Until the Royal Navy established general hospitals in the mid-18th Century, sick and wounded seamen were cared for by naval surgeons on hospital ships, in rented houses and public houses in seaports. They also had access to beds in the London hospitals.
During the Dutch Wars of the mid-17th Century, it had proved difficult to house wounded seamen landed on the coast of England. The need for a naval hospital became imperative. Plans were drawn up for such a hospital at Chatham, but these were not implemented, as there was a shortage of funds. In 1694, several buildings at the unfinished and disused Royal Palace at Greenwich were fitted up as a temporary hospital.
The first permanent hospitals for the Royal Navy were established abroad (Jamaica: 1704, Lisbon: 1706, Gibraltar: 1746, and Minorca: 1771). Pressure to build permanent hospitals built up again during the Spanish War in the mid-18th Century. The Admiralty concluded that it would be more cost effective to look after their own sick men rather than contracting them out to other establishments. Therefore, the Royal Naval Hospital at Haslar, Gosport was completed in 1761. A year later the Naval Hospital at Plymouth was built. From 1763 to 1768 a permanent hospital was built at Greenwich (Dreadnought’s Seamen’s Hospital). The next naval hospital constructed was at Deal in Kent in the mid-1790s. The fifth hospital built by the Royal Navy was sited at Great Yarmouth. In June 1808, the Right Honourable the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty were pleased to order that a Royal Naval Hospital be erected on the Denes in Yarmouth capable of holding 300 patients under the direction of the Inspector General of Naval Works.
The history of the hospital is complex and it has changed its use several times over the years.
1809-1811 Hospital built.
1815: Hospital was not required by the Royal Navy, as the war with France was over. Apart from the ending of the Napoleonic War, a writer in 1845 gave another reason for the change of use: St. Nicholas Gatt, by the shoaling of its waters, rendered the entrance to the Yarmouth Roads unsafe for men-of-war and the Admiralty consequently ordered the establishment to be converted into Foot Barracks.
1815: Army barracks/hospital. The wounded from the Battle of Waterloo arrive.
1826: John Druery, commented that: the hospital is now commonly unoccupied. When in use it seldom receives more than a detachment of dismounted horse or a company of foot soldiers.
1846: Army lunatic asylum for officers and men.
1849: The insane soldiers from Royal Kilmainham Hospital in Ireland transferred to the hospital.
1854: The Royal Navy reclaimed the building for the Crimea War. However, the hospital was not used by the Navy.
1858: Building lent to the War Office for the use of the Army as a convalescent home for wounded soldiers, who had served in India and for those who had been wounded in the Indian Mutiny.
1863: The Admiralty found that the number of the insane (mainly suffering with tertiary syphilis or paralysis of the insane) in the navy was increasing. They reclaimed the building and turned it into a lunatic asylum again for the navy. Modifications to the building by Tyrrell.
1866: Land to the east purchased as a recreation ground.
1890: The Royal Navy gave permission for the Army to send their patients.
1892: The Royal Indian Asylum at Ealing was closed and demolished to make way for the Great Eastern Railway. Forty Army officers were transferred to Great Yarmouth by arrangement with the Admiralty.
1931: Ex-Army patients were transferred from Kirkburton Hospital, which was run by the Ministry of Pensions and was closed in 1931.
1939-1945: A Royal Naval base; HMS Watchful. Patients were transferred to Lancaster and Northampton.
1945: Reverted to a Royal Naval lunatic asylum
1958: Royal Navy transferred the building to the National Health Service for use as a psychiatric hospital.
1993: Hospital closed.
1996: Converted into apartments and re-named the Great Hospital. All the post 1811 buildings were removed.
The Royal Naval Hospital photographed in 2002