Royal Hospital for Sick Children, Edinburgh

In 2016 the Royal Hospital for Sick Children was put up for sale, well in advance of its scheduled move to its new home alongside the Royal Infirmary at Little France. When the Sciennes Road buildings are finally vacated it will mark the end of more than 120 years on that site. But the foundation is even older, having started out in 1860 in a house in Lauriston Lane with just eight beds. A Royal charter was granted in 1863 when the hospital moved to nearby Meadowside House. This provided more beds (around 40, although accounts vary) and a separate fever ward for infectious cases. The conversion of the house into a hospital was undertaken by the architect David Macgibbon. A new wing was built in 1870 providing a further 30 beds.

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Meadowside House, shown here on the OS large-scale Town Plan of 1876, between the new Royal Infirmary (to the right) and Watson’s College. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland.

The map above shows the block behind the hospital that housed the hospital laundry and ‘dead house’. In November 1884 there were calls from the Ladies’ Committee to provide a separate mortuary so that the ‘dead house’ need no longer serve as both mortuary and post-mortem room: ‘…not only are the feelings of Mothers and relations shocked by seeing the necessary surroundings when taken to see the bodies of their little ones, but the combination of the two purposes in one room has a hardening effect on the nurses…'[1]

It was found that a coal house might be converted without any great expense. At first the mortuary was intended to be quite plain, but in February 1885 the hospital secretary wrote to the newly established Edinburgh Social Union with a request for it to be decorated. The Social Union was already active in providing decoration for the Fountainbridge Dispensary and the Children’s Shelter in the city. In April Phoebe Traquair was entrusted with the decoration of the mortuary chapel.[2]  The tiny space, just 12 feet by 8 feet, was adorned by murals, painted directly on to the plaster. A study for the original scheme is in the National Gallery in Edinburgh.

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Three Studies for the decoration of the Mortuary Chapel, 1885, photograph © National Galleries of Scotland reproduced courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland

Just five years later the future of this jewel-box of a  mortuary chapel was under threat, when an outbreak of typhoid in 1890 prompted a temporary relocation to Plewlands House at Morningside. The managers then decided that Meadowside House was no longer suitable and a new building was required. They purchased Rill Bank House, then occupied by the Trades Maiden Hospital, and on the site erected the present building in 1892-5 to designs by by George Washington Browne, a leading architect in Edinburgh. Washington Browne also designed other public buildings including the Edinburgh City Library.  The old site, being right next to the Royal Infirmary, was readily disposed of to the Infirmary managers who wished to acquire additional land for their planned extensions. Neither the Royal Infirmary nor the Sick Children’s Hospital had any wish to preserve the murals in the mortuary chapel. The fact that they had been painted directly on to the wall surface made their preservation problematic at the very least.

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Rill Bank House was purchased as the site for the new Sick Children’s Hospital. Town Plan, OS Map of 1851, Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland

At first it was simply planned to demolish the mortuary chapel along with the rest of Meadowside House. Phoebe Traquair wrote to her nephew in August 1891, angry and distressed at the proposed destruction. She blamed the directors of the hospital ‘the horrid Edinburgh little handful of bigots’, and could not see why the whole structure could not be ‘raised bodily from its foundations’ and moved to a new position.[3]  There was enough support for the preservation of the chapel to grant it an initial stay of execution, but it was only once the new hospital was nearing completion, three years later, that Washington Browne managed to negotiate an agreement between the hospital directors and the Social Union to move the murals to the new building. This agreement put the responsibility squarely upon the Social Union to manage and pay for the removal.[4]

Administration block of the Royal Hospital for Sick Children,  from Academy Architecture 1895 p.61

The new Sick Children’s Hospital was officially opened by Princess Beatrice on 31 October 1895. It was built of bright red sandstone, with a tall three‑storey and attic central block rising to twin, shaped gables, and an ornate triumphal-arch doorpiece. The style was ‘based upon the English Renaissance’, according to The Scotsman, where the new building was described in detail. [5]

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Sick Kids Hospital, Edinburgh by Stephencdickson – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 photographed in 2014

The hospital was designed on a U‑shaped plan with central administration section. The main entrance at the centre gave onto a broad corridor running the length of the building, and which gave access to the ward pavilions at either end. These were of three stories, terminating in balconies between turrets housing the sanitary facilities – sinks, baths and WCs. Each ward had 24 beds, arranged in pairs between the windows, and was a lofty 15ft high, with its own kitchen and services. In addition there was a spare ward on the upper floor of the east wing with 16 beds and a smaller four-bed observation ward, plus two single-bed isolation rooms, on the upper floor of the west wing.

