former Royal Alexandra Infirmary, Paisley revisited

The other day I was searching through boxes of old photographs and came across a bundle of colour negatives which turned out to be photographs that I had taken of the Royal Alexandra back in 1988. It would have been great to have had them when I wrote the blog post on the former Royal Alexandra Infirmary, Paisley back in December 2016, but better late than never! I would be the first to admit that the photos are for the most part pretty terrible, and scanning the negatives may not have improved them. However, I thought it would be worth sharing them in a new post.

Paisley, Royal Alexandra Infirmary. Photographed in 1988 © H. Richardson

The Royal Alexandra Infirmary was built between about 1894 and 1902, to designs by the architect T. G. Abercrombie. Above is a detail of the ends of two of the ward blocks with their semi-circular sun balconies. The square tower to the right housed the WCs and wash-hand basins. These ‘sanitary towers’ were typical adjuncts to the ends of Victorian hospital ward pavilions. Often there were a pair of towers with a simple balcony strung between them – as at St Thomas’s Hospital in London or the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh’s Lauriston Place buildings (now the Quartermile development).

Paisley, Royal Alexandra Infirmary. Photographed in 1988 © H. Richardson

The photographs above and below show the main east front the infirmary. You can just glimpse the balconies of two more ward pavilions behind on the top photograph, and on the right the circular ward tower. This main range has been converted into private flats, and re-named Alexandra Gate. Back in 1988 the hospital had not long closed. It was replaced by the new Royal Alexandra Hospital, off Craw Road to the south west. That was built roughly on the sites of the former Riccartsbar Hospital and the Craw Road Annexe.

Paisley, Royal Alexandra Infirmary. Photographed in 1988 © H. Richardson

Circular wards are very rare in Britain. There was a brief fashion for them around the turn of the 19th to the 20th centuries. I think the only other one built in Scotland was in Kirkcaldy at the old cottage hospital there – long since demolished. I have an old postcard that shows the hospital which you can find on the Fife page of this site. At the apex of the roof of the ward tower is a lantern or cupola that was part of the ventilation system. They feature along the ridge of the ward pavilions and atop the sanitary towers. It is not uncommon to find this kind of decorative treatment of a functional element, such as the ventilation system, in hospital architecture of the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Paisley, Royal Alexandra Infirmary. Photographed in 1988 © H. Richardson

I barely remember visiting the site – let alone having managed to get access to the interior, but here are two snaps of the interior of the circular ward. Rather gloomy I’m afraid, but hopefully you get an impression of what it was like.

Paisley, Royal Alexandra Infirmary. Photographed in 1988 © H. Richardson

You can see the rails from which the bed curtains would have been hung. That will have been a post-war addition. Originally the beds would not have had individual curtains. The idea of providing patients with privacy became much more important after the foundation of the National Health Service, when free hospital treatment became available to everyone. Previously charitable hospitals, or voluntary hospitals, such as the Royal Alexandra were designed to provide free treatment for the poor. Wealthy patients were either treated at home, in a private nursing home or a paying patients wing of a voluntary hospital. By the 1920s and 1930s different standards of hospital accommodation for the poor and the well off were common, sometimes even in the same institution.

OS Map from 1967 showing the layout of the infirmary, with the nurses’ home to the north (marked N) and the Lodge on the east (L). National Library of Scotland Maps  CC-BY (NLS)
Paisley, Royal Alexandra Infirmary, former Nurses’ Home. Photographed in 1988 © H. Richardson
The nurses’ home after conversion to flats photographed in 2013. © Copyright Thomas Nugent and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The Nurses’ Home was as grand as the hospital itself, with a rich array of decorative elements. It is Scottish Baronial in style, with turrets and crowstepped gables, although the tall chimneys, dormer windows and this broad arched entrance have some of the sinuous elegance that is typical of Glasgow’s late 19th and early 20th century buildings. This is particularly evident in the sculptural elements, such as the female head on the keystone over the entrance.

