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Forgotten Wrecks of the First World War

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A Pier Built to Serve an Empire

At Netley on the north-east side of Southampton Water, Hampshire, lies the site of the now demolished Royal Victoria Hospital. The hospital was originally opened in 1863 and was the British Army’s first purpose built hospital, conceived against the backdrop of the Crimean War and the work of Florence Nightingale. The main building was constructed on a monumental scale, containing 138 wards and 1,000 beds, and its prominent location made it the outwardly visible face of the British Empire’s medical care for its servicemen from across the globe. Having originally laid the foundation stone for the hospital in 1856, Queen Victoria was a regularly visitor throughout the rest of her reign, crossing the Solent from Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

Aerial View of hospital & pier

The location beside Southampton Water also led to the construction of a pier in 1864/5 to serve the hospital and allow patients to be brought directly by sea. The pier was also intended to replace a wooden landing stage previously built on the site. Despite such planning, the pier was never constructed to its full required length to reach the deep-water channel of Southampton Water. This meant that patients had to be disembarked into smaller vessels to be ferried to the pier and then onwards to the hospital. This problem was relatively short-lived, with the construction of a rail connection between Netley and Southampton Docks in 1866, which was extended directly to the hospital in 1900. Bringing patients by rail meant that the pier’s main used was for recreation and convalescing by the hospital’s patients.

The First World War was one of the peaks of activity at the hospital with extensive extra tented-wards being constructed in the grounds to provide capacity for the numbers of wounded soldiers returning from the frontline. The pier continued to be used as a recreational and convalescing facility for the thousands of patients that visited it until the pier was ‘severed’ during the early 1940s to prevent its use in any Nazi invasion.

Old postcard of Netley Pier

Convalescing patients on Netley Pier

Despite the prominence of the hospital, no archaeological work has ever been undertaken to investigate the remains of the pier and the foreshore more generally along the hospital frontage. In September 2015 as part of the Forgotten Wrecks project fieldwork was undertaken to begin recording any surviving remains of the pier, and to map the distribution of any artefacts that were still surviving on the foreshore. The Netley Pier fieldwork had three main research questions;

  • What is the spatial relationship between the iron pier opened in 1865 and the wooden pier reported as being present on the site prior to that?
  • What is the extent of surviving elements of the iron pier used during the First World War?
  • Is there any discernible relationship between the known historical use of the pier and any surviving archaeological remains located on the foreshore?

To do this, archaeologists and volunteers used a system of grids set out across the main area of the site to record the distribution of archaeological remains through systematic fieldwalking of the site. The position of the grids, and any important artefacts that were found were recorded using an RTK-GPS lent by the University of Southampton, which produced a locational accuracy of within 1cm, through a combination of satellite and mobile phone mast signals. The same equipment was used to record all of the visible remains of the iron pier structure as well as visible remains of the original wooden landing stage.

Despite the systematic demolition of the pier in the 1950s several of the original iron piles still survive along the original alignment of the pier and allow the extent of the structure as recorded in historic Ordnance Survey maps to be confirmed. Future work will aim to record the detail of these fixtures and fittings and to compare them to any surviving historical records of mid-19th century pier construction.

Surviving iron pier piles

Fieldwalking across the foreshore was able to identify clear patterns of material, particularly brick, slate and rubble debris which probably relate to the initial construction of the main hospital building in the mid-19th century. Clay smoking-pipe bowls and stem fragments are still present within this material and date to the same period. The wooden landing stages that were present at that time and likely to have been used for landing building material survive only in the form of difficult to spot truncated wooden pilings in the midst of this building material. Further work needs to be done on the site of a second wooden pier, a few hundred metres to the north-west.

mid-19th century clay smoking-pipe

Brass pulley-wheel

Tracing the use of the pier during the First World War as a place of rest and recuperation within the hospital complex is far harder. Although surviving historical photographs show wounded soldiers spending time on the pier, very little evidence for this activity has survived on the surrounding foreshore. Only a single smoking pipe of possible early 20th century date hints at the material remains of the thousands of people that must have spent time on the pier during their recovery from wounds sustained on the frontline.

The 2015 fieldwork at Netley Pier have also highlighted further areas of investigation where future work will allow more information about the pier to be uncovered, while at the same time creating a lasting record of the remains. This work will be carried out during the rest of the Forgotten Wrecks project and details of the type of work that will be undertaken are contained in the fieldwork report about the site, which can be downloaded here. If you would like to help with any future fieldwork or be involved with ongoing research please contact the Forgotten Wrecks project.

Report on the archaeological fieldwork undertaken at Netley Pier in September 2015