The Cambridge Military Hospital, Aldershot

By Paul H. Vickers, Friends of the Aldershot Military Museum

When the plans for the new Camp at Aldershot were being drafted in 1854, the need for adequate hospital facilities for the great number of troops to be quartered there was a subject of some debate.

The Commander in Chief, Lord Hardinge, instructed Major-General Sir Frederic Smith, the Royal Engineers officer in charge of construction at Aldershot, to draw up plans for “a Hospital constructed for each Regiment.” Smith vigorously protested, insisting that the system of individual regimental hospitals had been superseded by the principle of having general hospitals for a garrison, and that such hospitals had been established at Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth. Although Hardinge still preferred regimental hospitals, he agreed that “there is no reason why all the Hospitals and Corps should not be in the same building and under control of a superior surgeon”, and hence Smith should plan for a central hospital building at Aldershot. The location chosen was open land west of the Farnborough Road, which is today the grassed area opposite the Prince Consort’s Library.

Owing to the Crimean War the Camp had to be completed as quickly as possible, and the proposed hospital was not built. Instead, that Army took possession of the only substantial brick building on the land they had acquired, the old Tichborne sub-manor house which was then being used as a paupers’ school. Before becoming a school the building had been the workhouse for the Farnham Union, from which it took its name of the Union Building. Although Union Building provided a short-term solution, it was inadequate both in design and size. Some huts the other side of Hospital Hill (named after the Union Building hospital) were taken into use as additional hospital accommodation, as were more huts in both North and South Camps.

For a camp the size of Aldershot, a large purpose-built hospital was essential. In planning a new building, the architects turned to the work of Florence Nightingale for guidance. In her book “Notes on matters affecting the health, efficiency, and hospital administration of the British Army” (1858), Miss Nightingale gave very detailed instructions on the design of hospitals, advocating a series of pavilion wards, each holding between 20 and 25 patients. She recommended that services should be gathered into one central location: “All that has to be manufactured, as the cooking, washing, etc., should be, as much as possible, concentrated into one; while human beings, sick or well, should be distributed as much as possible”. Her guidelines went into great detail on issues such as drainage, ventilation, heating, size and positioning of windows, bathing facilities, and the duties and best employment of nursing staff. If the finished plans for the Cambridge Hospital are compared with Miss Nightingale’s principles, it is remarkable how closely the design followed her doctrine.

The building contract for the new hospital was awarded to Martin, Wells and Co. of Victoria Road, Aldershot, and the foundations were laid in 1875 on the high point of Stannon Hill, the ridge which overlooked the permanent barracks to the south. The grand central block faced north and contained the administrative offices, NCOs’ quarters, kitchens and stores. Behind this was a corridor, 528 feet (176 yards) long, from which six large two-storey pavilion wards ran southwards, the whole hospital accommodating 254 soldiers and 4 officers. A seventh, central ward was used as a library and dining room. Above the central block was built a clock tower, 109 feet high, which remains a landmark to the present day. In the tower was hung the Sebastopol Bell, which rang the hours controlled by the clock, along with two new smaller bells for chiming the quarter hours. (The bells were silenced in 1914 as they were thought to be disturbing the patients.) In 1877 the British Medical Journal Journal reported approvingly of the new building, expecting the hospital to “prove to be a model of its kind. Much forethought and ability have evidently been brought to bear upon its conception, and apparently no expense is being spared upon its construction.”

The cost of the hospital was £45,758, and it opened for admission of patients on 18 July 1879. The Union Building Hospital was closed and the patients transferred. One of the first new patients was Major Townsend of the 2nd Life Guards who broke his leg while taking part in a Divisional Field Day on 22 July. The attending medical officer at once ordered him to be taken to the new hospital for treatment.

Six weeks after the hospital opened, on 30 August 1879, Sheldrake’s Aldershot Military Gazette reported that “The Secretary of State for War has approved the new hospital in the South Camp being named ‘The Cambridge Hospital’”. This was in honour of HRH The Duke of Cambridge, Commander-in-Chief of the Army and cousin of Queen Victoria.