Entrance to the Nurses’ Home, photographed in 1988

The Nurses’ Home is one of the survivors on the site, having been converted into flats. It is named after Peter Coats, who had paid for its construction. Coats was one of the brothers that owned the great thread manufacturing company in Paisley; Peter managed the company’s finances. The nurses’ home was built before the hospital itself, and was opened 1896. There is an inscription round the archway which reads ‘They brought unto him sick people and he healed them’, and the two shields are carved with the thistle and the rose. The hospital replaced an earlier infirmary in the town, located near Bridge Street by the river, which had originated with a dispensary for the poor in the late 18th century.

A view of the former nurses’ home from the south east, taken in 1988 © H. Richardson
The nurses’ home after conversion, photographed in 2010 © Norrie Porter

The two images above of nurses’ home show the transformation from abandoned and boarded up building to well-cared for flats. It is particularly good to see that the original small-paned glazing has been either kept or reproduced, and the tall chimneys preserved. .

The entrance lodge to the hospital, photographed in 1988.  © H. Richardson
The Lodge photographed in 2010 © Norrie Porter

The former entrance range to the infirmary has been converted for use as a nursery. It originally housed a dispensary and opened in 1902. The gate piers are very striking, the banded stonework picks up on the chunky banded pilasters flanking the gabled bays of the lodge. There is another fine stone gateway that used to lead in to the south of the infirmary site further down Neilston Road, that now gives pedestrian access to the flats that have been built there.

Western ward pavilion of the infirmary, viewed from the east, photographed in 1988. ©H. Richardson

If you explore Google maps on street view for the old infirmary you can tour round most of the buildings, and really get a sense of how those that have not been converted into flats decayed between about 2011 and 2019, and obviously how much more ruinous it has become since the late 1980s.

Entrance to the administration block on the north side of the infirmary, photographed in 1988.©H. Richardson

former Royal Alexandra Infirmary, Paisley

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The former Peter Coates Nurses’ Home, now converted to flats, photographed in 2013. This was part of the large complex that was the former Royal Alexandra Infirmary, off Neilston Road in Paisley. © Copyright Thomas Nugent and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The Royal Alexandra Infirmary was built to designs by T. G. Abercrombie and was, as the recent Pevsner Guide noted, the largest and most prestigious of his Paisley buildings. It was replaced by the present Royal Alexandra Hospital in the 1980s, and whilst some of the former infirmary buildings have been converted to new uses, large parts of this fine building are in a ruinous state.

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Postcard of the Royal Alexandra Infirmary, showing east façade with the circular ward to the right. Why the image is labelled as the Royal Alexandria, rather than Alexandra, I do not know. Answers on a postcard?

The foundation stone was laid on 15 May 1897. The building was richly endowed by the trustees of William B. Barbour who gifted £15,000 to the building fund, and by the local mill owner, Peter Coats, who additionally gifted the nurses’ home. The Clark family were also particularly generous in their financial support.  In all the new buildings were to cost some £73,000, providing 150 beds and ten rooms for private patients. The plan of the infirmary is of particular interest from its incorporation of circular wards in a three storey block to the north. Another distinctive feature were the ward pavilions to the south which terminated in semi‑circular open verandas or balconies.

geograph-3517592-by-thomas-nugentThe same range as above, this wing has been converted into flats and is now known as Alexandra Gate. Photographed in 2013 © Copyright Thomas Nugent and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Whilst T. G. Abercrombie’s monumental building has been superseded, it too superseded an earlier infirmary in Paisley. In 1788 a public dispensary was founded in the town from which a House of Recovery was established in 1795. A variety of hospital buildings grew on the site at the west end of Abbey Bridge. Fever wards were provided and for a time cholera was treated here.

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Extract from the OS Town Plan of Paisley, 1858. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland

In 1878 grounds adjacent to the house were acquired by the parish council which built an epidemic hospital on the site for 60 patients although it was managed by the infirmary. By that time there were already calls to move the infirmary to Calside, but sufficient funds were not forthcoming.

