Netley – Royal Victoria Hospital Chapel



Original Hospital a

The Chapel is all that remains of what was, at the time of its construction, the longest building in the world.  Look carefully at the above photograph and you can just about see the dome of the chapel in the very centre of the vast structure.

The foundation stone for the The Royal Victoria Hospital was laid by Queen Victoria in May 1856 and construction began.  However, some months later Florence Nightingale returned from the Crimea and on visiting the site stated – “It seems to me that at Netley all consideration of what would best tend to the comfort and recovery of the patients has been sacrificed to the vanity of the architect, whose sole object has been to make a building which should cut a dash when looked at from Southampton River. Pray stop all work”.  But, it was too late, construction was well under way and only minor alterations were possible. The hospital eventually opened in March 1863 – late and over budget (nothing has changed). It was a quarter of a mile long with 138 wards and a thousand beds.  Sadly Florence Nightingale’s instincts proved to be right.  The building although grand and visually attractive, was neither convenient nor practical. Corridors were on the sea-facing front of the building, leaving the wards overlooking the inner courtyard with little light and air. Ventilation in general was poor, with unpleasant smells lingering around the vast building.  But nevertheless it remained in use for just over 100 years.  Throughout its life it was popularly known by the patients as ‘The Palace of Pain’.   During the first world war a large hutted extension was built at the rear increasing the number of beds to 2,500.   Over 50,000 patients were treated.   It was just as busy during World War ll when around 68,000 casualties were treated. In 1944, anticipating large numbers of casualties, US forces took over the hospital prior to the D-Day landings.

The hospital fell into disuse during the 1950’s due to the high costs of maintenance and the main site closed in 1958. Following a huge fire in 1963 the entire building was demolished, just the chapel was spared and then only after a vociferous campaign by local residents.


Last month BQ sent me an article about the Netley Chapel. It was about to reopen – a year late – after a lengthy closure in order to restore the building back to its original glory. It had cost £3.5 million – thanks to the generosity of the Lottery Fund.

The whole area is now known as the Queen Victoria Country Park and is popular with families. BQ thought it would be an interesting candidate for a D & D visit and so it turned out to be. I scarcely knew of the Chapel but BQ knows it well. 

x nave

Inside the building, which has been beautifully restored, it is more museum than chapel. There are many interactive exhibits and plenty of stories of individuals whose lives were saved there and what they went on to achieve in later life – all very moving.

x Netley Chapel Galleries

The galleries with the biographies of some of the casualties who passed through.

The chancel with pulpit and organ is a reminder that this is still a consecrated building.

I was amused to see the crude method that was used to fine tune the organ pipes. I can imagine an assistant being sent up with a pair of tin snips while the organ tuner shouted up instructions.

The rather sinister looking Iron Lung

During research, I came across this intriguing image of the hospital shortly after it’s opening. It was being offered by a seller in Germany on eBay at the compelling price of €2. I had assumed it would be a postcard but, when it arrived, I found it was much smaller, in fact it was a ‘carte de visite’, the precursor of the postcard. It had been published by a James Dear, a ‘Fancy Bazaar Keeper” who had premises close to the hospital. Further research revealed that James had previously been a ships carpenter, but realised the potential of selling souvenirs to the crowds of hospital visitors who arrived each afternoon to see the patients. Business was good, and this was the time of the craze for collecting and sending the new photographic CDV’s as they were known, and so James bought a camera and this is the first of a series of photos of the hospital that he published. As with most very early photos all of the people stare directly into the lens.

Sixty years on and now, in the mid 1920’s, the trees have matured and the camera has lost its novelty, the main interest seems to be lady dressed in the fashion of the day.

Another early image, but there are no clues to its origin nor just what it is that is portrayed. I assume that these are hospital orderlies with some patients brought out for the photograph. Our guide David Keating explained that, before the railway to the hospital was built, casualties arriving by ship at Southampton Docks had to be transferred onto horse drawn carriages for the last few miles to the hospital and I suspect that these are the carriages that can be seen in the background. Apparently many of the wounded didn’t survive this tortuous ride along the rutted roads and that once the branch line from docks to hospital was opened, fatalities on this final leg of their journey were reduced by 75%.

Hospital Life;  The days started with a 5.30am bugle call.  Patients helped with the cleaning of the endless corridors if they were able.  Once a week the Commanding Officer would inspect and award 200 cigarettes to the cleanest ward.  There were four meals a day and, after lunch, it was visiting time and patients could stroll around the grounds or pay a visit to the nearby pubs in Netley as long as they were back in time for supper.  Lights out was at 9pm.

Queen Victoria shown here during one of her many visits to the hospital. She did not have far to travel as she was able to sail from the jetty near her Isle of Wight home (Osborne House), and land at the hospital pier in Southampton Water.

The kitchen staff look a disparate group, but by all accounts the food was much appreciated by the patients, hardly surprising perhaps, as many of them had previously been enduring life in the trenches.

Our excellent guide David. His father arrived at the hospital as a patient during the Second World War and married one of the nurses. Despite a prosthetic leg, David managed the seemingly endless steps to the top of the tower where he told us many amusing (and harrowing) tales of life at the hospital. Apparently when the Americans took over the hospital in 1944, there was great astonishment when they started using jeeps to travel along the wide 1/4 mile hospital corridor to get from section to section!

The view from the tower. After the lengthy drought during the past hot summer the original foundations of the building have become visible. Southampton Docks are in the background.

