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Compiled and copyright ©Martin Edwards 2009

Aldershot, Cambridge Hospital from an old postcard

Its birth was indirectly due to the influence of Florence Nightingale who after her experiences in the Crimean War (1854-1855) set about reforming the medical services of the Army through the influence she brought to bear on the Secretary of State for War, Lord Herbert. That demure exterior concealed the character of an inflexible and ruthless reformer.
Cambridge Military Hospital B & W : Click on image to enlarge

When the Camp at Aldershot was first established, it was divided for medical purposes into three areas. By 1856 there were three station hospitals, which together provided accommodation for about 800 patients.

The first was a wooden hutted hospital located in V and Z lines near the wooden Garrison Church which later faced the Cambridge and Louise Margaret Hospitals. This first hospital had wards for lunatics and infectious diseases, and accommodation for 33 soldiers' wives and children. A Sister of Mercy acted as matron, and a committee of officers administered a charitable fund to provide extra articles for the patients.

The second station was the Union Hospital. This was the only brick building on the heath which became South Camp. Built around 1680 as a private residence, it subsequently became the Union Poor House and school for pauper children. The school was moved to Crondall when the War Department purchased the land. The Union Hospital was behind Salamanca barracks, and there was an extension on the other side of the road behind Talavera Barracks, and each hut had two wards accommodating 16 patients. The wards were described as:

"spacious, airy, well-ventilated, lighted with gas and fitted with baths, WCs and lavatories complete".

Nearby were the office of the Principal Medical Officer and quarters for the Apothecary, Steward and six hospital sergeants. The Union Hospital was closed shortly after the opening of the Cambridge Hospital and the patients were transferred. Those who could do so walked to the new building, whilst the others were taken by horse ambulance.

The third station hospital was called the United Hospital, and was located in P and Q lines in North Camp. It was replaced by the Connaught Hospital.

The Cambridge Hospital was built by Messrs Martin Wells and Co. of Aldershot at a cost of 45,758, and was opened for the admission of patients on Friday 18th July 1879. The hospital was named after HRH The Duke of Cambridge (1819 - 1904) who was the only son of the seventh son of HM George III. He was made a Field Marshall in 1862, and was Commander-in-Chief of the Army from 1856-1895.

The hospital was originally designed as a series of individual "Regimental hospitals" joined by a connecting corridor, with each self-contained to reduce the risk of cross infection. But this system had been discontinued in 1873 before the hospital opened and so it was always run as a single establishment. The architect

"proposed that the bricks of the arched roof of the wards shall be perforated, and in connection with flues, through which outlets the heated or ventilated air of the wards shall escape; and the introduction of the external air is provided for by a series of perforated plates of zinc running round the base of the skirting board; and that, moreover, a series of them should likewise run up the centre of the floor for the admission of fresh air into that part of the chamber; and in order to prevent the apertures from in these horizontal plates being obstructed by dust, as well as to guard against fluid during the washing of the ward finding its way into the air passage in connection with the plates, it was suggested that they should be raised, say two inches, above the level of the floor".

The interior of the walls were to be faced with brick and whitewashed. The Hospital Board did not approve and

"earnestly hoped that this plan may not be adhered to, nothing more unseemly or more cellar-like than would be presented by such an imperfect finish to the wards being approved of; no comforts in the rooms, and no arrangements, could ever compensate for the chilling feature of an uncovered surface of brick wall for the sick man's eye to rest on".

The Cambridge was probably the first base hospital in the history of the Army to receive casualties direct from the battle front. The battle of Mons took place on August 20th 1914. The Aldershot News stated that:

"The first batches of wounded men arrived at the Cambridge and Connaught Hospitals from Southampton on Sunday. Most of those sent on to Aldershot met with their injuries during the battle of Mons. They were moved to their respective hospitals with the utmost care and solicitude. All tell a terrible story of the desperate character of the fighting at Mons."