The Cambridge Hospital was extended in 1893 when two smaller pavilion wards were added to the north (front) side of corridor, and a house, presumably for one of the senior medical staff, built at the extreme east end. In 1894 a single storey mortuary was built south-east of the hospital with two chambers and a chapel. In the First World War the artist Mary Seton Watts began work on decorating the chapel. Mary was the wife of fellow artist George Fredrick Watts of Compton, near Guildford, and her aim was to make the mortuary chapel a suitable resting place for soldiers who had died of wounds, while they awaited burial. The complex work was not finished until the 1920s.

With the extensive re-building of Aldershot Camp following the passing of the Barracks Act in 1890, medical facilities for the garrison were considerably extended. More new wards were added to the Cambridge, and three new hospitals were built. In 1897 HRH Princess Louise Margaret, Duchess of Connaught and Strathearn (wife of the Duke of Connaught who was GOC Aldershot at that time) laid the foundation stone for a smaller hospital to the east of the Cambridge. This was for the wives and children of the soldiers in Aldershot, who had previously been treated in the Female Hospital, a wooden hut in Z Lines, South Camp, run by the Sisters of Mercy and maintained by a charitable fund. For soldiers’ families, the Louise Margaret Hospital brought a huge improvement in their medical care.

An Isolation Hospital for infectious diseases was built at Thorn Hill in 1896, and a second large general hospital was constructed in North Camp. Named after HRH The Duke of Connaught, this was designed for 250 patients and was also built by Martin, Wells and Co, at a cost of £40,136. The Connaught opened for admission of patients in 1898.

The outbreak of the First World War brought the Aldershot hospitals their severest test. With the growing likelihood of war during the summer of 1914, preparations were made for providing medical services to the British Expeditionary Force and more staff, both professionals (doctors and nurses) and ancillaries, were recruited and trained. The Cambridge Military Hospital was mobilised on 5 August 1914, the day after war was declared, and on 13 August two trains carrying medical equipment and personnel for the BEF departed from Aldershot Railway Station.

The Aldershot hospitals were the first in Britain to take wounded troops in from the Western Front. Late at night on 30 August 1914, a hospital train arrived at the Government Sidings carrying around 200 wounded men from the battle of Mons. The soldiers were transferred to the Cambridge and the Connaught, the first of a great many more wounded who would follow throughout the war.

In 1916 the Cambridge became the first British military hospital to have a dedicated plastic surgery unit. At the outbreak of the First World War the outstanding surgeon Harold Gillies joined the British Red Cross and in France he saw the restorative surgery work of Claude Auguste Valadier and Hippolyte Morestin. Gillies approached the chief army surgeon, Sir William Arbuthnot Lane, suggesting that a unit be set up in Aldershot as so many men were being admitted with hideously disfiguring wounds to their faces. Lane agreed, Gillies was commissioned into the RAMC, and the Plastic Surgery Unit was opened at the Cambridge in January 1916. Gillies was joined by William Kelsey-Fry, a dental surgeon, and the pair worked together on the pioneering work of reconstructing the faces and jaws of disfigured soldiers.

With the opening of the Battle of the Somme, Gillies was warned there would be a major influx of patients and was allocated an extra 200 beds, but even this expansion was inadequate to meet the need. Subsequently the unit moved to the Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup where their work continued. Between the units at Aldershot and Sidcup, Gillies and Kelsey-Fry reconstructed the faces of 11,572 patients. Harold Gillies was knighted in 1930.

In the Second World War, Aldershot was the centre for the Canadian Army in the UK and the Connaught Hospital became No. 8 Canadian General Hospital. The Cambridge continued its work treating wounded British and Allied soldiers. In August 1942 many Aldershot-based units took part in the disastrous Dieppe raid, resulting in both hospitals receiving a surge in admissions which stretched the available facilities. A further challenge came in 1944, after the D-Day landings which again brought huge numbers of casualties to the Aldershot hospitals for treatment.

