Royal Naval Hospital, Portland

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The entrance of the Portland Community Hospital, with the hospital itself in the background.

The Portland Royal Naval Hospital was a naval hospital on the Isle of Portland, Dorset, England. The hospital site was located close to Portland Harbour within the neighbouring village of Castletown. Discounting various other earlier buildings used as a temporary hospital, the main general naval hospital was active from the beginning of the 20th century, and comprised an administration block, surgical block, medical block, officers block and service buildings.[1] It closed in 1957, when it was handed over to the National Health Service, and the NHS Portland Community Hospital is still active today.[2]


Early buildings and construction of general hospital[edit]

The hospital seen from the Merchant's Railway incline.

The hospital first came into operation during the beginning of the 20th century, as early as 1901, while it first appeared on a map in the 25in. Ordanance Survey plan of 1903. However this plan was based on a survey made in 1862, and therefore may have dated further back than the 20th century. At this time the hospital entrance was further down Castle Road than where the current hospital lies today. A reminder of the original entrance is the stone gate pillars still seen today. Before the main site became active, circa 1891, a dozen buildings located further down from the present hospital site would later become Portland Royal Navy's Sick Quarters. By 1903 other buildings on this site had been added including corrugated iron huts, one of which was used as a chapel of unknown dedication date.[3] Later the four block Royal Naval Infectious Diseases was constructed, and named Zymotic Hospital. This was situated on the eastern side of the Merchants Incline Railway during the end of the 19th century. The site was connected to the Sick Quarters by the construction of an iron footbridge over the railway. It was built due to the likelihood of having sailors and other personnel return from abroad with infectious diseases. All four blocks would later house members of the Royal Marines as well as the Metropolitan Police. However following circa 1969 the buildings became disused and served no purpose. They were demolished in January 1976.[3]

On the lower road site many buildings were built for varying purposes, and these were used alongside the upper road (current hospital site). The lower road site included further corrugated iron huts, including a Junior Surgeons' Quarters, a Chapel and a Nursing Sisters' Quarters. These buildings were later demolished. On the site of the third hut it was decided to build the Residence No. 1 building - the Wrens and Nurses Quarters. Later this building became the Underhill Surgery in 1989. One of the oldest remaining buildings within the current hospital site was built circa 1890 - of Portland Stone - as the second Engineer's Office. This was when the two latter stages of the Portland Harbour's breakwaters were being constructed. The Engineer's first office, belonging to John Coode, was built inside the dockyard perimeter. The second Engineer's Office later became the Captain's House, Residence No. 2. It remains a Grade II listed building. Further along the lower road site was Residence No. 3 which was the Doctors' Quarters. This red brick building had day and night bell pushes and a speaking tube at the entrance for naval personnel. In an eastern direction along the lower road was also a recreation building, Residence No. 4, a store, a boiler house and sub-station providing DC supply to the hospital and a laundry. These buildings were demolished in 1979, and in turn the two Royal Naval Air Service Osprey accommodation blocks were constructed by 1985. One of the hospital site's earliest buildings was the Mortuary, and after it had fell into disuse it later became known as Rose Cottage amongst the N.H.S staff who worked within the hospital after it was handed over by the navy. During the 1990s the building was given a new use, where it was extended and refurbished into the Gate House Medical Centre, and this in turn took over operations of the Underhill Surgery. The new centre started its operations in July 1995 but the official opening at the Portland Hospital Fayre wasn't until September 1996. A lodge nearby holds a wall-mounted Victorian letter box still in use, and is one of two remaining 'VR' inscribed boxes on Portland, with the other being within the hamlet of Wakeham.[4]

The remaining Portland Community Hospital which remains today is largely the same as when it was first constructed as the Royal Naval General Hospital. The site chosen was the newly created 'upper' part of Castle Road. The hospital was designed in 1901 and was completed no later than 1906. The site consisted of four main buildings connected by a covered way: the officers' block, administration block, surgical block and the medical block.[5] At the turn of the 20th century, pigeons along with semaphore flags and signal lamps would be three main ways of communication by the navy. Although not an official part of the hospital, a large two-storey Pigeon Loft was built on high ground at the back of the hospital. The loft's design drawings date from 1905, however it was later demolished but was still in existence by May 1921. With Portland's harbour being used as a seaplane base for anti-submarine patrols, pigeons would be released to return to Portland in the event that the plane was lost. The loft stood on Staddle stones to prevent mice and rats from infesting the building.[5]

An un-timetabled station called Portland Hospital Halt was provided to serve the Portland Naval Hospital. The halt, which was first used around 1925, consisted of two concrete platforms, but only the shorter 60 ft platform on the up side was actually used by trains. The longer platform was sited some distance away from the track and its purpose is unknown. There was a small brick building with a pitched slate roof on each platform. The halt was immediately west of the girder bridge taking the Admiralty Railway over the cable-hauled incline for the Merchants' Railway. At least one ticket is known; this shows 'Hospital Halt'. Although the first recorded use of the halt is 1925 a 1902 Ordnance Survey map shows what appears to be a platform on the down side east of the girder bridge. This is not shown on any later maps. No evidence of the Hospital Halt remains, and the site of the railway is now within the Ocean Views Development - converted apartments completed in 2008 from the original 1985 R.N.A.S. accommodation blocks.[6]

Use during the Second World War[edit]

The earthworks and one of three entrances of the Underground Operating Theatre, seen from the hospital entrance.

