A Brief History of the Royal Naval Hospital, Great Yarmouth
In 1806, the Admiralty ordered the building of a Royal Naval Hospital on the South Denes in Yarmouth to treat the sick and wounded of the North Sea Fleet engaged in war with France. It was planned to hold 200 or so patients in airy and clean conditions. The architect is generally held to be Mr William Pilkington (1758-1848) under the supervision of Mr Edward Holl, the architect in charge of Naval Works. Pilkington was a Yorkshireman, and a pupil of Sir Robert Taylor (Architect of the King's Works and Architect to the Bank of England) until Taylor's death in 1788. Pilkington's other works included the Customs House at Portsmouth and the Transport Office in Cannon Row, Westminster.
Naval crown on Guardhouses gates (photo © www.rnhgy.org.uk)
Building commenced in 1809 with the laying of the foundation stone by Admiral Billy Douglas, the Port-Admiral of Great Yarmouth, and was completed in 1811 at a cost of some £120,000. The building was erected by Mr Henry Peto, the uncle of the noted Victorian entrepreneur and MP, Sir Samuel Morton Peto.
The Hospital consisted of four independent blocks around a lawned courtyard with colonnades facing the Great Court. It was built of yellow bricks made locally on the Denes, with Portland stone dressings and slate roofing. The site covered an area of about 15 acres.
The North Block contained stores, bathrooms, mess rooms, a kitchen and staff accommodation. The East, South and West Blocks had wards on each floor with a chapel in the centre of the West Block and a clocktower above the centre of the South Block. An operating theatre was situated in the South Block conveniently very close to the mortuary (now 10, The Cottages).
The Cottages in 2013 (photo © www.rnhgy.org.uk)
Battle of Waterloo Casualties
The Hospital opened in 1811 but with the French Navy already largely defeated, only took in its first patients with the lodging of 600 casualties from the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. According to contemporary writings, they were "comfortably provided for". A commemorative board (right) states the number of interments made at that time. The burial ground was situated in the south-east corner of the grounds. Four adult skeletons were unearthed during excavations in 1979.
On 18 June 2015, a ceremony was held at the hospital commemorating the two hundredth anniversary of the battle. The Mayor of Great Yarmouth Borough, Councillor Shirley Weymouth, laid a wreath in the Chapel and a short service was conducted by the Reverend Peter Paine, the Port Chaplain of Great Yarmouth.
Photo above courtesy Chris Stanley
On 21 October 2015, a blue plaque was unveiled by the Mayor.
Photo © www.rnhgy.org.uk
Army Barracks and Hospital
The Hospital was retained by the Army as a barracks, receiving the occasional company of foot soldiers or detachment of dismounted horse, although it was often unoccupied.
Use of the Hospital as an occasional Army barracks continued until 1844 when it was fitted up under the direction of Dr Robert Sillery, the Staff Surgeon then in charge, to become a military lunatic asylum. In October 1846 the patients at Fort Clarence, Chatham Army Hospital were taken in when this was considered to be no longer suitable. The transfer of patients from their temporary accommodation at Shorncliffe Barracks, Folkestone was undertaken in one day under the personal supervision of Dr Sillery. This was followed in 1849 with the transfer of patients from the Royal Kilmainham Army Hospital in Ireland.
Envelope dated 18 September 1847 addressed to Dr Sillery
An inscription in the wall of the Guardhouses archway (left) reads "15 Kings Hussars". The 15th King's Hussars were a light dragoon regiment originating from the eighteenth century.
Amongst the 86 soldiers listed in the 1851 Census for the Hospital is a "J J" described as a corporal with the 15th Hussars. (Note: In the 1851 Census, and most later censuses, patients were listed by their initials only.)