After the Second World War, the Connaught Hospital was closed but the Cambridge and Louise Margaret continued their vital work. The Cambridge’s remit was extended beyond just Army patients and it took accident and emergency patients from the surrounding area, up to 30,000 cases per year. Likewise the Louise Margaret took civilian maternity patients under arrangement with the NHS, and by 1958 the maternity commitment had grown to such an extent that the Louise Margaret became a dedicated maternity hospital, with all other cases transferred to the Cambridge.

The most significant threat to the Cambridge Hospital building was in the 1960s. In the masterplan for rebuilding Aldershot Garrison, the Cambridge and Louise Margaret hospitals were both to be demolished and a new hospital built in North Camp, as part of a combined hospital and dental complex. The Cambridge site was to become the Ridge Estate of Married Officers’ Quarters. There was much delay and argument, initially over whether the hospital should have a role in treating dependants. The Treasury and Ministry of Health thought that dependants should be included in the NHS plans for their new hospital at Frimley. The Army maintained that not only did it have a duty of care for dependants, but that it was essential for training in such specialisms as obstetrics, gynaecology and paediatrics, since overseas the RAMC and QARANC were responsible for the full range of medical care for soldiers’ families.

All sides agreed that the old Victorian hospital should be replaced with a new modern facility. A Treasury memorandum of 1965 thought it “vaguely appalling to think that this leisurely monument to Victorian architecture represented the busiest Army hospital” and noted that “the Army are fully aware that the Cambridge is a white elephant and would much prefer to spend money on new facilities than to pour it into the old.” But the arguments continued for years over the type of services that should be offered and the conflicting costs of refurbishment against rebuilding. In 1968 new Treasury costings were £2.7 million for refurbishment, against £3.15 million for a new build. The arguments rumbled on a while longer, and even as late as 1972 when the Aldershot MP asked in the Commons when the construction of the new military hospital would start, he was told by the minister that it was “hoped that construction will start in 1975-76”. However, it was clear that the momentum behind a new build was gone, the Cambridge and Louise Margaret were refurbished and continued their work for a while longer.

For the first Gulf War, 1990, the Cambridge was virtually closed as 400 medical staff were deployed to the Gulf, leaving only 136 military and civilian staff in Aldershot. During this time patients were referred to local NHS hospitals. After this the Cambridge would never return to its former levels of work. A government report published in October 1993 said that the building was deteriorating and no longer up to modern standards. Among the many issues found were that the building was vulnerable to a rapid spread of fire, the water services were old and inadequate, all departments suffered from a lack of space, patient and staff facilities were inadequate, and the building contained much asbestos. To raise the building to modern standards would cost over £30 million, and even then it would still not be large enough to meet requirements. The Gulf War deployment had shown that patients could be treated in local NHS hospitals, and this was seen as a far more efficient solution to Aldershot’s needs.

News of the planned closure was met with dismay by the local population. In 1993 the Cambridge treated around 30,000 accident and emergency cases, 10,000 in-patients and 30,000 out-patients, and around 70% of all patients were civilians. A protest movement grew, which presented a petition containing 35,000 signatures to 10 Downing Street in July 1994, and 2,000 local people took part in a protest march through Aldershot town. However, their efforts were unsuccessful and the Louise Margaret closed in January 1995, followed by the Cambridge in March 1996. Military patients were now treated in the Ministry of Defence Hospital Unit at Frimley Park NHS hospital, where £14 million had been invested in new beds and facilities to absorb the additional work, with £2 million contributed by the MOD to the NHS Trust.

From its founding to final closure, in peace and war the Cambridge Military Hospital enjoyed an unrivalled reputation for the quality of its medical care. The fine, elegant building stands today as a fitting memorial to the dedication and professionalism of all the medical services personnel who served in it.


Article originally published in the Aldershot Garrison Herald, issue 015, August 2017/September 2017

Copyright © Paul H. Vickers. This article, including the accompanying pictures, may not be reproduced or republished, in whole or in part, either in print or electronically, including on any websites or social media sites, without the prior permission of the author.