Randolph Wemyss Memorial Hospital, Fife

Randolph Wemyss Memorial Hospital, photographed in October 2019 © H. Richardson

The cottage hospital at Buckhaven opened on 28 August 1909. It was designed by Alexander Tod of Kirkcaldy for Lady Eva Wemyss in memory of her husband, Randolph Gordon Erskine Wemyss, of Wemyss Castle. Randolph Wemyss had died in July 1908 aged just 50 after a long illness, but in his relatively short life he had made a considerable impact on the Wemyss estate, guided and inspired by his mother. He invested the profits from the coal mines on his land both to improve production – building a coaling dock at Methil, and a railway from there to Thornton – and also to improve the conditions of his tenants and workers. He was behind the development of the ‘New Town’ or ‘Garden Village’ of Denbeath, where he built over 200 cottage flats in 1904-5, and invested in the company that built a tramway from Kirkcaldy to Leven.

OS Map, 25-inch, revised in 1913. The Wemyss Memorial Hospital is here dwarfed by Denbeath School to its north-west. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland.

The housing built by Wemyss at Denbeath was remarkable in many ways. The design of the cottage flats was unusual. Arranged in terraces of two storeys, with one flat per floor, the L-shaped flats interlocked with their entrances alternately on the north and south sides. The upper-floor flats were accessed by external stairs. They were also unusually large, giving a larger square footage of floor area than was recommended by the 1919 Housing Act, and built on a low density at 10 houses per acre, yet the rents kept affordable.  [see John Frew and David Adshead’s article, ‘”Model” Colliery Housing in Fife: Denbeath “Garden” Village 1904-8’ in Scottish Industrial History, X (1987) pp 45-59 for more on the housing.]

Wellesley Road. Detail of the cottage flats in Denbeath, photographed by Jerzy Morkis in 2010, © CC BY-SA 2.0, reproduced from Geograph

Designs for a cottage hospital to serve the new garden village may have been outlined around 1907 by Randolph Wemyss and Alexander Tod, the Wemyss Castle estate architect. However, they were seen through by Lady Eva Wemyss, with Tod, following her husband’s death. Lady Eva was Randolph’s  second wife (he had been divorced from his first wife in 1898), and the daughter of William Henry Wellesley, 2nd Earl Cowley, a great nephew of the Duke of Wellington. Both Lady Eva and Alexander Tod were said to have visited ‘some of the principal hospitals in the country’ before settling on the design, which embodied the ‘best features found in all of them’. [Dundee Courier, 31 March 1909, p.6]

Detail of ward wing, photographed in October 2019 © H. Richardson

In March 1909 Lady Eva Wemyss laid the foundation stone, placing a sealed glass jar containing current coins and copies of the daily newspapers in a cavity on top of which the foundation stone was lowered into place. Building work proceeded rapidly, and at the end of August 1909 the hospital was officially opened by Lady Eva, the ceremony being presided over by Charles Carlow, the manager of the Fife Coal company. Carlow gifted the four-dial clock, which originally had Westminster chimes, and had the novel design of hands representing the miner’s pick and shovel.

Detail of the central tower. The hands of the clock are in the shape of picks and shovels. Photographed in October 2019 © H. Richardson

The plan is of the standard central administration block flanked by ward blocks favoured at the time but it is dressed up with baronial details. Described as picturesque in the contemporary accounts in the local newspapers, the building has undoubted charm. Originally the harling was yellow, or ochre coloured rather than white.   There are circular stair turrets and corbelled bartizans at the angles of the wards. The somewhat eccentric entrance has a Doric portico fronting a circular tower, topped with a conical roof sporting the gabled clock faces.

Detail of the entrance to the Randolph Wemyss Memorial Hospital, with the coat-of-arms of the Wemyss family carved in red sandstone in the pediment. Photographed in October 2019 © H. Richardson

To the rear were the kitchen and laundry, with the ‘latest appliances for mechanical ironing of linen’, and at the east end of the site a small chapel and mortuary. Originally there were wrought-iron gates ‘of mediaeval design, with side railings of wrought iron’ – now long disappeared.

Rear of the hospital, showing the kitchen, laundry and boiler house, photographed in October 2019 © H. Richardson

The hospital was designed as a surgical hospital – accidents in the coal mines were not infrequent – and contained two main wards with six or seven beds in each, an emergency ward with two beds, operating theatre, X-ray room, doctor’s room, as well as accommodation for the matron and nurses and the usual stores and offices. Three ‘up-to-date’ bathrooms were installed, including, an ‘electric bath’.  It was to be lit by electricity, and heated by hot-water pipes and open fires.

