Containment at the Border

Like their journey to the foreign station, soldiers’ return home was problematic. The ones presumed contagious had to be arrested at the border to avoid the spread of the disease among the civil population. Soldiers suffering from venereal diseases were admitted either to general or to specialist military facilities. Those returning from service overseas would, most certainly, be treated at large military hospitals, for instance in London and Woolwich, or at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Netley, Hampshire. Opened in 1866, the latter facility would serve as a centre of military medicine for another hundred years before its demolition in 1966. The hospital was a testimony to Britain’s grandeur and, at the same time, an edifice of the pervasive fears and anxieties of the era. A product of modernity, it was both a space of progress and a terrain which brought to mind Gothic tales. In its pragmatic and symbolic complexity, it exemplified the ambiguity with which the syphilis-ridden bodies of overseas soldiers were met. Like them, it was a site of national pride endangered by putrefaction and the horror of degeneration. Alongside the space of convalescence, it constituted a potent means of detention and a site of containment for the soldiers whose return home was regarded as a health hazard to civic society.

Initiated at Queen Victoria’s request, the building of the Netley hospital was to offer long needed facilities for ailing soldiers, who until then were treated in the Barracks at Chatham.27 Preliminary plans delivered by Sir Charles Barry, master of Italianate architecture and principal actor in the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament, conceived of the hospital in terms of continental palaces (Hoare 2001: 99). With its architectonic magnificence, mammoth grandeur and sheer scale (stretching over a quarter of a mile), the building was to be a monument to the Queen’s thankfulness to her soldiers for their sacrifice in defence of the country. The hospital was publicized as an architectonic jewel and an object of national pride. The Navy and Army Illustrated extolled the impression of serenity and peacefulness of the complex (Hoare 2001: 112). The Chambers’s Journal highlighted its beauty and the comfort it provided for the soldiers (“A Soldier’s Friend” 1875: 598). The Leisure Hour sang hymns to its splendour: “In site, size, architecture, accommodation, and management, there is no other hospital in the United Kingdom, or even in Europe, to surpass it” (Mossman 1883: 228). It applauded the “fitness” of the building and painted an image of the hospital against the background of bucolic scenes of recreation and quietude (228-9). The article commended the majesty of the piazzas and the pleasantness of the interiors, with prints on the walls and plants in the corners of ward corridors, with recreation facilities such as a reading room containing a proscenium and stage for occasional enactments. It marvelled at the Eden-like landscape, adorned by Page Bridgewater with a selection of English and exotic plants, and the self-sufficient, almost city-like, character of the complex, which included, among others, its own pump station and gas facilities (Mossman 18 8 3 : 229-31).28 The professional management and scientific value of the medical school were also subject to continuous admiration.

Press images popularized the spectacle of the hospital’s rhythmic architecture. The print accompanying Mossman’s article flatters the size of the hospital wards by situating two ships in front, through which comparison the monumentality of the hospital becomes plainly visible. The print presents the hospital from the point of view of a soldier returning home from a tiring service: it offers a peaceful haven for exhausted men (Mossman 1883: 229). “This splendid hospital,” writes the Chamber’s Journal, “is almost the first building on his native shore to great the eyes of a returning invalid” (“A Soldier’s Friend” 1875: 369). Positioned on a geographically prominent site, with an impressive chapel and an outstanding pathological museum, with exotic specimens and war memorabilia exhibited side by side with dinosaur skeletons and morbid anatomy, Netley was also a tourist attraction and a part of Victorian visual culture.29 Uniting under one roof a centre of tropical medicine, a geological museum and incapacitated soldiers from all over the world, the hospital was a monument to Britain’s historical and geopolitical importance. It bore traces of the British heritage and referenced the potentialities of its imperial future.

Yet Netley’s splendour was undermined by critical reports which castigated the choice of the location, failed execution and outdated planning. Most readily, Florence Nightingale and The Builder launched a series of attacks, pointing out the numerous shortcomings of its antiquated plans. Nightingale famously critiqued the eccentric fancy of the architect:

It seems to me that at Netley all consideration of what would best tend to the comfort and recovery of the patients has been sacrificed to the vanity of the architect, whose sole object has been to make a building which should cut a dash when looked at from the Southampton river. (Woodham-Smith 1951: 276)

Such arrangements were far from satisfactory. The construction committee, technical experts and medical practitioners jointly raised critical voices. Even after these interventions, Netley’s construction and the building itself continued to divide the public and the experts. In “Netley Hospital,” The Saturday Review derided the “contaminated” site of the hospital, the lack of “sanitary principles” in planning and the potential cost of maintenance, along with ridiculing the medical prospects and promises that were used as a justification for its construction (1858: 206). The derisory tone of the article mocked the impracticality of the undertaking: “we have a fine sentimental flourish about the [... ] cure which the soldier is to find in the ‘view’ from Netley Hospital! [ ...]. Here the soldier is to recover by the sight of a ship, as the sailor, we suppose, is restored by the sight of a camp” (1858: 206).

