First floating home
The hospital’s first home was in a vessel afloat on the River Thames. Moored near Greenwich, HMS Grampus took its first patient in October 1821.
|HMS Grampus as a hulk. © NMM|
Between March and October of that year the vessel had undergone alterations and repairs at the nearby Deptford naval yard. The decks were cleared of their fittings and beds put in place to form wards.
Finally, a ship’s surgeon and a superintendent were appointed to work and live on board the new hospital ship. The surgeon, Dr David Arnott, was paid £150 a year, plus food. The superintendent, an ex-naval lieutenant named William Somerville, was paid £100.
Arrival of the 'Dreadnought'
By 1827 the Grampus proved too small for the more than 2000 patients that were being treated each year. To provide additional space for the hospital the navy replaced the old Grampus with the larger vessel HMS Dreadnought.
|Greenwich Hospital, the Dreadnought being towed to its moorings. © NMM|
Launched in 1801 the 99-gun warship had fought at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
Charles Dickens was among a group of journalists who visited the vessel when it first opened. He described it as follows: 'The main deck is used as a chapel, with cabins for the surgeons, and hammocks for the convalescents, the middle deck is the surgical [ward], the lower the medical deck.'
The Dreadnought could house some 400 patients.
Problems of overcrowding
A floating hospital in an old warship was not a healthy environment. In 1853 the Dreadnought’s surgeon Dr Henry Rooke wrote: 'I believe that during the last 23 years the timbers of the Dreadnought have been daily absorbing a certain amount of the poisonous exhalations [or breath] and that the wood is now deeply saturated with these animal poisons.'
|Building the Great Eastern, the Dreadnought is in the left-hand middle distance. © NMM|
The navy helped out again in 1856 by providing HMS Caledonia, an ex-Crimean War hospital ship. This was larger and more spacious below decks than the old Dreadnought. But the name was now so well known that it was transferred to the new ship, together with the figurehead.
|Greenwich and the Dreadnought. © NMM|
Fitting out the new ship cost the society £15,000, though £4,000 was paid to them for the old vessel when it was scrapped.
The 'Dreadnought' comes ashore
|Dreadnought Seaman's Hospital, Greenwich, showing the south façade. © NMM|
In 1870, after much debate, the hospital moved ashore and into the vacant infirmary building of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich. Originally built in 1763 by the architect James Stuart, the building provided small wards over two floors. It housed around 250 patients.
Once again, the traditions that had developed within the hospital ensured the name 'Dreadnought' was transferred to the new building.