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Extract from the 2nd edition OS map, surveyed in 1896. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland

In 1886 a convalescent home was opened in West Kilbride. The question of moving to a new site was raised again by the Revd Dr Brown, he urged the benefits of a more open site, where ‘the sound of green leaves, the song of birds, and the freshness of the country might float into the rooms’. [Glasgow Herald, 10 Feb 1894 p.9]

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Former Royal Alexandra Infirmary, photographed in 2011 The hospital closed in the late 1980s when the present day Royal Alexandra Infirmary opened nearby. The Gleniffer Braes can be seen in the distance. © Copyright Thomas Nugent and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Still nothing was done. Various sums were offered to kickstart a building fund: Dr Fraser offered £1,000 with the condition that he would double if if a new building were erected. William Barbour added £500 to the fund. But the directors dragged their heels. Finally, in 1894 the trustees of William Barbour announced their intention of donating £15,000 to build a new hospital.

geograph-5151020-by-thomas-nugentPart of the main hospital complex of the former Royal Alexadra Infirmary, at the Calside end, photographed in 2016 © Copyright Thomas Nugent and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The old hospital was overcrowded, out-dated and its proximity to the fever hospital was not a point in its favour. There was not even an operating theatre, operations were carried out at the patients’ bed – merely with a curtain drawn around it.  Following W. Barbour’s generous donation, a site was offered for the new hospital at Calside comprising Egypt Park and Blackland Place.

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Extract from the 1st edition OS map, surveyed in 1858, showing the site of the Royal Alexandra Infirmary, then occupied by Egypt Park and Blackland Place. The poorhouse was to the south-west. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland

The first part of the new complex to be built was the nurses’ home, which had been funded entirely by Peter Coats. Occupying the north-west corner of the site, it was formally opened in July 1896. Now converted into flats, the three-storey building is constructed of red sandstone from Locherbriggs quarries in Scottish Baronial style.

The nurses’ home, photographed in 2010 © Norrie Porter

The front entrance was set in an open porch with a broad arched opening topped by a balcony. Originally the ground floor comprised the probationer nurses’ dining-room and kitchen, cloak rooms and seven bedrooms, while on the first and second floors were a sitting and writing rooms as well as more bedrooms. It was ‘sumptuously furnished’ and provided accommodation for about 40 nurses. [Glasgow Herald, 4 July 1896, p.8]

Extract from the 2nd edition OS map, revised in 1911. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland

A gate lodge with dispensary were built on Neilston Road in 1898-1900 (pictured below), and further ancillary buildings were constructed on the south-east corner of the site.

geograph-3516641-by-thomas-nugentFormer Royal Alexandra Infirmary lodge house photographed in 2013 © Copyright Thomas Nugent and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The Infirmary closed in 1987 when the new hospital was opened in Craw Road. Part of the main range of the old Infirmary was then used as a care home, the rest was converted into flats in about 1995. The former nurses’ home was converted into flats in 2005-6 by Aitken Turnbull Architecture. After the care home closed in about 2008, this part of the former Infirmary began to deteriorate and was placed on the Buildings at Risk Register for Scotland in 2010.

geograph-5151025-by-thomas-nugentFormer Royal Alexandra Infirmary, photographed in 2016 The circular ward can be seen to the left. © Copyright Thomas Nugent and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Inadequately secured by its owners the unoccupied parts of the old hospital have attracted the attention of urbexers, so many photographs of the derelict building can be found online. However, these areas have also suffered badly from vandals who are the main cause of the building’s rapid decline. This is such a fine building. It should be saved,  sympathetically restored and converted to housing, and treasured for its fine architecture and the skill of the masons and builders who erected it. [Selected Sources: D. Dow, Paisley Hospitals, Glasgow, 1988: records at NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Archives: Paisley Library, plans: Pevsner Guide, Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire, 2016. See also Renfrewshire for other hospitals in and around Paisley.]