CRI baby

Unfortunately, my recent leg injury did not got better of its own accord as I hoped.  Throbbing, pulsing pain emanating from the knee was forcing me to subsist doped-up on a diet of Co-codamol (which is very co-constipating).  It got so bad I had to see my GP, something I only do with the utmost reluctance, and from there I was sent to the Cardiff Royal Infirmary (CRI) for x-rays.

So this week I walked the long corridors of the CRI once more, something I hadn’t done since visiting my grandmother there as a kid in the 1960s.  This has been made possible entirely thanks to devolution. In 1999 the hospital was closed, seemingly for good – one of the last vindictive and inept acts of the UK government when they still controlled the Welsh NHS pre-devolution.  Now, it is undergoing a £16 million revamp and renovation by the Welsh government to eventually provide the full range of medical services for the people of east Cardiff.  Bit by bit sections of the sprawling building are being re-opened, making me one of the earliest walking wounded to use the new x-ray department.

Cardiff’s first hospital in the modern era was the Glamorganshire & Monmouthshire Infirmary, built in 1837 when only the rich had access to proper medical treatment (a state of affairs the UK government is now trying to reintroduce in England).  To acquire a hospital a town needed the largesse of a wealthy benefactor: Cardiff’s now forgotten guardian angel was solicitor and Justice of the Peace Daniel Jones (1755-1840) of New Beaupre¹, who paid nearly all the construction and fitting costs.  The retro-classical building on the north side of Newport Road (then called Roath Road) was hemmed in on its western flank in 1858 by the Rhymney Railway sweeping down to the docks on a high embankment and soon proved too small for the mushrooming town.  So a new hospital was built on a large rectangular plot further east on the other side of Newport Road, once the site of the Long Cross, the eastern boundary of the medieval borough.   It opened in 1883 as the South Wales & Monmouthshire Infirmary, a charity drawing widespread support, from loaded philanthropists getting wards named after them, through the small subscriptions, donations and bequests of ordinary people, to workers voluntarily paying a penny a week (the old hospital was taken over by the University College, many of its interesting and poignant donor plaques being preserved in the new hospital, before demolition in 1960 – Cardiff University’s 1964 School of Engineering occupies the site today).

The portico of the original Infirmary, c1880

Over the decades the Infirmary grew steadily to become Wales’ major hospital.  The original structure, facing Glossop Road, was an idiosyncratic Tudor-Gothic medley in pink, orange and white local stone with an elaborate central tower, chequerboard chimney-stacks and mullioned windows, designed by Edwin Seward (1853-1924).  Yeovil-born Seward, one of a number of Cardiff architects influenced by the brilliant work of William Burges at Cardiff Castle, certainly stamped his mark on Cardiff: the Infirmary, the Coal Exchange and the Free Library were all his work – each became Cardiff landmarks, each would be declared redundant by the authorities, each held on by the skin of its teeth to search for new roles in the 21st century.  In 1894 wings were added in the same neo-Gothic style and in 1907 an Outpatients Department with an impressive Bath stone entrance on Longcross Street was shoe-horned onto the site.  Two 1870s villas were then incorporated into the hospital as offices at the Orbit Street end, ensuring their survival today as the last in a grand chain of Victorian houses that once stretched from Queen Street to Clifton Street.

The Infirmary was renamed the King Edward VII Hospital in 1910 after the recently deceased English monarch, and the cramming of the site continued unabated – albeit with less expensive materials and fewer architectural indulgences as costs rose.  The Edward Nicholl Wards of 1916, named after shipowner Edward Nicholl² (1862-1939), maintained the Gothic feel, as did the gloomy, gabled 1918 extension into the hospital gardens with its own entrance on Newport Road (for a period the Welsh National School of Medicine) and the funny, free-standing chapel squeezed in on the Newport Road/Glossop Road corner in 1921.  These turned out to be the Infirmary’s (and Cardiff’s) last mock-medieval conceits – over half a century of Burges-inspired Gothic design, still giving Cardiff its trademark look today, ended here. 