Portland's naval hospital had no female nursing staff during peace-time however on the outbreak of the second world war, Queen Alexandra's R.N. Nursing Service was instituted within the premises. The staff consisted of one superintending and six nursing sisters. Other the war period further increases to staff would include seven medical officers, four nursing sisters, one warrant wardmaster, one senior pharmacist and nineteen sick berth ratings. Additional nursing staff was provided by twenty-five V.A.D. nursing members and sixteen W.R.N.S. for domestic, clerical and communication duties.[7]

Due to the importance of Portland's naval harbour, the island was a highlighted target for German bombers. As a result passive defensive measures were put in place for the protection of both patients and staff against enemy air attacks. These were already foremost in the plans of the Admiralty before the war had begun. An underground operating theatre was constructed for such defense, and drawings of this underground section are dated 1939. Other protective structures constructed around the same time included two air raid shelters and an underground kitchen. One of the shelters were situated behind the officers' block, whilst the other was at the eastern end of the lower road. The kitchen was built in the south-east corner of the hospital site. Although these structures are described as being underground, in reality they are built at ground level and covered with earth. The resulted in a blast protected structure, but not a bomb-proof one. The air raid shelter behind the officers' block had a vertical iron escape ladder, emerging on the surface by the building known as Mantle Sun Lodge. The operating theatre is behind the surgical block and has a gas-proof door opening onto a concrete stairway to the surface. This had allowed patients on stretchers to be taken out safely if the entrance became blocked.[8]

The Underground Theatre, along with the surgical block, were the only parts of Portland's hospital to be in full-time use during the war. Many operations were performed, including Appendectomies, Perforated Ulcers, Varicose Veins (Trendelenbuerg Op.) and most kinds of general surgery. One of the underground operating theatre's earliest patients on record was Charles Waghorne - a Stoker Mechanic. He was originally in a part of twelve arriving on Portland on 5 July 1940 as coffin bearers for those who had lost their lives in the air raid of HMS Foylebank the previous day. Later in 1940, Waghorne's tonsils became septic and had to be removed, and this operation was performed by surgeon Captain Fisher of the Royal Navy in the theatre. A letter Waghorne wrote at the time recalled his experience; "I was in the hospital in October 1940 and was pushed out across to the theatre just as a 'dog-fight' was going on overhead. When I came to, I was back in the ward."[9]

During July 1940 the hospital was badly damaged during air raids, and again in March and June 1942. Despite the damage, there were no fatalities among patients or staff. However the officers' block had to be demolished due to the damage, along with the first of the corrugated iron huts, the junior surgeons' quarters. Due to the amount of air raids on Portland, it was decided during July 1940 that as many patients as possible should be moved to a less vulnerable site. In the end Minterne House, located at Minterne Magna, Dorchester, Dorset, was requisitioned for this purpose - approximately 25 miles from Portland. By March 1941 the Minterne Magna Royal Naval Auxiliary Hospital was ready for full use, and this in turn left Portland's hospital to strictly become a casualty and emergency hospital. Another naval hospital was later built within Dorset's Sherborne, between July 1941 and February 1942, where it was operational until 1948. Regardless of Portland's reduction in status the outpatient facilities within Portland's site were still operational for military and navy personnel in the area, and overall the hospital still received 5,222 inpatients during the war period.[7]

Post War use[edit]

On 27 September 1957, Lt. Cdr. Laws R.N. handed Portland's Royal Naval Hospital over to the National Health Service. All wards and other buildings on site had been locked by this point. The navy handed over a large box of unlabelled keys to Mrs. Carter and Mrs. Walter - both NHS officials. The first task was to find the associated buildings for each key and record the results. As soon as this was completed all wards were cleared, and rubbish was disposed of, however any equipment believed to be of value and use was put aside. Despite the many tasks and work to be done, the hospital's wards were made ready for NHS patients by 6 October 1957, within just nine days. The first patient admissions were from the surgical ward of the Weymouth and District Hospital. New names were attached to the surgical and medical wards, as well as the new extension, and all of these were taken from famous naval officers. The lower surgical block became known as Anson, and the higher as Broke. The lower medical block became known as Calder and the upper as Drake. The extension was renamed Evans Ward. However following changes were made to these names, where Drake was renamed Anson, and Anson ward became Evans. The original Evans Ward was renamed Mantle circa 1997, and by this same year Evans (originally Anson ward) was again renamed to Corry Ward, after the retirement that same year of the sister of the same name.[10]

