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The Royal Victoria Infirmary

Updated: Nov 1, 2023

The RVI these days is known for its cutting edge specialist care as well as its sweeping and modern aesthetics. Resident writer and renowned local historian Ken Smith has delved into the history of the Royal Victoria Infirmary as a follow up to his brilliant piece on the Forth Bank facility, shedding light on modern structures as well as its origins and architectural curiosities - some of which can still be found on the grounds.

 

Newcastle's Royal Victoria Infirmary, one of England's great regional hospitals, was completed in 1906. It replaced the old Newcastle Infirmary which had stood at the top of Forth Banks since the 18th Century.


The new Royal Victoria Infirmary (RVI) was officially opened by King Edward VII on July 11, 1906. He was accompanied by his wife, Queen Alexandra. Two of the wards were appropriately named the Edward and the Alexandra.


The hospital had been built as the result of a subscription fund started by the Mayor of Newcastle, Riley Lord, in 1896. He felt that the hospital would be a fitting tribute to Queen Victoria, whose Diamond Jubilee was to be celebrated the following year.

The statue of the young Queen Victoria at Newcastle's Royal Victoria Infirmary. The sculpture is by George Frampton. Photo: Tom Yellowley.

At a public meeting in October 1896 subscriptions amounting to over £38,000 were pledged towards the scheme. Soon, more money was flooding in. By Diamond Jubilee Day, June 22, 1897. the figure had reached £100,000, an enormous sum in those days.

Wealthy benefactor John Hall gifted a further £100,000, on condition that the RVI be built on a site near Newcastle's Town Moor. Afterwards, came another major contribution.


William Watson-Armstrong, heir and great nephew of Lord Armstrong of Cragside, also gave £100,000. The fund was now boosted to £300,000. Included in this total was £20,000 which had been contributed by “working men of the district”.


Further help came from Newcastle City Council and the Freemen of Newcastle who gave 10 acres of land on the Castle Leazes as the site for the new infirmary.


The Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, laid the foundation stone on June 20, 1900, and in the same year Queen Victoria commanded that the name of the hospital should be the Royal Victoria Infirmary.


When Edward officially opened the hospital in 1906 he declared that it was “a satisfaction for us to know that the workers have contributed so generously towards the fund”. He also announced: “I am of the opinion that the chief magistrate of the city should bear the title Lord Mayor, and I will have much pleasure in giving the necessary instructions to grant it.”


On the same day, King Edward officially unveiled a statue of his mother as a young woman, sited outside the main entrance. The white marble figure depicts Queen Victoria, perhaps at the time of her coronation in 1838. She had succeeded to the throne the previous year. The sculpture is by George Frampton, RA, and was provided by Riley Lord, who, as we have seen, led the move to build the hospital. He was knighted for his efforts.

Benefactor William Watson-Armstrong was later created the second Lord Armstrong, an acknowledgement of his contribution to building and supporting the hospital. He served as chairman of the RVI's House Committee.

Royal Victoria Infirmary from Leazes Park, undated. Source: Newcastle Libraries

On September 17, 1906, the first patients were transferred from the old infirmary to the new.


As originally built, the RVI contained 20 wards spread over two floors, five operating theatres, an accident room, an outpatients' department, a nurses' home and a Byzantine-style chapel dedicated to St Luke (the chapel at the old infirmary had also been dedicated to the saint). Surgical wards were on the ground floor and medical and gynaecological wards on the upper. The total number of available beds was 425.


The outpatients' department was located on the lower ground floor and featured a large patients' waiting hall, a dispensary and its own operating theatre.

The former outpatients' department waiting hall during demolition. Photo: Tom Yellowley

The ground floor was centred on a long east-west corridor, with wings, known as pavilions, containing the wards branching off to north and south. Each pavilion had its own verandah. Coal fires for heating were placed in the centre of every ward with smoke ducts beneath the floors that ran upwards to the chimneys.


The east-west corridor arrangements were duplicated on the upper floor. At the eastern end of the corridors were the children's wards.


The walls of the wards were of coated cement, making them non-absorbent and lower wall sections featured tiled dados. All corners were rounded to allow for easy cleaning and to combat dust.


The administrative offices, including the board room and main entrance foyer, were positioned off the central area of the corridor, facing south. This block became known as Peacock Hall after the birds and feathers which were depicted on its leather wallpaper.

Peacock Hall at the RVI with the Queen Victoria statue in front. Photo: Tom Yellowley

The nurses' home, capable of accommodating around 100, was built to the west of the main building. The home and main building were connected to each other by a plant-filled conservatory linked to the ground floor east-west corridor. A westward extension to the nurses' home was completed in 1932.


Many other extensions and buildings were erected during the 20th Century on the RVI site as medical facilities expanded to meet the needs of modernisation and growing demand.


In 1992, came a milestone when a major extension was opened, the new Leazes Wing. It includes, among other facilities, the Newcastle maternity unit and gynaecology wards. The wing is at the western end of the site. The year 1996 witnessed the opening of a further new building, the Claremont Wing, where ophthalmic services are based.


In 2005, work started to continue the transformation of the RVI into a modern, state-of-the-art hospital fit for the 21st Century. An impressive new building, known as the New Victoria Wing, was opened in 2010. It features a very large atrium leading to many facilities, including various outpatients' departments, women's services, critical care services and an infectious diseases unit.

The Great North Children's Hospital, left, at the RVI. On the right is part of the RVI's New Victoria Wing. Photo: Tom Yellowley

A helicopter pad is located on top of the wing so that patients can be flown in for urgent treatment.


New facilities also include the Great North Children's Hospital, where a wide range of advanced medical services are based, and a superb accident and emergency department, stated to be one of the best equipped in the UK, which includes a trauma centre, a minor injuries unit and a children's emergency department.


Most of the old RVI buildings have now been demolished, but Peacock Hall, St Luke's Chapel and the nurses' home building have been retained, standing as eloquent testimony to the humanitarian spirit which led to the foundation of this greatly renowned hospital.

 

Retired Newcastle journalist Ken Smith is co-author, with his wife Jean, of The Great Northern Miners. He has also written more than 20 other books on aspects of North-East history, often with co-authors, including shipbuilding and shipping as well as coal mining.

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