'Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be'
Christopher Wren’s Royal Naval Hospital is the centrepiece of maritime Greenwich, but – like many of London’s grand historic buildings – it finds its roots in royal one-upmanship.
When Charles II came to the throne in 1660, he wanted to reassert the power and pomp of the British monarchy after the Civil War and Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate. The major European power at this time was France under the ‘Sun King’, Louis XIV. Louis established many new scientific and humanitarian institutions, like the Académie des sciences and the Hôtel des Invalides. Seeking to keep up with his European cousin, Charles created the Royal Society, the Royal Hospital at Chelsea, and the Royal Observatory.
In 1664 Charles commissioned Christopher Wren to build a new palace on the site of the Tudor palace of Placentia in Greenwich. But the money ran out in 1669, with only one wing completed. A quarter-century later Queen Mary saw wounded sailors being carried through the streets of London, and decided to establish a new hospital to care for injured or disabled sailors. She ordered Charles’ buildings to be completed, but insisted that the view of the river from the Queen’s House should be preserved – hence the grand central avenue separating the two wings. The Royal Naval Hospital opened in 1728. At its heart was a grand Painted Hall with a huge ceiling mural, bigger than that of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Nelson lay in state here for three days after his death at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805, and in that time hundreds of thousands of Londoners filed past his coffin.
In the decades after the Napoleonic wars up to two thousand five hundred sailors lived here, but the hospital authorities had very little money at their disposal, and the inmates complained of being fed rotten beef and sour beer. In 1869 the hospital closed, and four years later reopened as the Royal Naval College – a training school for the Royal Navy. The College closed in the 1990s, and when contractors moved in to clear the buildings they discovered a fully functioning nuclear reactor used to train submarine crews. This reactor, nicknamed ‘Jason’, had been kept secret for more than thirty years.
But in the nineteenth century the riverfront at Greenwich also held another kind of hospital, one created to meet the needs of the Victorian ‘global village’. During the Napoleonic Wars thousands of sailors suffered serious injuries, but the Royal Naval Hospital was simply unable to take them all in. At the same time, increasing trade with the British Empire meant that sailors of all nations were bringing new and deadly diseases into the very heart of London.
In 1821 a committee of local doctors and philanthropists set up the Seamen’s Hospital Society, and campaigned for a new hospital for wounded and infected hospitals. The Society bought an old warship and moored it here in the Thames. Isolation wards on lower decks were lit by whale-oil lamps, and canvas shelters on the top decks provided shelter for convalescing cases.
In 1831 the original ship was replaced by HMS Dreadnought, a veteran of Trafalgar, with room for two hundred and fifty patients and one hundred and fifty convalescents. The Dreadnought enjoyed enormous public support until 1870, when the hospital gave up its naval roots and transferred to dry land.