Vale of Leven Hospital, the first new NHS hospital in Britain

geograph-273104-by-wfmillar

Vale of Leven Hospital, photographed in 2006 © Copyright wfmillar and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Vale of Leven Hospital, at Alexandria in Dunbartonshire, Scotland, was the first new hospital to be completed in Britain under the National Health Service at a cost of  around £1 million. It was built in 1951-5 on the site adjacent to the Henry Brock Cottage Hospital to designs by John Keppie and Henderson and J. L. Gleave. Joseph Gleave was the lead architect on the project, carrying out extensive planning and constructional research. The hospital was to accommodate 150 patients, and comprised eight standard units, built of pre-cast concrete on a modular system. Six of the units housed wards the other two ancillary services.  General medical and surgical wards were provided, together with theatres, radiological department and laboratories, out-patient, casualty department, nurses’ teaching school and pharmacy. The general wards were designed on a standard pattern but adaptable for specialisms such as ENT or eye diseases. It was also designed with adaptability in mind: the original flat-roofed, two storey ward units were intended to allow for the addition of a third storey. [1]

geograph-3464312-by-Barbara-CarrVale of Leven Hospital, photographed in 2013  © Copyright Barbara Carr and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

After the Second World War, although there was a desperate need for new accommodation and to overhaul existing hospital buildings which had suffered from a lack of maintenance during the war, restrictions on capital expenditure meant that it was many years before much new building could take place. The original allocation of funds had to be curtailed in 1949, and then cut almost completely the following year. Thus is 1950 most building work was limited to essential maintenance and to the adaptation of existing buildings, despite the recognition that many of the buildings taken over at the inauguration of the National Health Service fell far short of hospital standards for that time. Limited funding was compounded by scarcity of materials, and a ban on new, non-residential building imposed in November 1951.

geograph-273091-by-wfmillar

Vale of Leven Hospital, photographed in 2006 © Copyright wfmillar and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Vale of Leven Hospital was built in the face of these financial constraints because it had been in the pipeline for so long. According to the Department of Health for Scotland, looking back in 1955, the erection of the hospital had formed a part of the Civil Defence Programme during the Second World War. But this was perhaps only a part of the story, as  Dunbartonshire County Council, with Dumbarton and Clydebank Town Councils, had resolved to build a new 150-bed general hospital in the 1930s and were considering possible sites towards the end of 1937. The Henry Brock Hospital had opened in 1924 on the outskirts of Alexandria in a converted private house, with a large area of open ground to its west – where the new general hospital was eventually built. Beyond the original bequest of £15,000 to establish the cottage hospital, further funds were gifted by Hugh Brock, brother of the founder, who left a legacy of £2,000, and John Somerville, of Camstradden, Luss, Loch Lomondside, who bequeathed a further £1,000 to the hospital in 1929.[2]

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Aerial photograph of Vale of Leven Hospital taken in 2015 by RCAHMS

The outbreak of war in 1939 called a halt to most building projects in Britain that were not related to the war effort. When the prospect of war had become apparent, plans were made for the organisation of emergency hospital accommodation. In the spring of 1938 the Department of Health for Scotland carried out a survey of the existing hospital resources, covering all local authority and voluntary hospitals, and public assistance institutions, but also looking at hotels and schools which might be suitable to conversion into temporary hospitals. Mental hospitals came under the Board of Control which conducted a similar but separate survey. Many of the decisions taken and the administrative model established under the Emergency Medical Scheme later formed the basis for the organisation of the NHS.[3]

The priorities in the early years of the NHS in Scotland were to increase the number of maternity beds and improve staff quarters and radiology departments.  One of the first new maternity blocks built under the NHS was at Seafield Hospital, Buckie, which opened in 1950 providing a much needed additional 14 beds. Plans were also in hand for a new maternity hospital at Hawkhead, Paisley. Out-patients’ clinics and health centres were also some of the earliest new buildings built by the NHS in Scotland. In Dumbarton a new TB clinic and x-ray department were built at the existing Infectious Diseases Hospital. The first health centres were at Sighthill, Edinburgh built in 1951-3, and Stranraer in 1954-5. [4]

Taking a virtual tour of Vale of Leven Hospital in 2016 via Google street view, some of the outlying parts of the original buildings were in a poor state of repair, particularly around the out-patients’ department. Other areas have been refurbished and modernised, yet retain a sense of their original appearance. Despite its historic and architectural importance the hospital has not been designated as a listed building, the number of later alterations and additions have perhaps rendered it unlistable.

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 The Vale Centre for Health and Care, photographed after it opened in 2013 © Copyright Lairich Rig and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Just to the east of the hospital a new health centre opened in 2013, the Vale Centre for Health and Care. It is a tw0-storey building, containing GP and dental surgeries, child and mental health clinics. Constructed on a steel frame, it has timber and zinc cladding and glass curtain walls. Once Vale of Leven Hospital looked just as sparkling as the new health centre, and might have fared better over the last sixty years had money been spent more consistently on its maintenance. The same could be said of the Finsbury Health Centre, another seminal health care building, designed by Lubetkin and Tecton and built in 1937-8 for the London Borough of Finsbury. There too a lack of funding for a full restoration has left parts of the building in a sorry state.

geograph-3923177-by-Julian-OsleyFinsbury Health Centre, centre block with main entrance photographed in 2014 © Copyright Julian Osley and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Sources

  1. Fiona Sinclair, Scotstyle, p.98: PP, Report of the Department of Health for Scotland… 1951, c.7921, p.32.
  2. Dundee Evening Telegraph, 6 Nov 1929, p.4: Sunday Post, 10 August 1924, p.3: Western Daily Press, 12 June 1924, p.3
  3. 10th Annual Report of the Department of Health for Scotland, 1938 PP Cmd.5969
  4. Miles Glendinning, Ranald MacInnes, Aonghus MacKecknie, A History of Scottish Architecture…, : Alistair G. F. Gibb, Off-site Fabrication Pre-assembly and Modularisation, 1999, p.13: David Stark, Charlies Rennie Mackintosh and Co., 1854 to 2004, 2004

About Harriet Richardson

I am an architectural historian, working on the Survey of London at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. I have worked on surveys of hospital architecture in Scotland and England.
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