Design for entrance hall floor, dated April 1909. © RCAHMS

Some of the original plans have were deposited in the National Monuments Record of Scotland (now part of Historic Environment Scotland), including a design for the entrance hall floor. It features the Wemyss family crest of a swan at the centre.

The Chapel and mortuary, photographed in October 2019 © H. Richardson

The grounds were laid out and planted with flowers and shrubs by the head gardener of Wemyss Castle, Charles Simpson. Originally the front of the hospital looked directly out over the Forth, but housing has since been built opposite. Along with the view, the hospital has lost a few of its original features – weather vanes formerly topped the turrets, a swan in the centre, a working miner with lamp and tools and a ship and colliery winding engine on the side turrets. On the whole, though, the building is little altered, except internally largely the result of a sizeable addition to the west built in the 1960s as a geriatric unit added by the South East Regional Hospital Board in the face of a pressing need for additional beds for the elderly in Fife.

Geriatric Unit, from the south, photographed in October 2019 © H. Richardson

An extension of the hospital was first mooted late in 1954. At that stage it was hoped to add an out-patient and physiotherapy department. At much the same time the South East Regional Hospital Board had been considering its strategy for hospital provision for the ageing population, specifically in Fife. Early in 1955 sketch plans were drawn up, at this stage for a 44-bed unit with some physiotherapy and out-patient accommodation. Little progress having been made, in January 1957 the Regional Board appointed Dr Robert Rankine to develop and take charge of a hospital geriatric service for the county.  He produced a report in April endorsing the proposals to expand the Randolph Wemyss hospital. At this stage, however, there was no prospect of funds being available for such a building before 1960. In February 1959 the Regional Board approved the acquisition of additional land to the west of the hospital for a new building and the construction of a 60-bed geriatric unit, with limited facilities for physiotherapy, at an estimated cost of £120,000. [Fife Archives, H/EF/1/10-11, East Fife Hospital Board of Management Minutes.]

Geriatric Unit, from the west, photographed in October 2019 © H. Richardson

The new unit was built in 1962-3 and officially opened early in 1964. The architect in charge was Iain D. Haig, one of the team in the Regional Board’s architects department headed by John Holt. Although in marked contrast to the original hospital, its stylish design and respectful distance from the older building ensures that each can be equally appreciated. (Personally, I think they are both very handsome – in different ways.) Rather like the slightly earlier Phase One buildings at the Victoria Hospital, Kirkcaldy, the geriatric unit blends modernism, in its construction and the concrete fins that form the building’s most distinctive feature, with elements of traditional Scottish vernacular building traditions, in the use of random-rubble stone as a facing on the ground storey.

Geriatric Unit, showing the low link-building, photographed in October 2019 © H. Richardson

The new range was designed with a reinforced concrete frame, aluminium sliding sash windows (since replaced), a central spine beam supporting floors and roof, and close-centred perimeter columns of precast concrete designed as projecting fins to create ‘sun baffles’ for the ward areas. Wards were on the upper two floors, designed on an adaptation of the Nuffield type with the bed bays on one side of a service corridor, and ancillary rooms, plus single-bed rooms, on the other.

Geriatric Unit, view towards entrance on west front, photographed in October 2019 © H. Richardson

Each of the two ward floors accommodated thirty patients arranged in two nursing units per floor of sixteen and fourteen beds, with four 6-bed bays, one 3-bed bay and three single rooms. Nurses stations were in the service corridor area placed centrally between the 6-bed bays and with the single rooms close by. Glazed screens divided the bed bays to maintain a clear view for the nursing staff. A day room was placed at the centre, between the two 6-bed bays, and a passageway ran along the south-west side beside the windows, fitted with a handrail to assist ambulant patients to exercise, out of the way of the main circulation corridor on the other side of the wards. Perhaps in an echo of the original entrance hall floor, there was a patterned vinyl-tile floor, supplied by Nairn’s of Kirkcaldy in the new wing. The original colour scheme throughout was grey and white, with accents of stronger colour. [The Hospital, May 1965, pp.229-30]

In 2008 the hospital was re-opened by Nicola Sturgeon after modernisation. It currently operates as a community hospital run by NHS Fife, with various out-patient clinics, and the geriatric unit (now the Wellesley Unit) providing in-patient palliative and continuing care.

About Harriet Richardson

I am an architectural historian, currently a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, researching post-war hospital buildings in Scotland. From 1991 to 2018 I worked on the Survey of London. During the late 1980s and early 1990s I worked on surveys of hospital architecture in Scotland and England.
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