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OS Map, Edinburgh Town Plan of 1893. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland

The administration section contained two lecture theatres, one on the ground floor one on the first, fitted with galleries for students and demonstrating platform tables, lit by large north-facing oriel windows. Rooms were provided for resident doctors, honorary visiting physicians and the matron. There was also a board room, a small museum, dispensary, ophthalmic room, staff dining-room, nurses’ sitting-room, and, on the upper floors bedrooms for the nursing staff. Domestic staff had accommodation in the attics.

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General view of the entrance, photographed around 1900 by Bedford Lemere © RCAHMS

Reinstallation of the mortuary chapel murals proved almost impossible, and in the end only fragments were able to be saved. Some that were moved turned out to be too thick to be incorporated in the new chapel, as they included the sawn-through bricks that had been plastered and then painted. Others were more successfully moved, where the painted plaster rested on laths, but were badly cracked and damaged during the move. Phoebe Traquair carried out their restoration, but it became by and large a complete repainting following the underlying design. The new mortuary chapel was also larger, and so the artist painted new decoration to fill the gaps between the relocated panels. [6]

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Detail of mural in mortuary chapel, photographed in 1982  © RCAHMS

Hopefully, when the hospital moves again, modern technology will enable the murals to be transferred to the new site without losing any of them, and without them sustaining any damage. Hopefully, too, the present managers of the hospital are more keen to preserve them than their forebears were.

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Another detail of the mural in mortuary chapel, photographed in 1982 ©RCAHMS

After the hospital opened in Sciennes Road in 1892, various additions were made and the hospital slowly expanded into the surrounding houses. In 1903 Washington Browne added an out‑patients’ department in Sylvan Place, and in 1906-9 Muirfield House at Gullane was built as a convalescent home (see separate entry in Lothian).

screen-shot-2017-01-01-at-16-12-5525-inch OS map surveyed in 1947. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland

The hospital was extended from 1959 with a new lecture hall and operating theatre designed by Cullen, Lochhead & Brown of Hamilton, a well established firm in hospital design.

For the new hospital, due to open in 2018, the designs were drawn up by HLM Architects. It is of five storeys over a basement with its main entrance opening into an atrium. Beyond are the main hospital, with around 154 beds, and a new department of clinical neurosciences, with a further 67 beds, as well as a small mental health service unit for children and adolescents. There is also to be a family hotel – a free place to stay for families of patients. [7]

References

  1. LHSA, RHSC Minutes, meeting of committee of Management, 6 Nov 1884, quoted in Elizabeth S Cumming, PhD Thesis ‘Phoebe Anna Traquair, HRSA )1852-1936) and her Contribution to Arts and Crafts in Edinburgh’, University of Edinburgh, 1986
  2. Mins of Edinburgh Social Union 17 Feb 1835 – Edinburgh Public Library YHV 250 E235, quoted in E. Cumming Thesis
  3. NLS MS 8122 fols 10,11, quoted in E. Cumming Thesis
  4. LHSA,  mins HH 69/1/2, quoted in E. Cumming Thesis
    5. The Scotsman, 18 Oct 1892 p.5
  5. E. Cumming, Thesis
    7. Edinburgh Evening News, 21 April 2014

Further reading and other sources: Caledonian Mercury, 18 May 1863, p.2: The Builder, 1 Jan. 1898: LHSA  Story of the ‘Sick Kids’ Hospital: Guthrie, D Royal Edinburgh Hospital for Sick Children, 1860 – 1960, 1960:see nhslothian.scot.nhs.uk 

Records of the hospital are held by Lothian Health Services Archive in Edinburgh

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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