Benenden Hospital is a partially abandoned private hospital we explored back in November 2018. It was built in 1907 in the district of Tunbridge Wells, Kent. Although you wouldn’t have thought it was as old because of how pioneering the architectural design was for the day. The place was very modern and outstandingly clean. Exploring on the day went uninterrupted and was really pleasant. The electricity and water was still on, which made it just that bit cooler.
Benenden Hospital is an independent hospital that is one of the 26 hospitals that make up Benenden Health. Benenden Health was founded in 1905 as The Post Office Branch of the National Association for the Establishment and Maintenance of Sanatoria for Workers Suffering from Tuberculosis Friendly Society. And Breathe. As the name suggests, they were formed to help Post Office employees control the TB epidemic. This being at a time when medical insurance wasn’t widely affordable. The hospital known as Bensan was opened in 1907.
Charles Garland, the first Chairman and Post Office clerk proposed a yearly membership fee of two shillings. In 1918 a difficult decision was made to raise the membership fee to three shillings annually. The increase saw 1300 members leave out of protest. Memberships expanded in 1923 into a new industry and the name changed to The Post Office and Civil Service Sanatorium Society.
Augustus William West
Augustus William West was the architect who designed Benenden hospital. He did so using pre-Bauhaus design. Bauhaus being Germany’s School of Architecture leading the way in building sanatoria in the decades that followed. It favoured natural light and cleanliness as part of its modernist approach to architecture. Traditional architects have always looked back in history for inspiration when building houses and other types of buildings.
Edward VII became king in 1901. He was related to royalty throughout Europe and was determined to build a sanatorium that matched the great new sanatorium in Falkenstein, Germany. His sister Victoria lived just a few miles away. As soon as he came to the throne, he launched an international competition for a new sanatorium in England. A committee was established to oversee the competition. Entrants could be a doctor working alone or a doctor and architect couple. Out of 180 entries, the winning essay was by Dr Arthur Latham and Augustus William West. They won a prize of £900 thanks to the king’s creditor Sir Ernest Cassel.
Their winning design gave importance to sunshine, the countryside, a dust free environment and minimising the risk of contagions. This last factor being the reason an open air viranda, popular in German sanatoria, was never included. For the same reason there was no chapel.
West’s plan used no reference to anything from the past. He banned right angle corners as they collect dirt. To shelter from the British wind, his sanatorium was crescent shaped, with wings off a central block at a 145 degree angle. The balconies weren’t added until 1961.
When the Garland wing opened in March 1907, it housed 196 beds. 25 of these were reserved for Post Office Sanatoria Society members. The rest were used by other societies and associations.
Life at Benenden
TB killed 1 in 7 of all humans stated Robert Koch, in his address to the Berlin Physiological Society on 24th March 1882. Fear of the disease meant those diagnosed were whisked off from family and normal life to spend a considerable amount of time in an unfamiliar environment.
The treatment at santoria followed a very strict regime. Even walking was prescribed and administered at strict times and specific durations. Sanatoria were like reasonable sized villages, self sufficient and had sporting facilities, social evenings, etc.
Entertaining patients spending time away from home became an integral part of treatment. In 1925 the Social Circle was formed to organise entertainment. Three years later in 1928, a hospital magazine came out called Rising Mercury. It got its name from the regular temperature takings with mercury thermometers the patients were all so used too.
With cases of Tuberculosis declining, the society expanded their treatments to include chest complaints and cancer. Shortly after building an operating theatre, surgical wards and an x-ray department.
The working farm was an integral part of sanatorium life. The need to be self sufficient was still paramount in the early 20th century. As well as providing food for all the staff and patients, it also offered work and exercise for patients as part of their treatment.
Early photographs in the hospitals museum show how important horses were. They were used to transport goods and patients around the hospital, as well as farm work. They’d even take patients to and from the local station.
The dairy was productive until the late 1970’s, providing milk for all the patients and staff on site. Chicken production rose in 1965 from 3000 to 13000 after the hospital purchased the neighbouring chicken farm. However after torrential rains in 1966, the birds caught a fatal disease.
Freddie Harrison was known as the Pigman in the 1930’s. His job was to make pig feed from all the hospital’s left over food, mixed with grain. Pig production ceased in 1975.
A group was formed in 1951 for ex-patients called RM Society.
Sports days were held on bank holiday Mondays.