In May 1854 following the outbreak of the Crimean War, the Admiralty repossessed the Hospital and the remaining Army patients were transferred to other establishments. (The 19 officers went to Coton Hill Lunatic Asylum Hospital near Stafford with the 69 soldiers and 5 women being removed to Grove Hall asylum at Bow, East London.) The Hospital was fitted out to take in naval wounded from the Baltic Fleet, but none ever came and it became instead a convalescent home for soldiers. In July 1858, 57 invalids arrived, mostly casualties from the Indian Mutiny, followed by a further 80 invalids, also mostly sufferers from the sub-continent, in July 1859.
Undated Victorian photograph (copyright Norfolk County Library)
Only a few gravestones for deaths at the Hospital remain from this period at St Nicholas Churchyard. This weathered stone records the death of George Asker on 2 May 1862, aged 45 years.
The inscription on this gravestone is now mostly illegible, but according to Dr Paul P Davies' book History of Medicine in Great Yarmouth - Hospitals and Doctors, Mr Asker was a colour and hospital sergeant of the 15th Foot Regiment.
Photo copyright www.rnhgy.org.uk
On 19 March 1861 the Bury and Norwich Post and Suffolk Herald reported:
Royal Military Invalid Hospital
Miss Florence Nightingale has forwarded to Captain E S Jervois, commandant of the Royal Military Hospital, as a private subscription, the sum of 20 shillings in aid of a fund at present being raised for an harmonium in the chapel of the hospital.
In 1863, the Admiralty reclaimed the building for use as a naval lunatic asylum and the Hospital was remodelled with the addition of thirty-seven new wards. Eighty patients were received from the overcrowded Royal Naval Hospital Haslar at Gosport and thirty-six were taken in from the Sussex Lunatic Asylum at Haywards Heath, increasing the number of patients at the Hospital in September 1863 to one hundred and sixty. the Hospital was officially inspected by Sir J Liddell and found to be in a satisfactory condition.
In common with other naval hospitals, an 'agent and steward' was appointed to 'conduct the internal management of the establishment'. The salary was £300 a year, increasing to £400 after five years service.
The boundaries were enlarged by taking in ground on the north and west sides and by the purchase in 1865 of about ten acres from the Corporation of Yarmouth at a cost of £10,982. A condition of this purchase was that the land should not be built on but should be kept open forever as a recreation ground (now St Nicholas Recreation Ground). In 1875, a further eleven acres were purchased on the east side at a cost of £11,000.
RNH uniform button
The 1881 census lists the staff and patients at the Hospital.
Dr Thomas Browne RN, staff surgeon of the Hospital, was the founder member of Great Yarmouth and Caister Golf Club. At the inaugural meeting called in 1882 no-one else turned up so he appointed himself Secretary, Treasurer and Captain. He is reputed to have first used the term 'bogey' to mean one stroke over par for a hole.
The census shows his wife to have been the mother of five children at the age of 34.
John Mooring aged 100, served on HMS Ajax at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. His death in 1882 was reported in newspapers throughout the country.
Gravestone of George Cooke (died 12 July 1893) at the Old Cemetery, Great Yarmouth Minster.
He was the Gate Porter at the Hospital for many years and is listed in the 1871 and 1881 Censuses of the Hospital.
Royal Naval Hospital fire engine and crew 1890
Royal Naval Hospital sports teams
The Royal Naval Hospital football team was amongst the founder members of the Great Yarmouth and District Football League in 1907, winning the Division One title in 1908/09 and 1909/10.
They also captured the Wiltshire Cup on four occasions (1905/06, 1907/08, 1908/09 and 1910/11) and were runners-up twice (1909/10 and 1911/12). The Wiltshire Cup is considered to be the second oldest continually contested cup competition in amateur football. Note the rivalry with Royal Artillery.
