The Second World War

A week before the outbreak of the second world war, on Sunday 28th August 1939, all but eighty of the 1400 patients were evacuated as far as Gloucester and Wales as well as nearer locations such as Knowle, Dorchester and Salisbury. Largely successful, the evacuation did have some problems including a broken down bus on the way to Devises but the patients and their carers finally arrived in the early hours of the next day. From this point, the hospital was taken over by the Emergency Medical Service to provide 2000 beds for civilian and service casualties. A number of London hospitals (St. Mary's, The Westminster, St. Thomas's, Tite Street and the West London) were offered wards in Park Prewett, away from the bombing for their own staff and patients. The Matron and her assistants remained as well as a number of staff nurses who were given new roles. Four male and four female nurses stayed to look after their own patients as well as help the huge influx with their new surroundings.

The transformation to a general hospital was no small task. There was little equipment there and they now needed six operating theatres with ten tables, and a dental theatre at Rooksdown with five chairs. Originally there was no gas on the estate, which was needed for the sterilisers, so pipes needed to be laid. The hospital was extended to one with around 3,200 staff, including some 700 nurses. Much labour that was originally does by patients now had to be done by the staff.

The general hospital staff took a bit of getting used to by the Park Prewett nursing staff, who were used to a more strict regime. The first new arrivals swept through the hospital taking any food and supplies they wanted. The matron had observed this and the next morning they were called in one by one to her office and returned much chastened. There was no more such trouble. The arrival of medical students also was a novelty and some ran riot in enjoying their freedom, but they were removed from living-in after one particular party in March 1940 when much damage was done.

An American unit set up an Orthopaedic centre of 5 wards in 1940 as the obstetric wards received their first patients. One of the villas was used as a delousing station for mothers and children from London where they stayed for 48 hours while their clothes were fumigated.

Air raid precautions were maintained throughout the war including fire watching from the tower. The hospital was never hit, but the town was bombed during a daytime raid in August 1940, just missing the station when it was crowded with workers returning from the paper mills in Overton.

The hospital was used as a casualty clearing station with generally between seven and nine hundred patients, and by the end of 1943, over 31,000 patients had been treated. many D-Day casualties where treated here, with some 12,000 between then and the end of October 1944. The hospital was praised by the Ministry for its efficiency and received visits from The Princess Royal in August 1944 and the Duchess of Kent in February 1945. Sir Alexander Fleming even made a film in the hospital on the uses of Penicillin.

Rookdown House

Rooksdown House, which had opened as a Private Patient unit in 1930 was unlike the rest of the hospital. It was comfortably furnished, including billiard and reading rooms, and private rooms or even suites for those with the ability to pay. The war changed all that and it initially housed a dental theatre and a nurses home. It then housed the Plastic Surgery Unit until 1959, for much of the time under the command of Sir Harold Gillies, reopening as Rooksdown Hospital in 1960.

Sir Harold Delf Gillies

Harold Gillies

Sir Harold had pioneered the use of plastic surgery in the First World War and had become a consultant adviser to the Ministry of Health. The story goes (according to Reginald Pound's biography) that he and Sir William Kelsey Fry, the dental specialist and long time friend, drove down from London in September 1939 to view Rooksdown. As they entered, a young nurse greeted them with the cry "Ye Gods, a man at last!". Sir Harold retorted "Obviously this is the place for us" and recommended that Rooksdown be commandeered for the purpose.

Sir Harold was a remarkably talented individual. Aside from his gift for Plastic Surgery, he was a musician, an artist and in his younger days, an athlete. He was a rowing blue a Cambridge, a famous golfer and an excellent fly fisherman. It was even said he may have chosen Rooksdown on the basis of the proximity to the river Test. This is more likely than the golf connection - The hospital golf course (later developed into Weybrook Park) had not been built at this time.

Gilles was born in New Zealand of Scottish émigré descent, but returned to England for schooling and university at Cambridge. In 1914 he was assistant to Sir Milson Rees, a leading ENT surgeon, where he assisted in an operation on the Prince of Wales as well as meeting Sir Frederick Treeves, court physician, known for his friendship of Joseph Merrick (The Elephant Man). At the outbreak of the first world war, Gilles joined the Red Cross and went to France as a general surgeon. He worked with a Franco-American dentist, Valenteer where the then Captain Gilles was impressed with the work on repairing Jaw wounds with bone grafts. Through this and seeing a German book on Plastic Surgery he became interested in this kind of work. He then saw Hippolyte Marestin operating in Paris and became a mission for him to continue this on his return. He initially worked at Aldershot in 1916 and pioneered work for which there was little guidance except their own experience. In August 1917, the unit moved to the Queen's hospital in Sidcup, where it expanded and remained in operation until 1929.