It is unknown how long the navy continued to use the underground operating theatre after the end of the Second World War. It is known that in 1954-5 it was rewired, and when the NHS took over the site in 1957 it was still equipped and functional. It is believed that surgery could have continued within the theatre upon the NHS take-over for it held a state of the art operating table and lighting equipment superior to any other surgery in the county. However shortly after the NHS took over the site the operating table was dismantled and then reinstalled in the Dorset County Hospital at Dorchester. By this point the theatre ceased to be functional.[11] In 1996 the underground operating theatre and the air raid shelter behind the officers' block, was opened to the public for the first time since the war.[9] This was for a weekend of tours, largely masterminded by the Portland Rotary.[12] However after this weekend opening was finished, steel gates were put on the tunnel entrances and have remained closed to the public since.[13]

The underground kitchen within the hospital site was shorted up circa 1982, and was finally demolished at the end of the decade. The air raid shelter at the eastern end of the lower road remained in existence as of 1997, although in a damp and deteriorating condition, and at the time with an obstructed entrance of overgrowth and discarded grass cuttings.[9] By 2005, some outer-buildings had been demolished to make way for Foylebank Way, including Foylebank Court. This is a residential area consisting of 48 one and two bedroom flats and bungalows for the elderly above 55 years of age.[14]

Mantle Memorial[edit]

In 1954 it was proposed that two dwellings on Portland should be constructed as a memorial to Jack Mantle VC, who was killed in the Foylebank raid. He was buried in Portland's Royal Naval Cemetery. The suggested houses were to be 'Blue Plate' houses, where the rent from tenants would be used to maintain the houses. The Portland Urban District Council was asked to provide a site however no houses were ever built. An appeal committee used raised money instead to build a Sun Lodge for patients within the grounds of the hospital, whilst it was still under use of the navy. The opening ceremony took place exactly 16 years after the bombing of the ship, on 4 July 1956. However the designer of the lodge, an Associate Member of the Institute of Civil Engineers, had not taken into account the unstable ground the building was chosen to be erected on. This site chosen was above a World War II air raid shelter, which had been covered with 10 to 12 foot of earth to protect it from bomb damage upon completion. Despite site plans showing land close by marked as 'disturbed ground', the lodge was built. The unsuitable foundation resulted in cracks appearing soon after, and the lodge became unsafe and therefore access and use was prohibited. A new Mantle Memorial was set up in 1986, in the day room of Evans Ward, then situated next to the outpatients department. The sun lodge building was demolished in 1989. To remember and honour the seventy-one other naval personnel to die in the raid of the ship, a brass plaque was dedicated to the hospital on 30 April 1978.[15]


  1. ^
  2. ^ "Overview - Portland Hospital - NHS Choices". 2014-01-14. Retrieved 2014-04-05. 
  3. ^ a b Perry, Reg (May 1997). A History of The Royal Naval Hospital Portland. Artsmiths. p. 2. 
  4. ^ Perry, Reg (May 1997). A History of The Royal Naval Hospital Portland. Artsmiths. pp. 3, 6. 
  5. ^ a b Perry, Reg (May 1997). A History of The Royal Naval Hospital Portland. Artsmiths. p. 6. 
  6. ^ "Portland Hospital Halt". Disused Stations. Retrieved 2014-04-05. 
  7. ^ a b Perry, Reg (May 1997). A History of The Royal Naval Hospital Portland. Artsmiths. p. 7. 
  8. ^ Perry, Reg (May 1997). A History of The Royal Naval Hospital Portland. Artsmiths. pp. 7, 12. 
  9. ^ a b c Perry, Reg (May 1997). A History of The Royal Naval Hospital Portland. Artsmiths. p. 12. 
  10. ^ Perry, Reg (May 1997). A History of The Royal Naval Hospital Portland. Artsmiths. pp. 12, 15. 
  11. ^ Perry, Reg (May 1997). A History of The Royal Naval Hospital Portland. Artsmiths. p. 15. 
  12. ^ Perry, Reg (May 1997). A History of The Royal Naval Hospital Portland. Artsmiths. p. 1. 
  13. ^ Adam Montague. "Portland Underground Hospital, Dorset". The Urban Explorer. Retrieved 2014-04-05. 
  14. ^ "Housing21 :: Housing 21's Foylebank Court. Sheltered Housing and Extra Care housing schemes near Portland". Retrieved 2014-04-05. 
  15. ^ Perry, Reg (May 1997). A History of The Royal Naval Hospital Portland. Artsmiths. pp. 11, 12. 

Coordinates: 50°33′57″N 2°26′43″W / 50.5658°N 2.4452°W / 50.5658; -2.4452