Wiltshire Cup finals
1905/06: Won 5-1 v. Tramways
1907/08: Won 2-1 v. Royal Artillery (replay after 1-1 draw)
1908/09: Won 6-0 v. Empire United
1909/10: Lost 0-1 v. Royal Artillery
1910/11: Won 1-0 v. Royal Artillery
1911/12: Lost 1-2 v. Royal Artillery
For many years, the Hospital fielded a cricket eleven to play against local teams. The scorecard below is from a match at Yarmouth on 2 September 1933 against the Civil Service which the Hospital XI won by 59 runs. Batting first, the Hospital managed 142 all out, with opening bat E T Williams top scoring with 37 (including a six and two fours) supported by number three C Swanston who scored 32 (with three fours). In reply, the Civil Service side could only manage 83 all out. Of the Hospital bowlers, Swanston was the pick taking 4-12, with Williams, W Black, and T Porter taking two wickets each.
At least two of the Hospital team were patients, Edward Julyan batting at 4 and James Cockram batting at 9. Both are included on the 1939 Register (see separate page on this website).
Extract from Civil Service cricket scorebook courtesy of Norfolk Record Office
RNH cat from the 1910s resting on the heating pipes! (Copyright Norfolk County Library)
Yarmouth Naval Hospital Act 1931
The Yarmouth Naval Hospital Act 1931 restricted the admission of patients to naval and Royal Marine patients, certain civilian patients who were ex-Navy or Royal Marine, and persons whose cost of maintenance was wholly or partly met by the Ministry of Pensions.
Aerial photograph from 1928
In 1931, there were 119 patients with about 10 new naval patients a year anticipated. Discussion in the House of Lords reported “normal peace time accommodation for 213 patients, but this number could be increased to 260.”
Notices were placed in 'The Navy List' publication inviting applications for admission to the Hospital.
From 'The Navy List, December 1939' (HMSO)
Christmas greetings card sold on Ebay 2010.
During the Second World War, the patients were evacuated to Lancaster Moor County Asylum in Lancashire. The Hospital was used by the Royal Navy as an information centre and administrative quarters and became a target for German air attacks. In common with other shore based Naval establishments, it was named HMS Watchful.
Framed cap band in Royal Naval Hospital chapel
Gravestone at Caister New Cemetery of Victoria Ellen Elizabeth Smith, a Wren serving at HMS Watchful, who died in a German bombing raid on 7 July 1941. Her husband Stanley, an Air Raid Warden, died in the same attack.
In 1942, a further German air attack badly damaged the original officers' houses either side of the main driveway. They can still be seen in the 1946 aerial photograph (see link below) but were later demolished. (Note also the parcel of land in the north-west corner of the site to the left of the main driveway which was sold off in the 1970s for housing as seen in the 1988 aerial photograph.)
Bomb damaged Officer's House 25 July 1942 (photo courtesy www.yarmouth.things.cc)
Eight Wrens assigned to HMS Midge lost their lives on 18 March 1943 when a bomb from a German air raid hit their hostel on the corner of Queen's Road and Nelson Road South opposite the Hospital site.
Memorial plaque on former site of HMS Midge (photo © www.rnhgy.org.uk)
Final parade of HMS Watchful in 1945 (photo courtesy Chris Stanley)
Post War Years
In 1948, discussion in the House of Commons reported the site to cover an area of 18 acres with the Hospital housing 167 patients and 74 staff. Mr W Edwards (for the Admiralty) rejected a suggestion by Squadron-Leader Kinghorn to evacuate the patients and staff to Wellington House (also in the hands of the Admiralty) to enable the Hospital (“that very fine building”) to house “some of the 3,000 families in Great Yarmouth who need houses.”
Officer's House 1958 (photo courtesy www.yarmouth.things.cc)
View of the Great Court with clocktower and Victorian greenhouse
Inspection of Victorian greenhouse (photo courtesy Chris Stanley)
St Nicholas NHS Hospital
In 1958, the Hospital was transferred from the Admiralty to the Ministry of Health and became a National Health Service psychiatric hospital known as St Nicholas Hospital. At that time, there were 236 beds of which 151 were occupied, including 28 ex-naval patients. None of the patients were serving Royal Naval personnel. The serving medical officers were Naval officers and were relocated by the Admiralty to another station. The remainder of the staff were civil servants.