The Cambridge was also the birthplace of plastic surgery in the British Empire. Captain Gillies (later Sir Harold), on leave in Paris in June 1915, met Morestin who was doing wonderful work on the reconstruction of faces in the Val-de-Grace Hospital in Paris. In his own words Gillies "stood spellbound as Morestin removed half a face distorted with cancer". He fell in love with the work on the spot, and at the end of 1915 was sent back from France to start a Plastic Unit in the Cambridge Hospital. His suggestion to the War office that all wounded face and jaw patients should be labelled for Aldershot was received without enthusiasm. Nevertheless he bought 10 worth of labels in a local bookshop and sent them to the War Office for this purpose. He had little hope of seeing them again, but after the battle of the Somme facial wounds arrived in Britain "not only with my labels but with official ones issued by the War Office, neatly made out for me". They prepared for 200 patients, but 2,000 arrived at Southampton. The Unit was established under Sir W. Arbuthnot and Captain Gillies, the dental side of the work was done by Kelsey Fry (later Sir William), and the artist was Professor Tonks of the Slade Art School, who had retired and was found by Gillies working as a secretary in an adjutant's office having volunteered to "do his bit".

The original part of the Cambridge has not changed greatly since it was built. The famous long central corridor once had entrances at both ends. The Leishman Laboratory was built at the east end and opened by Lady Leishman in 1932. The first Commanding Officer was Major A. Hood and the great Leishman himself worked in the laboratory. During World War II the Cambridge was greatly expanded since Aldershot had become a large military centre, and many well known medical men walked the long corridor.

The clock tower of the hospital once housed a large bell and two smaller ones. The large bell has a twin which went to Windsor Castle, and they are called the Sebastopol bells. They were brought home along with other captured Russian trophies from the Crimes in 1856, and came from the Church of the Twelve Apostles in Sebastopol. Cast by Nicholas Samtoun of Moscow, each weighed 17cwt 1qr 21lb, and they were put on show at Woolwich Arsenal in February 1856. The Aldershot bell was erected on a wooden stand near the Headquarters Office huts which stood between Gun Hill and Middle Hill, and a sentry rang the bell like a gong on each hour. The bell was moved into the Cambridge clock tower when it was built, where it continued to ring the hours. The smaller bells bore the inscription: "Cast by Gillet Bland & Co., clock makers to Her Majesty, Croydon 1878 London". They were used to ring the quarters until, in 1914, a senior officer decided that the bells should be silenced as they disturbed the patients. The large bell was moved to Steeles Road in March 1961, where it was unveiled by the GOC Major-General R.A. Bramwell-Davis, and later moved again to its present site outside Gun Hill House.

For the last 30 years of its existence, civilians were admitted to the hospital when beds were available, with priority given to those with military connections. The esteem in which the hospital was held can be judged by the number of people who tried to gain admission. One lady advancing her claim, announced that her grandfather was killed in the Boer War. Although since the Second World War the Cambridge had decreased its bed strength, it still provided a third more beds that when it was first opened, having 350 beds including 27 for officers and 102 for women and dependents. The Central Sterile Supply Service started to supply syringes during the Suez crisis in 1956, expanded rapidly to supply ready packed operating equipment. By the 1990s it supplied made-up packs for practically every medical and surgical procedure large and small. The Cambridge Hospital was amongst the first in the country to establish this type of service. The hospital housed the Army Chest Unit and a well appointed outpatient department located at the west end of the corridor was opened in 1967.

Like many old buildings the Cambridge has its ghost. The "Grey Lady" is said to be a sister of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service (now QARANC), who threw herself to her death from the open walkway between the upper wards, after she had mistakenly given a patient a fatal overdose of a prescribed drug. She is a benign ghost and is said to help the staff when under pressure with difficult cases.

Sadly the disadvantages of the historic old building were used to support the closure of the hospital. Asbestos found in the walls and ceiling of the building was being removed as wards were refurbished two or three at a time, until work was halted by the proposed closure. Fire hazards prevented most of the upper floor being used, although fire standards had been improved. Many departments were cramped, and because the hospital was built on a hill for hygiene reasons, any outwards development was prevented. (It was originally thought that building it on a ridge would encourage clean air to waft through the wards.) The kitchens were said to need modernization to bring them up to food safety standards, and water was supplied through cast iron pipes which give it a yellow tinge.

[Source: Rushmoor Borough Council]

Last updated 7 August, 2009

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