Woolmanhill redevelopment

Woolmanhill Hospital, Aberdeen. The neo-classical style building was designed in the 1830s by Archibald Simpson. Photographed in 2010 © Copyright Bob Embleton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Back in February this year, the local press relayed proposals to transform Woolmanhill Hospital, Aberdeen, into a hotel and homes. The scheme, submitted by the developer Charlie Ferrari, is for a 52-bed boutique hotel, 27 serviced apartments, 32 residential apartments and just 10 affordable flats. Ferrari has set up a company CAF Properties (Woolmanhill) Ltd to put in a joint application with NHS Grampian to Aberdeen City Council. The hotel and serviced apartments would be sold to the G1 Group, owners of the Palm Court Hotel in Aberdeen. Ferrari was quoted in the Aberdeen Evening Express saying that he hoped to bring the site back to life and make it a ‘vibrant addition to the cityscape’, recognising that it was valued for its heritage. The proposal is to renovate four buildings on the site, and incorporates a lighting display in the central courtyard. The original hospital building would become the hotel, the Stephen Building, would be converted into the serviced apartments while the Victoria building would be turned into flats. The affordable housing element is destined for the former archive building to the north of the site.

The medical block, fronting Woolmanhill, photographed in 1964

All four main buildings are listed at grade A. The oldest of the four was designed by Archibald Simpson and is an elegant neo-Classical granite building of 1840, near the centre of Aberdeen. Comparable to the earlier Gray’s Hospital at Elgin, it was designed as an impressive public building as much as a functional hospital. To the rear of Simpson’s block are two ranges, largely dating from 1887, which create a roughly triangular court. Just as the Infirmary at Woolmanhill was replaced nearly a century later by the Foresterhill complex, the Woolmanhill building replaced an earlier infirmary built a century before.

Façade of the Royal Infirmary, Aberdeen. Engraving by W. Banks & son.  Wellcome Library, London. Reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 

The Aberdeen Infirmary was founded in 1739 and the foundation stone of the first building on the Woolmanhill site was laid in January 1740. It was of simple construction, built to the designs of William Christall who had visited Edinburgh and Glasgow to view William Adam’s Edinburgh Infirmary and Glasgow’s Town’s Hospital, before completing his own plans. It opened in 1742, providing twenty beds, including accommodation for lunatics, and had cost £484. No illustration of this building appears to have survived. On the completion of Simpson’s new Infirmary the old building was demolished.

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Extract from the 1st edition OS map. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland

In 1887 a major extension and reconstruction scheme was begun. The site formed an awkward wedge and added to this difficulty the managers wished to avoid interfering with the existing buildings. H. Saxon Snell, the well-known hospital architect in London, was consulted and at his suggestion Simpson’s building was converted into an administrative and clinical area, with new ward pavilions built to the rear. He also recommended retaining the separate fever block at the rear as part of the new surgical block. Known as the Jubilee Extension Scheme, the new blocks opened in 1897 and provided a new surgical block, medical block, pathology and laundry blocks. W. & J. Smith & Kelly, the Aberdeen firm of architects, carried out the work.

View from the south-west, photographed in May 2015 by RCAHMS

The new administration department, formed out of the former hospital, was also to provide accommodation for nurses:

“The first thing in a good modern hospital was to have the best possible accommodation for nurses… In some of the larger hospitals such as that of Marylebone every nurse has a bedroom to herself. The committee do not propose to go to that extent but they propose that everyone of the higher nurses… shall have a room to herself, and that the others shall be accommodated two in one room.”

It is perhaps worth noting that the Marylebone hospital referred to in London was in fact a workhouse infirmary. It is a measure of the changing attitudes to hospital and nursing provision for paupers that their nurses were offered better accommodation than those in a Scottish Royal Infirmary.

Plans of Aberdeen Royal Infirmary published in H. C. Burdett’s Hospitals and Asylums of the World, 1893, portfolio of plans. Above: the northern half of the site, with the new block on the left. Below the original building showing its new room uses.
Ground plan of Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, from H. C. Burdett, Hospitals and Asylums of the World, 1893
Ground plan of Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, from H. C. Burdett, Hospitals and Asylums of the World, 1893. 

Burdett classified the layout and plan of Aberdeen Royal Infirmary as ‘composite or heap of buildings’,  which was his class 4, class 1 being pavilion plan hospitals, class 2 block plan and class 3 corridor plan. There is a suggestion that the ‘heap of buildings’ class was the worst type. The plans were published before works on the new buildings had been completed.

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Operating Theatre, Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, from the Handbook and Guide to Aberdeen of 1914

Amongst the later additions were new operating theatres (pictured above), and out-patients’ department (below)

The out-patients’ department, photographed in 1964
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Out-Patient Department, Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, from the Handbook and Guide to Aberdeen of 1914

The out-patients’ department (demolished) was opened in November 1912, situated to the east of the infirmary on the other side of Woolmanhill. A large top-lit waiting hall was centrally placed off which were situated admission rooms, dispensary, Ear and Throat, Dental and Skin clinics, bacteriological and sterilising rooms, operating rooms for minor surgery, dressing and recovery rooms etc. A basement housed stores and heating chamber, and on the upper floor were two 4-bed wards for the Ear & Throat department and some staff accommodation.

Extract from the 25-inch OS map revised in 1926. The out-patients’ block occupies the island site north of the Drill Hall, bounded by St Andrew Street, Woolmanhill, Andrew and John Streets. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland.

Following the opening of the new Royal Infirmary on the Foresterhill site in the 1920s Woolmanhill was retained and there were still in-patient facilities here until relatively recently alongside a number of out-patient clinics. Since the closure of the hospital was agreed in 1999, health services have been winding down on the site and gradually relocating. The last remaining clinics are for ENT and audiology, which are due to move out this year.

[Sources: Evening Express, 4 Feb 2016, online, 27 March 2016, online: British Medical Association, Aberdeen 1914, A Handbook and Guide, Aberdeen, 1914]