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Royal Naval Hospital (refurbished Blocks)

Ref: HLBP1/013

The first military hospital, Circa 1814, was in Bleak House situated near Europa Point, alleged to be the most southerly point in Europe. It was found to be too exposed to the weather for the treatment of the sick.1 Instead, a wooden military Hospital, later lined with stone, was built around 1860 on the site now occupied by the present building until demolished to make way for a new military hospital.

The British Military Hospital (BMH) was built in 1903 to provide healthcare for British military personnel and local sailors. According to Col R. St. John Lyburn the hospital … ‘was sited with great care at the south end of the Rock, so as to be just outside the levanter cloud which hovers over Gibraltar and causes so much gloom’... It was perfectly orientated and constructed, the sun never pervading the wards. It consisted of three large stone blocks of three storeys, each storey containing three Nightingale wards 2 with a capacity of about three hundred beds. All three blocks were interconnected at all levels by open arches.

Early 20th Century post-card of the Military Hospital viewed from the South West

The location and massive structure of the hospital ensured that for many years the Naval Hospital remained a highly visible landmark to all ships passing through the Straits of Gibraltar. The light blue colour of its exterior gave the hospital its nickname, the Wedgwood Castle. Visitors to the hospital included Queen Alexandra in 1905 and King George V in 1912.

The BMH Gibraltar during the 1970’s in its typical ‘Wedgewood’ colours.

The BMH was built to replace the old Royal Naval Hospital, built circa 1730. During WWI, a continuous stream of Australian, British and New Zealander wounded arrived in Gibraltar, via hospital ship, from Gallipoli. Many of the wounded were carried on stretchers from the ships and transferred to the Military Hospital by the Gibraltar Volunteer Corps but because there were far too many wounded for the new hospital to cope, the old Naval Hospital it was supposed to have replaced remained open until it finally closed down in 1919.

The Gibraltar Dockyard - wounded disembarking from the SS Caledonian.

Members of the Gibraltar Volunteer Corp seen here were responsible for transporting wounded personnel from hospital ships to either the BMH hospital or in this case the depot at Europa.

Arrival of sick from the Dardanelles Military Hospital to the Convalescent Depot at Windmill Hill, 1915.

Almost twenty years later, the BMH cared for casualties of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Among the casualties were 83 men from the German cruiser Deutschland which had been bombed while at anchor off the Spanish island of Ibiza – 55 of these were cared for at the BMH, the rest were treated at the Colonial Hospital. The reason for this was that the hospital had already been at capacity due to casualties from HMS Hunter (H35), a Royal Navy ship that had hit a mine a fortnight earlier while on patrol near Almeria in May, 1937. Twenty of the casualties had been brought to Gibraltar by HMS Maine, a hospital ship.3

The damaged pocket battleship Deutschland arrives in Gibraltar – May 1937.

The damaged HMS Hunter in Gibraltar.

The hospital ship HMS Maine which brought 20 wounded from HMS Hunter to Gibraltar on the 5th May, 1937.

During World War II, casualties from the Malta area were treated at BMH Gibraltar while their ships were serviced at the Naval dockyard. During the course of WWII, and out of fear the prominently located military hospital could easily be bombed, a second hospital, Gort's Hospital, opposite the BMH was built in tunnel systems deep within the Rock. Further underground hospitals built during WWI included Fordham's Hospital, Monkey's Cave Convalescent Hospital and Flat Bastion Road Hospital.

In 1963, the 60-year-old BMH was taken over by the Royal Navy and was subsequently renamed as the Royal Naval Hospital (RNH). It was considered to be a 40-bedded hospital at the time and it had Medical and Surgical Wards as well as a busy Maternity Unit.4

Inspection of new RNH, 1963.

However, over the next few decades the military establishment on the Rock was considerably reduced. The last UK based army battalion, 1st Battalion Royal Green Jackets, left Gibraltar in 1991 and the Royal Gibraltar Regiment was now tasked with local defence. In line with the vast reduction of military personnel the RNH closed down most of its wards and facilities.

It was not until 2004 that MOD Gibraltar began to dispose of a number of sites surplus to requirements in the form of a series of Land Agreements which included parts of the RNH. By 2007, the capacity at the RNH had been reduced to just 25 beds. The RNH was replaced that same year, by a new multi-million pound, purpose-built medical facility, the Princess Royal Medical Centre, located in Devil's Tower Camp and the whole of the former complex was transferred to the Government of Gibraltar.

Meanwhile, conversion of portions of the hospital to apartments had started as early as 2006. Taylor Woodrow (Gibraltar) Ltd. integrated the historic architectural features of the original Block A building with twenty-first century luxury. The first phase of hospital conversion was named Orchid House and included eleven luxury apartments. Clifton Mews and Edward House which was constructed within an Edwardian former senior ratings' building soon followed.

The rest of the complex however, had been left vacant for a number of years and it was noted that the physical fabric of many parts of the buildings had by then deteriorated rapidly. Serious consideration to demolish the condemned buildings was given. In its own assessment with regard to the state of the former Hospital the Town Planner noted that:

‘Due to the historical and architectural value of the hospital, the preference would be for the retention of the existing buildings and their conversion for an alternative use that respects their character and appearance. Only in the eventuality that the Government is satisfied that it would not be feasible or viable to retain the buildings would a new build scheme be considered for this site’.5

Plans to convert the old RNH into a new Alzheimer’s and dementia sufferers’ residential home into a 92 bed facility, formerly proposed in 2011 by the then GSD Government, was subsequently revised by the new GSLP/Lib Government which in 2012 opted to reduce its original capacity to create instead a more fit for purpose 52-bedroom Mental Health facility and a separate Dementia Day Care Centre facility, including eight respite beds. Renovation works which began in 2012 were completed in early 2015 to be known as Ocean Views. Further facilities; the Bella Vista Dementia Day Centre and Hillsides Dementia Care Residential Facility were completed in 2017.

Part of the refurbished RNH Gibraltar, 2015.

Royal Naval Hospital (refurbished Blocks) Image