HistoricGosport Haslar Hospital

Haslar Hospital

Royal Haslar Hospital 1897

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Haslar Hospital

CERTAINLY there is little about a Naval hospital, in times of peace, to attract a sensation-loving public ; but let a great naval war break out, and a wondrous change will be noticeable in the popular estimate of this particular branch of the Service ; especially if there is an action at sea. The hospitals become at once the cynosure of every eye, their inmost recesses are lit up by the search-lights of public criticism, and woe betide the officials who are caught napping, or who, through supineness in time of peace, have allowed these beneficent provisions for the sick and wounded to drift into a condition of inefficiency and neglect.

When we consider the important part the hospitals have always played in the economy of the fleet, it is curious that so little should be known of their past history ; surely this ought to be full of instruction ? Certainly their records should throw light on many questions relating to the welfare of the Navy-seaman in bygone times ; while of the buildings themselves, it may be affirmed that were the walls but endowed with the power of speech and of memory, they would unfold a tale of deep and gruesome interest !

Of existing Naval hospitals there can be no doubt that the one whose somewhat gloomy aspect attracts the eye on the Gosport side of Portsmouth harbour has the greatest claim on our attention, not only by reason of its superior size and national importance, but from its antiquity, and the many interesting historical associations connected with it. To trace back the history of Haslar Hospital to its foundation is to hark back to what may be called the “dark ages” of the Navy, to a time when, to put it mildly, the welfare of the unfortunate creatures who were sent off to fight their country’s battles by sea did not receive the attention it meets with at the present day. And in no direction was the roughness of the times more forcibly illustrated than in the defective arrangements for the care of the sick and wounded.

It is, of course, impossible, within the limits of an article to touch more than the fringe of a very great subject; though it will be easy to show how curious are the results that await the student of this department of Naval history ; and moreover, that there is another aspect of hospital management besides the medical one.

The earliest mention of Haslar occurs in a publication of 1745, wherein we learn that  “a piece of ground has been purchased at Portsmouth, on which a hospital is ordered to be built, large enough to hold 1,500 sick and wounded seamen.” And later on we are told that “this noble building was raised at the earnest recommendation of the Earl of Sandwich“ ;-it was not completed till 1762.

That Haslar Hospital should have been founded in the year which saw Prince Charlie’s romantic, though ill-starred invasion of England was, of course, only a coincidence ; and yet, though devoid of political significance, a certain pathetic interest attaches to the chance association of the Pretender’s name with an institution so closely bound up with the history of the Fleet, for it serves to remind us of a feature in his character which, as a biographer says, “redeems it from much of the obloquy with which it has been loaded.” namely, his warm admiration for the British Navy. “Though a foreigner by education, he was an Englishman at heart, and understood the basis whereon the glory of England subsisted-her naval power.” And long afterwards, when a victory of the English fleet drew from him an expression of pleasure which provoked a sneering remark from the Prince of Conti, Charles Edward replied, “ I am the friend of England against all her enemies : as I always regard the glory of England as my own, and her glory is her fleet !

Surely it may be affirmed that had Prince Charlie’s warm regard for the Navy been shared, in some degree, by those who were responsible for its efficiency in times past, the feeling would have shown itself in a more active solicitude for the welfare of the sick and wounded seamen ? Those melancholy episodes which tarnished the Navy’s fair fame would then probably never have occurred !

Now, if there is one more curious fact than another that the study of this particular department of history obtrudes on our notice, it is the light in which a Naval hospital seems to have been regarded in old days by the authorities-as if it was a prison, in fact ! As many precautions were taken to guard the inmates as if they had been a lot of criminals, intent on nothing so much as breaking out 1 And this anomalous state of things might well cause surprise, did not a very cursory acquaintance with Naval history remind one that the fleet at this time was chiefly manned by compulsion, in the form of the “press-gang “ with its cruel methods, which swept up a very large number of men whose only ambition it was to regain their liberty at the very earliest opportunity. Now, a spell at hospital was, in those days, not only an agreeable relief from the monotony of a sea life, and therefore much sought after, but it afforded the longed-for chance of recovering that freedom from which the men had been so heartlessly torn ; and Jack would have been something more than human if, after being shipped off under the conditions described, he had not availed himself of the chance thus afforded.

A well-known Naval writer tells-us that Haslar Hospital was a common “take-off for deserters“-that, in fact, the men ran from it in such numbers as almost to counterbalance the impressments (1755).

