The old Royal Infirmary at Bristol was one of the first to be founded in England outside London. Subscriptions began to be made in November 1736 and the present site was acquired shortly afterwards. The first patients were admitted the following year. It was not until 1782 that the decision to provide a new, purpose-built infirmary was taken. Thomas Paty, a local architect, drew up the plans and building proceeded in three phases. The east wing was erected first between 1784 and 1786. The central block was put up in 1788-92 and the west wing added in 1806-10. It was a large and impressive building of three storeys and basement, to which an attic storey was added later.
A chapel with a museum underneath was added in 1858, an unusual combination. In 1911-12 the King Edward VII wing was built to designs by H. Percy Adams and Charles Holden in a stylish, stripped classical style which looks forward to inter-war modernism. In 2017 the original part of the hospital was empty, boarded up and under threat of demolition.
In November 1736 a subscription was opened for erecting ‘an infirmary in the City of Bristol for the relief of such persons as should be judged proper objects of a Charity of that kind’.  A site in Maudlin Lane was acquired which contained various buildings, including tenements, a warehouse and some waste ground. The existing buildings were adapted and a ward built and furnished. Out-patients were admitted to the infirmary from June 1737 and the first in-patients were admitted at the formal opening in December of that year. Initially there were 34 patients, with an equal number of men and women. As one of the first hospitals to be founded in England outside London, the Bristol Infirmary has some claim to historic importance. It vies with Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, founded in 1719 although not built until 1740, and Winchester Infirmary, established in 1736.
Within a year or so of the infirmary’s opening, plans were made to extend the building by two new wings extending from the south front. The first wing, to the south east, was completed in 1740, the south-west wing had been added by 1750. As well as being able to take in more patients, the infirmary had two cellars – one let to a tenant, the other used for preserving meat – a cold bath, rooms for the apothecary and his apprentices, and in the garrets, along with linen rooms and staff bedrooms, were wards for patients being ‘cut for the stone’. A colonnade was formed along the south front for convalescent patients.
A few additions were made over the next decades, but by the 1780s conditions were poor. The infirmary was always overcrowded, wards were ill-ventilated and infectious diseases frequently claimed the lives of patients and staff. In 1782 it was at last decided that a new building would have to be provided. Some attempt was made to establish the new building on a new site but this was eventually rejected by the Building Committee. Plans were drawn up by Thomas Paty, a local architect, for a U-shaped hospital with the main entrance on the north side facing Marlborough Street. Work was carried on in three stages, one wing at a time. The first to be built was the East Wing, in 1784-6, followed by the central block in 1788-92 and the West Wing, completing the original scheme, was added in 1806-10. Financial difficulties had prompted the managers of the infirmary to build piecemeal, but circumstances were so straitened in 1811 that it was not possible to admit any patients to the newly completed wing. When it finally opened some three years later the infirmary provided a total of 180 beds.
In 1858 plans were drawn up for the addition of a chapel and museum to the infirmary. The museum was to house a collection of specimens which had been presented to the infirmary by Richard Smith. The two were neatly accommodated in one building on the east side of the infirmary, the museum was at ground floor level and the chapel built over it. Work was completed and the building opened in 1860.
The chapel abuts Whitson Street to the east. Constructed of rubble masonry with ashlar dressings, it is a simple five-bay rectangle without a break for chancel or transepts. The windows are lancets with cusped heads and plate tracery for the east end. The eaves course is ornamented by a corbel table. The interior is quite plain, but has a good stained glass window depicting Joshua and one of Saint Elizabeth.
Various additions were made during the nineteenth century. An out-patients’ department was established which underwent many alterations over the century. In 1866 the west wing was extended and two new wards created. By the turn of the century a nurses’ home had been built on high ground to the west of the hospital on Terrell Street. The largest addition to the infirmary before the advent of the National Health Service was the King Edward VII Memorial Building, situated on the opposite side of Marlborough Street, erected in 1911-12. It was designed by H. Percy Adams and Charles Holden to provide new surgical wards and it was largely through the efforts of Sir George White, the president and Treasurer of the Infirmary since 1904, that it was carried out. White made his fortune working at the Stock Exchange before setting himself up in business. He developed the Bristol Tramways Company and established the Bristol Colonial Aeroplane Company in 1910. He worked hard to clear the infirmary from debt and raise sufficient funds to improve the accommodation.
A competition was held in 1908 for an extension scheme which comprised the remodelling of the old infirmary building, adding a new ward pavilion with 75 beds, a new casualty and out-patients’ department, and an isolation building with 24 beds for sceptic and infectious cases. [Allibone, J. Adams, Holden Pearson catalogue of plans in RIBA] The competition was assessed by Edwin T. Hall, and twelve firms of architects were invited to take part, amongst whom were the foremost hospital architects of the day. Apart from H. Percy Adams they were: Thomas W. Aldwinckle, W. A. Pite, J. W. Simpson, A. Saxon Snell, Alfred Hessell Tiltman, Young & Hall, all based in London; Arthur Marshall from Nottingham; Everard, Son & Pick from Leicester; Henman & Cooper, from Birmingham; T. Worthington & Son, of Manchester and E. Kirby & Sons of Liverpool. [Building News, 31 July 1908, p. 168]
The site itself was awkward, being bisected by Marlborough Street which became Upper Maudlin Street at the corner with Lower Maudlin Street. The winning design by Adams and Holden comprised a large new out-patients’ block with a central waiting hall, situated nearly opposite the old infirmary building, and adjacent to it a ward pavilion, alongside which further extensions could be erected. Behind the ward pavilion was the isolation block. The plans submitted by A. H. Tiltman, which were also published at the time, are notable for comprising circular ward towers.
Insufficient funds led to the plans being modified. It was also decided to delay the building of the new out-patients’ block until more money was available. The foundation stone was laid on 14 March 1911 and the new building formally opened by King George V and Queen Mary on 28 June 1912. The nurses’ home was extended at the same time, this pushed the total cost up to £137,000 and left the infirmary with a debt of over £12,000.
Following the outbreak of the First World War, just two years after the new wing opened, the Memorial Building was handed over to the military authorities and, along with Southmead Hospital, it became known as the Second Southern General War Hospital (C. Bruce Perry, The Bristol Royal Infirmary 1904-1974, 1980, p.27).
Lack of money continued to darken the administration of the infirmary. After the War costs continued to rise and income diminish. In 1921 over one hundred beds were closed at the infirmary through a shortage of funds and two years later a shortage of nurses caused beds to remain unusable. The managers laid the blame for this deficiency in nursing staff to the inadequate nurses’ home. They were able to go some way to rectifying this by using a generous gift from Henry Herbert Wills to extend the existing home. This opened in 1925, the work having been carried out by the architect Sir George Oatley.
Further additions were carried out between the Wars. The isolation block was built in 1924, an x-ray department and dental department were added in 1925, and a massage department established in 1926. Henry Hill had been appointed as the infirmary’s clerk of works in 1906 and he drew up plans for two staff accommodation blocks which were completed in 1930 and 1931. During the Second World War the infirmary was lucky to escape serious damage from bombing. Only the mortuary was destroyed. After the war, greatly in debt, the infirmary was transferred to the National Health Service.
- Minutes of Bristol Royal Infirmary, quoted in C. Saunders, The United Bristol Hospitals, 1965, p. 11