Stevenage Outpatients’ Centre

Photographed in 2022 © K. A. Morrison

In the centre of Stevenage, just next to the central library with its adjoining Health Centre, stands this gem of an early NHS building. However, the building is now under threat of demolition as part of the current Stevenage Development Board’s plans to make ‘Stevenage Even Better’. (Surely a potential sequel to WIA?) There has been an outpouring of dismay at this decision on Twitter. Is it too late to hope that this building might be preserved? So many of the early NHS hospital buildings have been demolished, this is becoming an increasingly rare survivor.

Former Outpatients’ Centre, photographed in 2022 © K. A. Morrison

It was built in advance of the new District General Hospital, the new Lister Hospital. Well in advance as it turned out, as the outpatients clinic was built in 1959-61 while the residents of the New Town had to wait another ten years or so for the opening of the Lister Hospital.

The Lister Hospital. Photographed by Peter O’Connor in 2011, CC BY-SA 2.0

Stevenage Development Corporation reached an agreement with the North-West Metropolitan Regional Hospitals Board in about 1957 for them to build a casualty and outpatients’ clinic on a site to the south of the main shopping core of the New Town. The site formed part of the area reserved for Hertfordshire County Council, offering the opportunity of forming a close link between the clinic and the local authority’s health centre. The County Council agreed to give up part of the land to the Hospital Board in recognition of the need for hospital services in the town, which were provided by the hospitals at Hitchin. These were the former workhouse (renamed the Lister Hospital during the Second World War) and the North Hertfordshire and South Bedfordshire Hospital, the town’s long-established former voluntary hospital. Both of these hospitals had been acquired by the State on the appointed day in June 1948 when the National Health Service was inaugurated.

Stevenage Outpatient Centre when new, reproduced from The Hospital, March 1962. General view showing the gymnasium on the left.

Plans were approved for the clinic in about 1958 at which time it was anticipated that work would begin on site the following summer. The commission was put out to Peter Dunham, Widdup and Harrison, architects based in Luton, a firm that had some experience with hospital design in Northern Ireland, but also designed some elegant private houses, laboratories and factories. It was not unusual for the NHS to place design work with private firms, especially for larger schemes. Most of the Regional Boards had architects departments, but some were small, and initially under-staffed for the large amount and range of work with which they were faced.

Peter Dunham was born in Luton and had trained at the Bartlett School of Architecture. He had started in private practice in 1933, and served in the Royal Engineers during the war, where he met MacFarlane Widdup. Widdup, a Yorkshireman who had trained in Leeds, was two years older than Dunham. According to the Architectural Review of 1953 he spent his spare time ‘cutting down trees too near his new house, admiring other people’s vintage cars and making amateur films of the kind no-one else understands’. As for the third partner of the team, Michael Harrison was a fellow Lutonian and Bartlett student, who had spent three years in local government before joining Dunham and Widdup in 1949.

Detail of the corner of the outpatients’ centre showing the different decorative treatment on the north (left) and west (right) sides of the gymnasium. Photographed in 2022 © K. A. Morrison

Stevenage Development Corporation welcomed the development of the clinic but lamented that instead of building even the first stage of a new general hospital all that the Regional Hospitals Board were able to do were some improvements to the existing Lister and North Herts Hospitals at Hitchin. In their Annual Report published in 1959, the Corporation noted their hopes that the Stevenage Hospital would be given high priority when the country’s economic circumstances permitted new hospital building. The growing population of the area was making it more difficult for the Hitchin hospitals to meet the demands made on them. When the new clinic opened it functioned as an annexe of the old Lister Hospital at Hitchin and provided a full range of consultative and specialist clinics staffed from both the Lister and the North Herts. Since that time it has continued to have an outpatient function within the NHS, and latterly was known as the Danestrete Centre.

Detail of the decorative wall treatment on the clinic. Photographed in 2022 © K. A. Morrison

The most distinctive feature of the building is the gymnasium with its decorative quilted finish to the external walls. On the north side the lozenges of aggregate chips are pinned together by blue tiles bearing the coat of arms of Joseph Lister. This alluded to the Lister Hospital, which had been so-named as Lister had attended the Quaker school at Hitchin as a child.

Detail of the coat of arms on the exterior of the Outpatients’ Centre. Photographed in 2022 © K. A. Morrison

This part of the building was specially designed as an independent reinforced concrete frame structure, to isolate it from the rooms beneath, in order to ‘avoid interference by the activities of this department’.

The gymnasium in the physiotherapy department of the clinic. From The Hospital, March 1962, p.151

The remainder of the construction is of brickwork with concrete floors and timber roofs. The ceilings of the corridors and the public spaces, such as the waiting room, were lined with sound absorbent boarding for quietness. Particular efforts were made to provide a ‘homely building’ offering a ‘friendly welcome to the patients’. Accordingly materials and decorations in the waiting areas were carefully chosen to create the desired atmosphere, and a modern touch was provided by a large abstract mural at the entrance, giving a ‘strong and gay splash of colour’.

Interior view published in 1962, showing the waiting area, with natural wood finishes, patterned lino tiles. From The Hospital, March 1962.

The clinic was centrally heated, and apart from its gymnasium, provided a series of consultant and examination rooms, treatment rooms, dental and E.N.T. departments, and small pathological department, x-ray, and pharmacy. The original proposal to include a casualty section was not carried out, and emergency services continued to be dealt with at the old Lister Hospital in Hitchin. The total cost of the building was £95,610.

Ground Floor Plan of the Outpatients Clinic, from The Hospital, March 1962.
Upper Floor Plans of the Outpatients Clinic, from The Hospital, March 1962

References: Stevenage Development Corporation, 11th Annual Report, 1 April 1957 to 31 March 1958 and 12th Annual Report, 1 April 1958 to 31 March 1959: Architectural Review, 1 Nov. 1953, p.282: The Hospital, March 1962, pp.147-51.

There is a fuller account of this building in Historic England’s research report on Stevenage Town Centre, which I highly recommend. It can be freely accessed online here https://historic-hospitals.com/2022/04/01/stevenage-outpatients-centre/

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