Netley Pier

Netley Pier

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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.

An aerial photograph of Royal Victoria Hospital and pier at high water. The date is unknown, but the lack of a tented hospital village at the rear of the main building indicates that it was not taken during either of the world wars (Image: Lingwood Netley Hospital Archive).

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.

Historical postcard of Netley Pier, date unknown, showing a rare view of the pier as viewed from the shore, rather than looking towards the main hospital building. The cranes and boarding steps are visible at the pierhead, while in the distance a liner passes down Southampton Water.
Hospital patients convalescing on the pier during the First World War (Image: Marion Ivey).

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;

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.

View from the water’s edge north-east towards the pier entrance along the central axis of the pier. A complete bent of pilings is visible in the foreground with a spacing of eight foot between 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.

Clay smoking pipe bowl and partial stem, possibly discarded by a workman during the construction phase of the hospital and pier. Oak leaf decoration is visible on the outer side of the bowl, running between the bowl rim and the pipe heel.
Brass pulley-wheel
Brass sheave (pulley wheel) stamped with a broad arrow indicating military ownership and diameter markings so that its size could be easily gauged. It possibly has its origins in one of the cranes that were originally mounted on the seaward end of the pier.

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 below. If you would like to help with any future fieldwork or be involved with ongoing research please contact the Forgotten Wrecks project.

Download Netley Pier archaeological report

A Personal Account

John Tanguay, a resident of the area in the 1950s, recalls the Pier:

As a boy, in and around 1950, my brothers and I would regularly visit the pier and its environs. We were not supposed to, but we did. I was four or five years old.

I have lucid recollections of the red coated, black hatted gentlemen in wheeled chairs, some of which were self propelled three wheeled contraptions. They were always kind and jolly and must have been delighted when we would ‘steel along the beach and come visit. My older brothers told me that they were all Santa’s helpers. Of course, they were Chelsea pensioners and probably harked back to the Crimea or further for they were all very, very old. We were allowed to sit alongside them and go for a short ride onto the pier deck. You state that it was made unserviceable before 1950 but I can assure you otherwise. Some of it was still in use. (Chelsea pensioners came to the RVH for summer holidays) I have an indelibly imprinted swimming story related to the diagonal steel struts which we would dive down to and then swim under. They were covered in barnacles.

Santa’s helpers’ were always mindful of our ‘illegal’ status at the pier and would keep a weather eye out for the military police who would try to catch and punish us. Kids back then suffered a different form of discipline. It was immediate, painful and informative. Then dismissed.

That which really piqued my interest in your study was the clay tobacco pipes, a few of which I still own and which later we would detect with our bare feet in the soft deep mud on both sides of the ‘black pipe’. Of course I refer to the four foot diameter sewage pipe extending out from the beach just South of the pier and upon which, we would fish and sometimes go for an involuntary swim. It was really slippery. And septic. Ughh....

The technique employed by us was a slow forward shuffle which would most times yield something of interest. Often live ammunition of small and medium calibre would be discovered,(D-day detritus?) taken to school the next day and set off with a long, nailed stick, ‘borrowed from the school fence. The idea was to make the girls scream and happily, I can report that we seldom failed in that endeavour! Commonly found were blue and white fragments of glazed tile that I remember associating with the bombed or burnt out red brick building near the black pipe. It was of a considerable size and had the aforementioned blue and whites up one of the walls. That was always a mysterious building and must have been near the platform erected for the traditional funeral pyre of fallen Indian servicemen. It was near the small stream which drained the salt marsh located beyond the anti tank defences.

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