1970s view of St Nicholas Hospital with new Yare and Waveney wards to left of main driveway
The closure of St Nicholas Hospital was reported in the January 1994 issue of the Royal Naval Association's Navy News:
Unfortunately the reference to the Battle of Copenhagen and a visit by Nelson are incorrect and apply to Great Yarmouth's previous Naval Hospital which stood on the site now occupied by Sainsburys and Booker Wholesale in St Nicholas Road, near to Great Yarmouth Minster (St Nicholas Church).
The writer of this website has not yet encountered the ghost in full naval ceremonial dress...
Royal Naval Hospital NHS flag lowered in 1958 (flag now framed in Chapel)
With its closure as a working hospital imminent, the Hospital was featured on the cover of, and inside the book Deserted Bastions: Historic Naval & Military Architecture published in April 1993 by the campaign group SAVE Britain's Heritage. Included under the heading "Future Uncertain?" with other such buildings considered at risk, the Hospital was described thus:
"The Royal Naval Hospital is an extremely important example of military architecture. The buildings are remarkable in that, unlike their peers, they have been little altered by the regular changes imposed by different military requirements. Furthermore they are in a good state of repair."
The entry concluded that "To find a suitable new use which will not compromise this historic legacy is of paramount importance."
A subsequent book Big Saves: Heroic Transformations of Great Landmarks by Marcus Binney was published in April 2016 by SAVE Britain's Heritage featuring the successful rescue and revival of great historic buildings such as the Royal Naval Hospital.
Following its closure, the Hospital's records were held by the James Paget University Hospital at Gorleston. They are now thought to have been mostly destroyed although admission registers for certain years are held by the Norfolk Record Office at Norwich. These are the medical register for 3 January 1907 to 13 July 1916, the register of admissions for treatment from 26 July 1974 to 11 November 1982, and the register of admissions for observation from 6 October 1973 to 15 September 1983.
Public inspection is restricted to admissions over 100 years ago.
The Medical Register for 3 January 1907 to 13 July 1916 (left) includes details of patient admissions, dates of death and discharge, and medical condition.
We are able to provide certain information from this register on request to those undertaking family research. Please see the Contact Us page.
Transcriptions of the ten yearly Censuses from 1841 to 1911 are available for download from a separate page on this website, as is a transcription of the 1939 Register taken at the outbreak of World War Two and which was made available for public inspection in November 2015.
Conversion into Residential Accommodation
The Hospital closed in 1993 and the patients were moved to more modern accommodation. The local newspaper reported various suggestions for its future use, including a museum displaying the town's naval history, art gallery, conference centre and concert venue. None of these suggestions came to pass.
The Hospital lay empty for 3 years until the architect Mr Kit Martin bought the site and converted the buildings into fifty-nine apartments and houses in collaboration with the specialist conservation architects Purcell Miller Tritton. Many additions and alterations that had been made over the years were removed, the aim being to restore the site as near as possible to its appearance in 1811.
The plan below shows the Hospital buildings and grounds immediately before conversion. The Yare and Waveney wards (top right) and the Mountbatten ward (extreme bottom right) had been added in the 1970s and were removed. Those areas are now lawned open ground. The cart shed (bottom right) made way for garages, and an almost imperceptible infill joined the Cottages with the mortuary (extreme bottom left) which until then was a detached building.
Plan showing Hospital buildings immediately before conversion (courtesy Norfolk Record Office)
HRH Princess Margaret visited the Hospital as a guest of Kit Martin soon after the conversion.
The photographs below were taken on 8 June 1997 by George Plunkett and show the site during conversion. (Reproduction on this website is by kind permission of Jonathan Plunkett.)
Eastern block during renovation 1997
To the left of the small tree (centre) is a plaque recording the visit of Prince Charles the previous year
Guard Houses archway through to the Great Court
Unrestored upper level ward in South Block
Hallway in North Block
Please note that use of the word 'lunatic' is to use the terminology of the day.