Historic hospital building in disrepair

A 2008 aerial photograph of the Cottage Hospital. Picture: David Erickson

It is said that men sang like canaries in the Royal Naval Hospital’s venereal ward, nicknamed the Canary Ward, in Simon’s

The hospital was opened, at Cable Hill, in 1904 and an 18-bed venereal ward was added in 1906.

Former chairman of the Simon’s Town Historical Association, David Erickson, says he did not expect the response he got when he asked about the Canary Ward.

“I wondered if perhaps the ward had been painted yellow, and subsequently discussed this with senior naval officers at the Seven Seas Club. Their laughter was long and loud because the reason for the nickname was due to painful injections made to a delicate part of the male anatomy, which invariably made the patient ‘sing like a canary’.”

Before the venereal ward was established, the town’s sailors were treated in the Lock Hospital on Palace Hill.

The long, low, single storey building which has since fallen into disrepair opened in 1889. The hospital’s roots can be traced back to April 1888 when the Cape of Good Hope Government Gazette carried an advertisement
inviting tenders for the construction of a new lock hospital in Simon’s Town.

The building was sponsored by British government funding.

According to Mr Erickson, the term “lock hospital” was first used for medieval leprosariums
(leper colonies) where inmates were quarantined under restraint, but since the early 1800s, lock hospitals specialised in treating sexually transmitted or venereal diseases.

Following the addition of the venereal ward at the Royal Naval Hospital, the Lock Hospital became redundant and unused.

After explorer and author Mary Kingsley’s death in June 1900, while nursing Boer prisoners of war at Palace Barracks Hospital, a fund was established to provide a memorial of her sacrifice.

A Palace Barracks Hospital doctor proposed that the fund be used for a cottage hospital where civilian residents of Simon’s Town could be treated.

At the time, other existing hospitals were naval or military. The Cape government offered the former Lock Hospital free of charge for use and it was enlarged and refurbished and reopened as the Cottage Hospital in April 1905.

The Cottage Hospital initially had four wards, with three beds each, an operating room and a sitting room and bedroom for the nurse-in-charge. In 1908, it was treating, on average, six patients a day.

The annual cost of maintenance of the hospital was about £760 (about R17 000), of which the colonial government contributed £337 (about R7 500) and the Simon’s Town municipality £50 (about R1 100).

In August 1910, a new wing was added at a cost of some £1 000 (about R 22 500). This included a further two wards and an operating room. It was opened by Vice Admiral Sir George Le Clerc Egerton of the Africa Station.

Despite valued service to the community, Mr Erickson says, the Cottage Hospital closed in 1965 with all functions transferred to the new False Bay Hospital in Fish Hoek.

The Royal Naval Hospital at Cable Hill closed in 1957, when all Royal Naval buildings were
handed over to the South African Navy under the Simon’s Town Agreement. It now houses
senior naval officers and their families. A local clinic staffed by the South African Military Health Service now provides limited treatment for naval personnel while serious cases are transferred to
2 Military Hospital in Wynberg.

After the Cottage Hospital’s closure in 1965, the building was expropriated by the South African navy for use as a legal satellite sub-office.

Considerable changes were made to the historic building structure such as an open stoep on the south east was enclosed with glass windows. The wards were subdivided into offices, a military courtroom was constructed, a fire sprinkler system and fire hydrants installed and some extensions were made to the building.

The navy’s legal department has since moved out and is now in the lower part of the Phoenix Building in St George’s Street.

The building has fallen into disrepair, says Mr Erickson. Water penetration has caused some ceilings to collapse, peeling walls and the growth of mould. The wooden window frames are in a generally poor condition and many windows are broken. Toilets and shower rooms have been vandalised, copper pipework and geysers have been wrenched away and stolen and attempts have been made to gain entry to the courtroom. Heavy brass components of the fire hydrants have been sawn off, rendering the entire system useless and the gutter supports and guttering are in a very poor state.

“The Cottage Hospital is a typical example of a building that will be demolished if not renovated soon,” Mr Erickson says.

In recent years, he adds, the possibility of converting the former Cottage Hospital into an
old-age home has been proposed as has using it as a step-up
annexe to the nearby Happy Valley adult night shelter.

However, he says, it appears the navy is not prepared to relinquish the building for such uses.

Simon’s Town Naval Base media liaison officer, Lieutenant Commander Ruwayda Grootboom, said the Navy’s legal department is still using a part of the building and only the military court has been moved to the Main Road due to structural problems.

She said a building assessment has been done and the Navy intends to renovate the building in future.

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