The Post Office Pavilion was built in 1910. It was a ward originally housing male patients, then female. By the 1950’s it was no longer used for patients and became the Nurse Education Centre. It was demolished in the 1970’s.
The first smoking pavilion was built in 1912. It was a wooden building with a terrace. This was at time when the dangers of smoking weren’t known. Those that were bed bound were even allowed to smoke in bed. The smoking pavilion was developed in the 1920’s, mainly covering the terrace so that it became a more general use communal area. A library and newspapers were available, which made the area become a popular quiet place for writing letters home.
Also in 1912, The Cadogan Pavilion, affectionately nicknamed The Ship by patients, was built. It too housed males to begin with then females. The sexes were always segregated. It later became staff accommodation and finally the Education Centre in the 1990’s.
Lister Wing was built in 1937 to provide accommodation for women. It took the place of the older wooden building Lister Pavilion as a more permanent structure. It provided 42 beds and 26 rooms with a lounge and supporting facilities.
The end of WW2 saw demand for services at Benenden grow and the Committee had ambitious plans for development on the hospital estate. In 1946 an appeal fund was launched amongst the societies members with a target of £100,000. The target was reached in four years. By the time the appeal ended in 1956, they’d raised £230,000. This 10 year period saw the following building projects completed:
- JR Williams Wing
- This extension to Lister Ward provided an extra 44 beds. It later became the Jubilee Clinic.
- Sir Thomas Holmes Sellors Ward
- This building introduced the first surgical theatre and 14 surgical beds. Sellers ward was later converted to the Outpatient Clinic and Endoscopy Suite.
- X-ray Department
- This new facility meant the x-ray machine could move from the wooden hut between Garland and the Dining Room to have a permanent home. It also brought more modern technology.
- New Boiler House
- Provided heating to all areas of the hospital.
- Concert Hall
- Built in the 50’s next the dining hall. It had a stage and modern equipment. Today the stage is blocked up and the room is now the seminar and board room.
- New Post Office
- The new Post Office and shop was opened and was situated at the stage end of the concert hall. The entrance looked up the hill towards Peeks. It became the Learning and Development Department.
- Joy Carey Cottage
- Built in 1955 as a home for the resident Matron. It’s now part of the Occupational Health Department.
- Peek Lodge
- Peek Lodge or Peek Nurses Home was built in 1950. It was expanded in 1955 to include an additional 45 single rooms. In the 1990’s it became a patient’s hotel.
- Pathology Department
- Opened in 1955, it remained open until 2003 when the department closed. It was extended upwards to hold health records department and offices. It’s later became the Ophthalmic Unit.
The balconies were added in the redevelopment of 1961 to provide patients access to more fresh air.
A swimming pool 50 x 20ft was also built in 1961 at the cost of £3,000. £600 was raised by staff through concerts and fates, etc. As life at the hospital changed, it eventually closed in 2009.
Another large surgical ward and two theatre facilities were opened in 1981. The new building known as Queens had four bays of six beds and a room for intensive care, as well as a kitchen, dining area and lounge. It was later developed into en-suite rooms and became known as the Garland Suite.
More Recent Affairs
Benenden changed their registered office from London to York in 1990. They also sponsored York Football Club from 2012 to 2019.
In 2010 the name changed again to Benenden Health. Two years later, after a decline in memberships, the committee voted to remove restrictions. For the first time in its history, memberships opened to the public.
In 2017 the hospital donated from its museum, an old Boyles anaesthetic machine to Safe Anesthesia Worldwide. The Boyles machine was first introduced in 1917 and used for many years before being replaced by newer technology. But they are so reliable, some hospitals and much of the developing world still use them.
Benenden Hospital got a £45m redevelopment and opened in October 2017. It saw brand new theatres, outpatient’s department, procedure rooms, recovery areas and 38 en-suite rooms. It also includes an exquisite new entrance with glass atrium and car parks.
They won an award for Best New Build at the Building Better Healthcare Awards 2018. There’s a tour of the new hospital on YouTube. Check it out here:
The explore was really pleasant and relaxed on the day. We had access to the main buildings of the closed hospital. The new hospital was built right next to the old one so we were a little cautious to begin with. The condition of the place was near immaculate.
There were some buildings we didn’t manage to access, most notably and regrettably, the hospital museum. The museum still has artifacts from the early shop and post office and old medical equipment, etc. It archives old letters and photographs from a time near forgotten. Even old board and card games have survived. I would have loved to have seen inside this time capsule.
Check out my photo gallery below: