Next time you go past the Peace Hospice, I would encourage you to take a little time to think about what the building means to you. Do you see it a survivor of old Watford that has survived demolition: a fondly remembered place of work or as a building that has provided love, care and support for generations of people in the local area? To many, of course, the sight of the building brings up a mix of emotions but primarily it should be a source of pride, as it was built with love by the community for the community.
Architecturally, the original Peace Memorial Hospital was an unremarkable building. It was not unique. The architect, Wallace Marchment, was well known for his hospital designs, and he produced two very similar hospitals in Watford and Peterborough before finding fame with his modernist design of Surbiton Hospital. There were also clear signs of cost cutting when it was constructed. The original plans showed a much bigger building than the one that was later built, and only the ground floor wards were completed in the 1920s. Even the grand staircase by the entrance only went up one floor. So it is not the grandest of hospital buildings but remains a landmark of old Watford which could have been lost in the same way as the Cassiobury Park Gates and the Green Man Pub. It is significant as it has survived, but we have to look beyond this to find out why the building is so loved.
The building has meaning to people of the area because it was built in the 1920s and restored in the 1990s with generous contributions by the local community. The Peace Memorial Hospital was built to both celebrate peace and commemorate those who gave their lives in the First World War. The Christmas 1919 edition the Watford Observer stated that the Peace Memorial Hospital was not to be ‘a mere ornamental monument which can be looked at and not used’ but a practical reminder of the sacrifice made by over 700 inhabitants of Watford and the surrounding area.
It cost over £70,000 to build, or £1 for each person in the area that the hospital was to serve, when an average labourer’s weekly wage was just £2. Once opened the hospital was financed through fundraising schemes such as 1920s there was the Shilling Fund, the 20000 Guinea Scheme and a highly successful ‘Buy a Brick Campaign’. Treatment was provided free for those who did not have the income to pay, and at a low cost in the public wards.
The increasing costs of medical treatment and the introduction of new technology meant that further expansion was limited by the increasing debts of the hospital in the 1930s. Local fundraising efforts struggled to keep pace with these changes until the introduction of the NHS allowed the hospital to cover its debts and expand the range of treatments and facilities available. Now a local hospital entirely funded by tax payers, the building changed its meaning from a memorial supported by donations from local people to a much loved building providing ongoing care, with only its name giving a clue to its original purpose. In 1985 the Peace Memorial Hospital closed and the people of Watford witnessed its slow decline into decay.
The idea that the hospital should be saved and the need for a local hospice were both ideas that attracted local support in the late 1980s and it was generally assumed that the ideal answer was that one should house the other. The Watford Observer editorial in early 1991 stated that: ‘The Peace Memorial Hospital was paid for by the people, for the people of Watford and it is only right that once more it should serve them.’ Today, with Peace Hospice Care occupying a fabulously restored and extended building, the logic of the hospice taking over the old building seems clear, but the building was still under threat even once it was secured for the charity. Architects argued that the building we see today was only ever used as an administration block and architects deemed it inappropriate for a 21st Century medical facility.
Many of us involved at the time realised that the restoration of the old hospital had widespread local support and was an important focus of early fundraising efforts. The building had to be saved. Also, the idea of a hospice in the centre of town was seen as radical, as many early hospices were built away from urban areas. To the credit of those leading the charity at the time, the plan to bring care for those with life-limiting illnesses out of the shadows, and build a modern facility in a prominent building in the middle of the town, was inspired. Its location provides highly visible reminders of what the charity has achieved and of the care it still provides today.
So, when you are passing the building I would encourage you to think of the building as a lasting monument to the generosity of local people and organisations. Originally built nearly a century ago by the contributions of the people of Watford and the surrounding area, it was restored and is now maintained by the commitment and generosity of those who take pride in the fact that Peace Hospice Care will continue to provide an invaluable service for our
community into the future.
This post is part of information gathered during Peace Hospice Care’s oral histories project 2014-16. The project captured 25 years of Peace Hospice Care and explored the legacy of the Peace Memorial Hospital. It was funded by the Heritage Lottery Foundation.
Find out more about Peace Hospice Care by visiting www.peacehospicecare.org.uk or the online project archive http://ourview.peacehospicecare.org.uk/ Oral histories from the project will be deposited with Hertfordshire Archive and Local Studies by end 2016.