Irrespective of his praise for the outstanding character of the medical school and the “noteworthy spirit of discipline,” which seemed to characterize both the management of the hospital and the functioning of the medical school (1880: 71, 75), E. Lynn Linton systematically outlined the drawbacks of the hospital. Corridor planning raised the chance of disease transmission and frustrated what could be an effective natural ventilation system. Many of the amenities were out of order or designed in a way which made them unusable. Lavish and costly enamel baths situated in every ward could not be used, vapour baths, on the other hand, were situated at a distance unacceptable for invalids. The loop line of the railway stopped short of the hospital, making it necessary to use wagons and carriages for further transportation (Linton 1880: 80). The conspicuous building ofPortland stone was, according to him, abused by convalescent soldiers, who were accommodated in one wing in winter months and who, taking up valuable space for the needy, left the site “deteriorated, dirty, and knocked about” (79). These sanitary shortcomings, the hospital’s geographic isolation, faulty management and misguided planning, Hoare argues, exemplified the “morbid strain of Victorian culture” and made evident the Gothic undercurrents characteristic of the area (2001: 111). What was conceived of as a monument to Britain’s national strength, “a statement of imperial intent, [and] an advertisement in brick and stone of the country’s international standing,” bore seeds of putrefaction in its midst (2).30

These publicly voiced inbuilt contradictions of the site stood for and were further underscored by the treatment of venereal disease patients: an alleged conceived space of healing, it became a potential space of detention. Venereal patients at Netley were not admitted to separate wards. The Telegraph reported that “no distinction whatever is made between sick and wounded at Netley - both classes of invalids are rightly held to be equally deserving of honour” (qtd. in Hoare 2001: 154-5). Was it generousness or the sheer number of venereal patients that prevented their segregation? Regular statistics from British and foreign stations highlighted the gravity of the problem. Despite their dubious accuracy, they were a sore on the reputation of the army. In the 1897 “Report of a Department Committee on the Prevalence of Venereal Disease among the British Troops in India,” an alarming increase of venereal cases admitted to military hospitals was noted. A report from a committee visit to Netley informed that 74 per cent of current patients had a history of syphilis. It further described Netley as an “Inferno,” which became a graveyard for young men’s bodies:

Before reaching the age of 25 years these young men have come home presenting a most shoeking [sic] appearance; some lay there having obviously but a short time to live; others were unrecognisable from disfigurement by reason of the destruction of their features, or had lost their palates, their eyesight or their sense ofhearing; others again were in a state of extreme emaciation, their joints distorted and diseased.31

These ill bodies were conceived of as dangerous by a number of discourses, which appealed for their containment:

Not a few are time-expired, but cannot be discharged in their present condition, incapacitated as they are to earn their livelihood, and in a condition so repulsive that they could not mix with their fellow men. Their friends and relatives refuse to receive them, and it is inexpedient to discharge them only to seek the asylum of the poor-house; so they remain at Netley in increasing numbers, which, as matters now are, seem likely to continue to



The difficulty of the situation was further reported on in the “Memorandum by the Army Sanitary Commission and Correspondence Regarding the Prevalence ofVenereal Disease among the British Troops in India” (1897). The report from Netley described the dire state of the soldiers, who showed no sign of recovery and who could not be discharged. Shunned by their relatives and with no place to stay, they had to be kept in the hospital. “Death alone” stated the report “can solve the difficulty” (1897: 4). In this context, Herbert Cumming French’s proposal to treat the returning soldiers in Aix-la-Chapelle, France, as a means of a better provision for their health also evokes the uneasy union of overt philanthropism and an underlying fear of soldiers reaching the British border (1907: 23). The repetitive evocation of the unwillingness of the soldiers’ friends and families to take care of them was used as an assertion of the magnanimity and charitable character of the army, which provided shelter for those who were abandoned by their own families. The necessity to arrest the progress of the presumably syphilitic soldiers on the border was voiced not only by the military establishment, it was also readily supported by the abolitionists. Referencing the military reports of the Netley Hospital, Hopkins compared the almost benign character of the current situation with the daunting prospect of the diseased soldiers returning home: “Even this result is less terrible than the thought of the 8,190 infected men who are annually discharged and turned loose upon the civil population to become centres of disease and degradation to others” (1898: n. pag.).

It is apparent, in the context ofthese demands and debates that, in spite of the general reluctance to address the matter, army medical officials were in favour of a close monitoring of soldiers’ mobility. Such measures as inspections or confinement were, however, obviously not as stringent as the regulation of prostitution. Nor did they serve as effective preventive measures. What transpires from these reports, however, is that the soldiers’ bodies absorbed the negative characteristics associated with the colonial climate and were regarded as a continuing threat after their return home. While medical men, abolitionists and army officials disagreed as to the direction in which vice travelled and in spite of the unique and incompatible geographies of difference that they produced, they agreed that the soldier’s body - as the chief connector of these spaces - endangered British society and that its mobility therefore had to be limited. The conceived spaces of soldiers’ convalescence were often turned into lived spaces of, at least provisory, confinement.

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