CRI in 1920, just before the chapel was built

In 1923 the hospital changed name again to Cardiff Royal Infirmary (What is it with hospital names and royalty? It’s not as if any of them have ever helped out with so much as a bean of their stolen fortunes).   Additions henceforth were determinedly plain: in buff brick and random rubble at first, then utilitarian red brick and, after the creation of the NHS in 1948, in Festival-of-Britain concrete.  In the 1950s Percy Thomas (1883-1969), another Cardiff architect to leave his imprint all over the city, designed the West Wing on the other side of Glossop Road, entailing the demolition of the imposing mansions of Glossop Crescent, its bold, zig-zag fire escapes perhaps the best example of art deco in Cardiff, and Longcross House on Longcross Street, featuring Cardiff’s first use of the then vogueish glass bricks.  It was becoming impossible to stuff any more structures onto the overcrowded original site.  The CRI was bursting at the seams with ugly little infills, stacked-up portacabins, precarious lean-to’s and a maze of pipework by the time of its closure.

Despite the opposition of the Community Health Council, local MPs, Cardiff Council and most Cardiffians, the Blair government implemented the 1995 Tory ‘rationalisation’ plans made by Welsh Secretary William ‘heterosexual’ Hague.  Everything was moved to the University Hospital of Wales at Heath, leaving a city of 300,000 people with just one desperately over-stretched A&E unit and creating a case-study in the stupidity of economies of scale.  “Up the Heath” grew a monstrous dystopian nightmare, a ravenous black hole sucking in patients, visitors, students, staff and traffic from all over south Wales to the point of unmanageability. 

Nothing was removed or demolished at the CRI as the Assembly began to get to grips with its devolved powers by abolishing prescription charges before stopping the sale of the land to hovering developers.  For over a decade the CRI quietly mouldered in the Welsh rain, an embarassment on the main road into Cardiff from the east with just a few rooms in use for the out-of-hours GP service and the clap clinic, sorry I mean the Department of Genitourinary Medicine.   At least the BBC frequently made use of the atmospheric place, with its intriguing mess of structures and sinister white crematorium chimney, as a handy location for Doctor Who filming – but that just meant the poor old CRI had to suffer another indignity as a port-of-call on the itinerary of irritating Whovians (thinks: that should generate some irate emails).

Now the CRI that the pennies of the people built is coming back to the people; it is being pared down to its Gothic essence and given 21st century innards; the jumble of later buildings is being removed for a car-park and restored gardens; Cardiff will effectively get a brand new district hospital in the middle of the city.  Let’s be quite clear: this would never be happening if Welsh Health policy was still controlled by Whitehall.

Carwyn Jones’ government is showing encouraging resolve when dealing with the NHS, knowing it is a touchstone issue where Welsh autonomy is sacrosant.  We all know what needs to be done: many more small, local hospitals, the end of parasitic, cherry-picking private sector involvement in the NHS, a bar on any NHS employee working simultaneously for private companies, extended GP opening hours into weekends and evenings, and comprehensive home care for all who need it.  Welshman Nye Bevan (1897-1960) drew up the NHS blueprint and egalitarian values run deep in the Welsh psyche – so it is fitting that, as the Coalition destroys the NHS in England, it will be in Wales where the principles of free and equal healthcare for all are maintained on these islands.

Oh, I nearly forgot: those x-rays.  Nothing broken, damaged tendons, give it time.  Today I even managed to walk unaided to the pub and back… 

¹Old Beaupre, just south of Cowbridge, is a gloriously quirky ruined medieval mansion featuring an incredible ‘tower of the orders’ porch dating to 1600.  In Jones’ time it had been uninhabited for over a century and he lived nearby at New Beaupre.  Now in the custody of CADW, it’s a litle-known Vale of Glamorgan must-see.
²Cornishman Nicholl went from humble messenger boy in the Redruth post office, via apprentice engineer on the Great Western Railway, Newport ship-repairer, Cardiff marine engineer, officer in the Royal Naval Reserve, successful shipowner (the Hall Line) at Cardiff docks, member of Cardiff City Council, knighthood for WW1 services and Tory MP for Penryn & Falmouth, to end his days a crusty grandee fixated with “spies” and freemasonry at 17th century stately home Littleton Park (now part of Shepperton film studios outside London). In addition to his endowments to the CRI, he left money for the foundation of the Edward Nicholl Home for Waifs & Strays in 1916 – originally in Llandaf it relocated to the top of Penylan Road, Roath, in 1922 as the Edward Nicholl Childrens’ Home, lasting until 1969 when demolished to make way for Eastern Avenue.  
Pictures: People’s Collection Wales; Cardiff University