It was a common thing, at that time, for a lieutenant to receive an order to take a midshipman and a party of men who could be trusted, for the purpose of guarding the hospital. Later on, when the officers and seamen of the fleet were better employed than in keeping watch and ward over their sick, this duty was entrusted to the military, who had to furnish “ nine sentinels by day and fifteen by night.” Still the leakage continued, much to the distress of the “Physician and Council,” who thereupon advised the erection of the massive and lofty iron railings that now grace the open or western side of the great quadrangle ; also that the windows of the lower stories should be barred, and that the men should be locked in the wards at night (1795).

Still, as we know, “ stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage ! “ and as long as Jack was minded to get out, the devil himself could hardly keep him in. Necessity, it has been been well said, is the mother of invention, and Jack’s resources were infinite. Many and curious were his means of exit. We find the Council complaining that “ eleven men made their escape in one night.” Another time three found a means of exit “ down the closet, and thence through the drain, into Haslar lake. at low tide.” It is interesting to know that “ the drains were well-contrived, and were washed by the tide every twenty-four hours ! “ Next night a sentry was put at the mouth of this novel bolt-hole, with the result that two poor fellows were nabbed as they emerged. Then it was discovered that the patients were in the habit of saving up their allowances of wine and porter to bribe the nurses and sentries to let them escape.

It was the custom to give a reward of one pound for the re-capture of deserters ; the sum being deducted from their pay ; but it coming to the knowledge of the men that the reward was withdrawn, we learn that they became “ extremely riotous, inasmuch as forty or fifty men have gone over the hospital walls in the middle of the day.” It is not surprising to hear that “ some of them return often drunk and in a worse state of health than when they went out.” The only wonder is they returned at all!

Everyone knows, or ought to know, that one of the grievances brought forward by the Spithead mutineers was the bad treatment, perhaps rather the want of treatment, of the sick on hoard the ships of the fleet, as well as the embezzlement of the necessaries supplied for their use, and certainly the barbarity of the times is nowhere reflected more strikingly than in the hospital annals, which go a very long way towards confirming the opinion that all was not as it ought to have been. The Council are constantly complaining of the condition of patients sent from the fleet; some are sent “with single jacket, and others with no clothes in their hammocks.” But the officers’ servants seem to have been in the worst plight to their master’s shame !

They are “ sometimes sent on shore nearly naked -one man had only a pair of trousers and a shirt, quite worn out.” Then there are constant complaints of the “ lousy bedding,” and of being “ overrun with vermin,” which is not surprising when we find the Council asking if they may have “ a copper for warming water and a fixed fire-place,” so that all patients “ may be washed with soap and water on arrival at the hospital.

The defective state of the provisions supplied by con tract was another fruitful source of complaint ; and as the defects had to he made good by purchases in the town by the hospital employees, the Council report that this often delays the patients’ dinners, sometimes till four p.m. which is not desirable for sick men.” Certainly there were fines for breach of contract, but then the rascally contractors “ pay the fines without question,”-and laugh in their sleeves!

And so. when the mutiny broke out at Spithead there were no keener sympathisers with the movement than the poor fellows “indurance vile” at Haslar, who, though unable to take an active part in it, hoisted a flag composed of handkerchiefs tacked together, morning and evening, and answered the cheers from the fleet; just by way of showing what they thought of it all. And when the boat-load of ‘delegates‘ was fired into alongside the ‘London,’ the wounded were at once landed at Haslar Hospital, where three of them died, and were buried in Kingston churchyard.

Disembarking a Patient
Disembarking a Patient

If the Jack Tars of that day ever glanced up at the fine pediment that adorns the front of the hospital, the carving on which represents, amongst other subjects, “Navigation leaning on a rudder, pouring balm into the wounds of a sailor,” we can picture the sardonic grin that would steal over their honest faces, as this was explained to them.

With the close of the long war in 1815, followed by the enormous reductions in the fighting forces .and all the establishments connected with them, the history of Haslar Hospital resolved itself into a mere dry, uneventful record of useful work, combined with slow, though steady progress in the direction of efficiency. As England has been engaged in no important war since that date, there has been little to bring the hospital into notice; yet, in a quiet, un-ostentatious way, it has always played an important part in the economy of the fleet. For the sick and the maimed—like the poor—we have always with us!

Amongst the changes that have taken place in comparatively recent times, the most important are : First, the elimination of the military or ‘executive’ element from the administration of the hospital ; and, secondly, the establishment of a nursing staff of Sisters. The presence of an executive officer, in the person of the captain-superintendent, was a relic of the old days, when it was considered absolutely essential to the proper maintenance of discipline amongst the large body of seamen under treatment, that there should be a staff of executive officers in residence. Besides, so little confidence was placed in the doctors, that it was a custom in the old days for a lieutenant to accompany the medical officer in his round of visits, so as to ensure that the patients received proper attention.

Of the several officers who held the post of captain-superintendent of Haslar, the most distinguished was Sir Edward Parry, of Arctic renown. The administration of the hospital by this distinguished officer was what might be described as epoch-making ; and some interesting particulars of this period of Sir Edward’s career have been gathered together by his son, in the Memoirs of Rear-Admiral Parry,” a book which every naval officer might study with advantage. It was during this officer’s residence at Haslar, that the first steps were taken for founding Sailors’ Homes at Portsmouth and other ports -a movement in which Captain Parry took a prominent part, and which has been attended with remarkable success wherever it has taken root.The comparatively recent institution of a nursing staff of Sisters was a wise and very necessary step in advance, the full benefit of which will be more manifest, perhaps, in time of war than in time of peace. Men have never been conspicuous successes as nurses, and most assuredly the old staff of men-nurses at Haslar could hardly be instanced as the exceptions. Nursing is essentially the role of woman; and in this capacity the annals of our several campaigns—how devoted are the services the sex has rendered to our sailors and soldiers – from the Crimean of terrible notoriety down to the present time — afford abundant testimony.

It may be of interest to mention the fact, that the names of the Sisters composing the nursing staff at the naval hospitals appear regularly in the official ‘Navy List.’ The uniform worn by the Sisters—if the word uniform is applicable to ladies’ dress—is plain and tasteful, and affords an agreeable contrast to the frigid monotony of line and colour that characterises Government establishments. The presence of nursing Sisters has moreover revolutionised the aspect of the wards ; the inhospitable and repellent appearance which they bore in old days. having undergone a surprising transformation.

The only living links with the past that now greet the eye at Haslar are the old Greenwich pensioners, who were removed here some years ago as a necessary consequence of changes in the administration of Greenwich Hospital. They all have their little grievances—what Englishman hasn’t?—but, on the whole, it would be difficult to conceive of a pleasanter place in which to while away the evening of life : for their table is provided liberally, and each man has a sufficiency of his favourite grog.

It may safely be said that at the present day Portsmouth has few pleasanter or more instructive sights to offer to the visitor than a tour of inspection of the wards and grounds of Haslar. The perfect order and scrupulous cleanliness inside, the bright parterres of flowers, the well-kept lawns and shady paths, and the many provisions for the comfort and health of patients, all tend to impress one with the change for the better that has taken place since the days of our last great Naval war. If one of the Jacks of 1796 was to rise from the grave and wander into the wards at the present time, he would likely enough think us a sadly degenerate lot to require so much care and so many comforts, unknown to a former generation.

The Entrance Gates
The Entrance Gates

The approaches to all government establishments, as our readers know, are very jealously guarded, the public being only admitted at stated times and under certain conditions. At Haslar, as elsewhere, the police duties are carried out by a detachment of the Metropolitan Police, who exercise a very rigid censorship over everything that goes in or out of the hospital. The clandestine introduction of provisions or strong drink by Jack’s friends without the wall, as a means of relieving the tedium of his existence while in hospital, has to be very carefully guarded against. Some members of the police on duty at the gates are here depicted. We are looking down an avenue of trees in the direction of Portsmouth Harbour, from whence a creek runs up to a point about a quarter of a mile from the hospital, where a landing stage is provided, and, for the more convenient transport of the sick to the hospital, a line of rails is laid from this pier to the survey rooms, from whence patients can be easily distributed to their destined wards. Very different are all these arrangements to those of former times, when it was a frequent subject of complaint of “corpses being left lying the whole clay at the landing place, owing to the neglect of the hospital servants.” How lax, too, was the supervision at the gate is shown by the complaint of the “Physician and Council“ to headquarters, that “the hospital swarms with publicans every day, and provisions and liquor are introduced more frequently than ever.

Preparing for Christmas
Preparing for Christmas

The good old English custom of keeping up Christmas has no more loyal supporters than Her Majesty’s seamen and marines, whether afloat or ashore. In our second illustration we see some of the paper decorations, in the manufacture of which Jack—and for that matter, Joe, the Marine, who also finds a refuge at Haslar in time of sickness—is such an adept. To complete the scene, the occupants of the ward, who, doubtless, have a special dispensation from the doctor on this occasion, ought to be seated round the festive board.

The Collingwood Ward
The Collingwood Ward

Lastly, we have a view which depicts a characteristic scene in one of the surgical wards, with the occupants clothed in the hospital dress, and diverting themselves as best they may to kill time, which naturally hangs rather heavily on the hands of men accustomed to an active life in the open air.

Haslar Hospital 1883
Haslar Hospital 1883
Haslar Bluejackets
Haslar Bluejackets
‘Career of a Naval Surgeon The Royal Hospital Haslar:
The Graphic 1 October 1887

Navy and Army Illustrated 1897
The Graphic
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