Historian Martin Cooke was overwhelmed by the response when he appealed through the letters pages in the Chichester Observer for memories of the old Royal West Sussex Hospital.
“I even had someone who wanted to find the grave of the sister who had saved his life!”
For Martin, it was all proof of the huge affection in which the former hospital is held, 17 years after it closed and nearly 40 years after the last operation was carried out there.
Martin has pieced it all together for a volume entitled The Royal West Sussex Hospital, number three in the New Chichester Papers series, produced by the Chichester Local History Society in association with the University of Chichester.
Copies are available from the League of Friends shop in St Richard’s Hospital, from Kim’s bookshop in Chichester and from the West Sussex Record Office, also in Chichester.
Martin was ideally positioned to write the book, having served as the hospital’s last secretary: “I had some quite interesting experiences there!
“The most constructive experience was in organising some proper attention for the wisteria from a tree surgeon. It was in a poor state, and actually it was very moving.
“I had some lovely letters from former soldiers who had been patients there. They had been there in the summer after D-Day. They had to close the hospital for a while to accommodate the soldiers.”
And clearly for a lot of those soldiers, the striking wisteria which decorated the building was a fond memory in trying times.
By the time of the war, the Royal West Sussex Hospital (which still stands, as housing now, opposite Chichester Festival Theatre) had gained a rival in the new St Richard’s – or ‘Dirty Dick’s’ as it was known.
“Certainly there was for a time a bit of rivalry,” Martin says – though it wasn’t long before the two hospitals complemented each other. But if only one was going to survive, it was always going to be St Richard’s which had the space to expand.
And in fact, it was to fund the St Richard’s extension that the old Royal West Sussex was sold off.
By then, it had been many years since the last operation there: “After the wards had closed, it was just the one clinic there and the administrative offices, and when they needed money to fund the extension at St Richard’s, it was the Royal West Sussex that was sacrificed.”
But it certainly hasn’t been lost from popular affection.
“I was quite overwhelmed by the response I had to my letter to the Chichester Observer,” said Martin.
Which is appropriate, given that the Chichester Observer was itself a primary source for Martin’s research. Microfilms at Chichester library and the county record office were key to his investigations.
“It would be good to give praise where praise is due, to the journalists from the Observer who provided such a good source of consistently-sound reportage of events at the Royal West and so helped support the staff and the Governing body through many challenging times,” he said.
“I relied to quite a large extent on archival copies of the Observer.”
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