The Plastic Surgery unit at Rooksdown opened in February 1940 and continued here until 1957, when it moved to Queen Mary's at Roehampton. Sir Harrold was obliged to retire at the age of 70 in 1952, although as Emeritus Consultant Plastic Surgeon, continued to practice, albeit unpaid.

Sir Harold is remembered locally in the Rooksdown Parish with 'Gillies Drive' named after him.


 After the war's end in May 1945 the Committee immediately began to find out how to revert the hospital to its intended function as a mental hospital. The EMS seems to move out rather slowly and Rooksdown would remain as a plastic surgery unit for some time. The mental side was put under control of Knowle as a annexe under the Principal Medical Adviser. The hospitals that had been accommodating the patients were overcrowded and wanted to get back to normal occupancy. Early in 1946, three villas and seven wards returned to psychiatric use, all on the female side providing 309 beds and reducing the overcrowding at Knowle. By the end of 1946, it was getting back to normal with the return of demobilised staff and a total of 680 patients, although there were also still 300 EMS patients. There was much to be done in a time of shortages and austerity, and the returning Dr. Atkin who was now in charge introduced art and music as therapy and set up an occupational therapy department. At the end of 1947, the EMS finally left and the hospital was back to normal use, except for Rooksdown. Dr Thomas, who had been in charge of the hospital since the end of ward noted that under the EMS, 68,227 inpatients had been treated with a mortality rate at the busiest time of just one percent.

Care was now more therapeutic than custodial, with ECT, Insulin and now Leucotomy (introduced to Park Prewett in 1947). Following a management committee meeting in July 1948, new kitchen and laundry equipment, heating for the Villas and Nurses homes and many other repairs and new furnishings were instigated. Staff shortages were a problem, with volunteers making up the numbers in occupational therapy.

Changes in care in the 1950's saw the end of patients being locked up and by 1957 there were only three locked wards, and soon after they were all open. Behaviour Therapy started as 'Habit Training' in 1956. The hospital year stared with a New Year's Eve dance, and an Annual Ball in January, and the patient's has a fancy dress ball and a pantomime. There was a concert and an art lecture each month. Football and Cricket were played, there was a sports day and a garden party and excursions for patients. The Christmas festivities saw a ward decorating competition.

Tranquilisers were introduced in the early 1950's, and their calming effect enabled the more troubled patients to take part in hospital life, including the therapeutic social 'Renaissance' club which gave patients more autonomy in their own affairs. A new mental health act came into force in 1959 providing for more informal admissions to psychiatric hospitals. A Ministry of Health circular, just before that was published with the findings of the Royal Commission on Mental Health. This proposed that services be geared to support in the community and away from hospital care unless special facilities only available in hospital were required. Rooksdown Hospital for the treatment of nervous diseases was reopened in 1960 after the closure of the Plastic Surgery unit, and was specifically limited to 3 months stay. An alcohol treatment unit was opened there in 1961 and was one of the first of its kind.

The 1970's was the decade in which Park Prewett began to face outwards to the community rather than inwards to itself. Park Prewett set up a complete community service, including discharges being looked after in the community and providing support to avoid admissions in the first place. They helped manage community clinics and day centres throughout Basingstoke and North Hampshire, sharing staff and expertise. They rented eight houses as sheltered accommodation and within the hospital grounds, Greenlands and Hollies villas became rehabilitation units, allowing patients to lead independent lives. In 1979, the farm cottages were converted for the use of discharged patients, they being supported by Social Security rather than hospital resources.

Friday April 3rd 1981 was a dark day for the hospital as the Main Hall was burnt down. From a few wisps of smoke to its destruction in the space of an hour. Fortunately it had not spread, and within a week the funds had been allocated to rebuild it to its original specification. It was reopened on 16th November 1983 by Lord Denning, recently retired as Master of the Rolls. The internal decorations were a big improvement on what had gone before.

The 1983 Mental health Act gave patients increased rights to appeal detention and by this time treatment in the community was the norm and some of the large psychiatric hospitals were already closing. In 1984 a draft plan for moving psychiatric services to the community was drawn up. At this time the hospital had some 600 beds and the plan was to reduce these to 300 by 1994. The hospital finally closed its doors in 1997.