The Jolly Sailor

A favourite haunt of the yachting fraternity, the Jolly Sailor, situated on the banks of the River Hamble, was first established in 1751.  Even older is their neighbour, the famous Elephant Boatyard where Henry VIII’s fleet was built.   Some of our readers may remember it as the Mermaid Yard featured in the 80’s ‘Gin and Jag’ soap opera, Howard’s Way.  Scenes were filmed not only at the boatyard, but also at the Jolly Sailor where the glamorous cast could be seen, wheeling, dealing and seducing on the sunlit terrace. A nostalgic reminder of this hugely popular series, which ran for five years, is displayed near the bar in the form of a framed set of signed BBC publicity cast cards.

x Bar

x BQ and MW

I thought the food at the Jolly Sailor was good, although service was slow considering that it wasn’t busy.  My starter of smoked paprika and maple skewers with tempeh was both original and quite excellent.  Tempeh was new to me.  It turned out to be an Indonesian item and consisted of cultured and fermented soy beans formed into cakes, then roasted. Delicious.  BQ’s tiger prawns, swimming in hot garlic butter were enormous which he ate with obvious relish. He also much enjoyed the steak and ale pie, but I was less impressed with the rather dried up Gilthead Bream. I suspect that it had been kept in the hot plate while BQ’s giant pie finished cooking!  Hence the delay and hence four rather than five stars.


BQ’s Impressions

Magic Tree2
The Magic Tree

Welcome back old friend after two years of turmoil including bankruptcy, you’re looking better than ever.   My family’s association with the park and chapel stretches back a decade when it was selected as an ideal venue for the family mid-summer picnic, which was usually held on the nearest Sunday to the birthday of the matriarch.  The children loved the magic tree that spreads its low branches and, not only was it perfect for climbing, but could form an excellent den always worth defending from invaders.  At the end of the day, the evening cricket match was played against a backdrop of departing cruise liners.  In this frantic world it was always a magical afternoon reminiscent of the best of Enid Blyton!

The chapel, although cared for by an army of volunteers, was desperately in need of restoration, and the subsequent long period of closure has been well worthwhile now that one can once again access the interior.  The structure had always reminded me of a lone tooth left after the rest had decayed, and although the frontage on the Solent side still looks plain, it has been tidied up.  To those of us who never remembered the hospital buildings, it is now obvious that they were in front and the chapel was at the rear.  Even during its previous life there had been little of an ecclesiastical atmosphere within the chapel but it is good to see that the windows, pulpit and organ have been left undisturbed.

The interior structure with its metal columns is classic Victorian railway station and, as a result of the decision to mount an exhibition of its past reason for existence, we get an insight into its history in a vivid and memorable way.  What a catalogue of suffering and pointless slaughter it portrays, but in amongst this, so many portraits of heroism and gallantry shine from the gloom.  The enlargement and display of black and white early photographs are vivid, and within the faces, the whole story of sacrifice, stoicism and courage shines through.

Having lived in Southampton during the almost endless episodes of Howard’s Way it seemed a good time for my first visit to The Jolly Sailor while I still had the puff to manage the steps.  I found out afterwards that at my local pub, one wag was offering odds I would not make it.  Well, to his astonishment and my own I did, although I cannot see me going again. This I might add has nothing to do with the welcoming reception and excellent food ‘the spirit might be willing but the flesh is weak’.  It was unbelievable that here at last, I was in the same bar that was frequented by the legendary alcoholic Jack Rolfe from the Mermaid Yard whose traditional values upset his business partner Tom who wanted to design new and radical boats.  The view from the window was endless yachts to the far shore and the beamed bar was exceptionally snug.

Regular readers will get bored by my constant whinge about napkins, suffice to say they were not to my liking, the food however was.  My starter prawns were large and juicy .  The steak and ale pie was all I had hoped it would be, light, succulent and tasty.   Always the sign of a good meal, no room for pud.  You will see from the menu below that my tiger prawns came with lashings of garlic butter, some of which in wrestling with the monsters splashed onto my clothing.  I rest my case!

Our Lunch
  • Tiger Prawns, pan fried in lashings of garlic butter, with malted sourdough bread  BQ
  • Smoked Paprika and Maple Skewers, marinated and roasted tempeh, cherry tomato & red pepper skewers with rocket salad, vegan garlic mayo  MW
  • Steak & Tanglefoot Pie – braised British steak in rich velvety gravy made with Tanglefoot beer, with creamy mash, braised cabbage, leeks and bacon  BQ
  • Gilthead Bream Fillet on smoky white bean and bacon cassoulet with wilted kale  MW
  • Red Rioja, Artesa, Organic – Spain  BQ
  • White Rioja, El Coto Blanco – Spain  MW


5 thoughts on “Netley – Royal Victoria Hospital Chapel

  1. Very pleased to have seen inside Netley chapel having longed to do so when visiting the country park with the children. I find the groups of WW1 gravestones in the park very moving too. Diana


  2. Thank you both for another interesting ‘broadcast’ and photo gallery. I’m really enjoying the history that’s behind the buildings/churches/pubs and surrounds.This is yet another Dine and Divine excursion added to my ‘to do’ list. Christine


  3. Only just got round to reading this but I have many memories of visiting Netley with friends and our respective dogs. I have never been inside the Chapel but visited the cemetery and read quite a lot of the headstones, such sad stories and still these wars go on somewhere in the world. Must make another visit there sometime. The pub sounds jolly too. Rose


  4. Going back to Dine and Divine after visiting the magnificent Brian and Margaret at home yesterday, on a brief return visit to Southampton. Netley Country Park was a mainstay of weekend outings with our family as they were growing up. I think we used the same tree for climbing as the Quantrill clan. And there is a wonderful photo of our eldest Cath at about 4 years old in a long black & white striped skirt with her face slathered in ice-cream. I was always underwhelmed by the chapel though the climb into the domed roof was I recall quite impressively scary.


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