So vast and teeming was this wartime site – up to three trains a day would arrive, bringing wounded from the front – I would contend that only here could British civilians come close to the reality of what was going on in Europe. The infrastructure needed to supply and staff Netley meant that the local population knew better than most the true horror of the war – a story carefully concealed from the rest of the country by a government wary of its effect on morale. These images invoke that sense of shock, in their own delayed power. At Netley, young nurses, often in their teens and with no previous medical experience, had to deal with men without limbs or faces. Men who’d lost their minds to the war.

Netley also boasted the first purpose-built military asylum, known as D Block. Here men suffering extreme psychosis were treated – or in many cases simply locked away in padded cells. One-half of all men suffering from shell-shock were cleared through or treated at Netley. Extraordinary footage, shot by the Pathe brothers at the hospital in 1917. documents the quivering wrecks to which war had reduced these victims. Wilfred Owen, suffering from shell-shock, was brought here from France in 1917. He wrote of the strangeness of suddenly finding himself in this semi-rural, semi-militarized site. “I cannot quite believe myself back on England in this unknown region,” he told his mother. 

George V and Queen Mary visited the wounded at Netley, as did Lloyd George. A teenage Noël Coward entertained them in a touring production of Charley’s Aunt. As I sorted through these images of the hospital, I fantasized about finding the face of a young Coward or Owen in them.

I grew up next to Netley, and although the main hospital was demolished when I was a boy, its other buildings remained. My mother told me how she had come here as a little girl with my grandfather on Saturday outings in the 1920’s. She’d peer through the gates of the hospital and see grown men being wheeled about in what looked to her like prams – paraplegic relics of the war, still lingering there. And as I dug deeper into Netley’s story, new stories emerged.

Wounded German prisoners of the war were treated here in their hundreds, sometimes to the disgust of the locals. At one point, shipyard workers in nearby Woolston went on strike and marched to the hospital gates, demanding that brave British Tommies, relegated to wooden huts in the site’s backyard, should be allowed into the “proper” hospital, rather than the enemy soldiers who were being treated there.

What they didn’t realize was that the hutted hospital held facilities far more modern – electrotherapy, X-ray equipment, and other state-of-the-art hardware – than the antiquated Victorian conditions in the brick hospital, which acted as a secure prison for the Pow’s. It was claimed that the Germans’ “hospital undress” had red dots on the back so they could be identified from behind – and shot if they attempted to escape. Many tried; one got as far as Waterloo station in London by clinging onto the underside of a train.

Netley echoed the worldwide scope of the war. Russian and Japanese doctors and nurses worked at the hospital; Aboriginal Australians, Maoris and black South Africans were treated there. One entire floor of the main building was given over to Indian troops, one million of whom served in the war. In the hospital grounds, a concrete platform or ghat was built at the side of a stream for cremations, after which the ashes would be tipped into the stream and borne back, spiritually, to join the waters of the Ganges. 

Netley was a community in itself, a new colony of war. There was a hospital shop that sold clay pipes stamped RVH Netley, along with transfer-printed chinaware. Hundreds of postcards were produced, too. You could even buy a card of the operating theater where you had your leg cut off.

There were lighter diversions, of course: sports days and “futurist jazz bands” and camp productions of The Mikado with officers and men in drag. With the new phenomenon of men and women serving alongside each other, romances blossomed. Florence Redding, who compiled this album when she was a ward maid at Netley, met her future husband, a dispatch rider, when he was being treated there.

With the ending of the war, the hospital fell silent and its fields fallow; it was only fitfully used thereafter. In 1966, shortly before it was demolished, its Gothic air inspired Jonathan Miller – whose father had been an army psychologist at Netley in the 1940’s – to use its endless but empty corridors as a setting for his trippy 60’s film version of Alice in Wonderland. For years afterwards the site was derelict, though its asylum still stood. As trespassing teenagers, my friends and I would pretend to lock one another in its padded cells, their wadding now split open like ripped teddy bears.

Netley is now a rather glorious country park, but I still look around and imagine its thousand windows, each a testament to lost lives. These evocative images bear witness to humanity versus a monolithic building and a relentless war. And through them we can peer back to an unbelievable moment in time.


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