Spike Island by Philip Hoare ~ a personal book review

The Royal Victoria Hospital Netley

Thanks to ‘Spike Island’ by Philip Hoare, The Royal Victoria Hospital came alive for me and I could easily imagine some of my characters going there. I will not say in what fashion though.

The Royal Victoria Military Hospital in Netley must have been an astonishing sight to behold on entering Southampton Water from the Solent, with its corridors so long that ‘American GI’s drove Jeeps along them in WW2.’ Philip Hoare writes about the hospital, the largest in the world at that time, in a novel like prose, rather than in text book style. He describes the unexpected and somewhat off-putting main entrance, with its skeletons in endless display; the almost self contained life of the huge community who worked there, far more than just the nurses and patients; the nissan huts stretching as far the the back as the vast quarter of a mile long facade, seen impressively from the front.

I imagine an extremely proud queen, visiting the hospital on her return from holidays in her residence on the Isle of Wight, feeling satisfied as she alighted at the hospital’s own small wooden pier, gratified that a place had been created in her name to serve her Empire well.

Like with any research, only a fraction of Spike Island was relevant for Ancasta Guide me Swiftly Home, up to 1920 but, because it was written as a personal journey of discovery, it was fascinating throughout.

I had often seen the lonely building of the chapel, in the centre of the grounds of what is now known as The Royal Victoria Park, but in all my years of visiting family in Woolston as a child I do not ever remember visiting it and certainly had not realise that this chapel, standing in isolation, was once part of a truly magnificent monument to our greatness as a nation.

Today you can still enjoy visiting the chapel and visitors centre, or go one of the many planned walks in the area, which are steeped in interesting history, but without Philip Hoare’s insight, it would be impossible to imagine a fraction of what it might have been like to have been there.

Florence Nightingale was said to not have been very impressed with the building because, leading off those long corridors bathed in light with fantastic views across Southampton Water, were row upon row of wards. Since these wards were at the back of the building, they never saw the light of day and were dark and dreary places, not so welcoming to the thousands of patients who were treated there, returning wounded in body and soul from the Crimean War, WW1 and later WW2.

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Filed under Book reviews, Research, Southampton

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