The Garden Memorial Building

Today in Orkney we have a wonderful modern NHS Hospital built with Scottish Government funding of £65million. It has 6 wards, 48 beds and provides free care at point of need to the people of Orkney.

The circular main building at Balfour Hospital
NHS Balfour Hospital

The creation of the National Health Service was the greatest contribution in the 20th Century to the health of citizens. Prior to World War 1 The Balfour Hospital was located in what is now The West End Hotel in Kirkwall. It was administered by a Board of Trustees.

The West End hotel on a snowy day in February
The West End Hotel. Image credit Martin Laird

In 1845 they had bought the property, the house and gardens of James Shearer, with money from a charitable trust which had been established by  John Balfour. This had been possible through Balfour’s dealings in Mexican Government Bonds worth £20,000.

The Hospital provided a valuable service but as the 20th Century got under way it soon became clear that a new building would be needed.

In March of 1914 the widow and family of Baillie Robert Garden approached the Board of Trustees with an offer to fund a new building. Unfortunately the outbreak of World War 1 delayed any construction taking place and the Balfour Hospital continued in its original location.

At the cessation of the conflict building work got underway and on 6th April 1927, at 3pm the Garden Memorial Building was officially opened by the widow of Baillie Robert Garden.

It was a day of heavy rain but that did not stop 300 invited guests and the general public from flocking to the opening.  The Kirkwall Brass Band entertained the crowd and fine speeches were made.

Alfred Baikie chair of the Garden Memorial Building Committee declared that it was:

“ the most magnificent gift this county ever had…one that could do no evil, but from which the benefits are beyond measure.”

The new hospital had cost £12,000 with an architects fee of £20. It had space for 16 patients in 4 wards. 

William MacLennan on behalf of the Trustees said:

“there could be no better way in which the name of Robert Garden could have been commemorated and perpetuated by his widow and family than by erecting that building. It would be a memorial for all time.”

The hospital was in constant need of money and fundraising was required both before, during and after construction with Orcadians donating generously.

The Book of The Balfour Hospital Bazaar was sold to raise funds and was published on 25th May 1923. It included a selection of stories, poems, letters of welcome and the history of the old hospital.

A Grand Bazaar and Sale of Work was held on the Monday and Tuesday of the 13th and 14th of August 1923. The event took in £3277, 15 shillings and 9 pence. After expenses of £76. 9 shillings and 9 pence were deducted the Trust received £3201 and 6 shillings towards the project. The Bazaar money was used to purchase furnishings for the Hospital.

Three hundred pounds was donated by  Messrs Jas. Grant & Co for X-ray apparatus and the Freemasons provided a hospital trolley. In the years 1921,1922 and 1923 there were door-to-door collections which brought in £354. The fundraising efforts were constant for new equipment, beds, resources, staffing and all the needs of a hospital.

Two Trust committee members inspected the wards each week. Patients were treated by their own doctors and, as there was no NHS, healthcare had to be paid for by those being treated.

By September 1927 the Board were hoping to make more improvements to the Garden Memorial Building and to the appointment of a surgeon. Application was made to The Scottish Board of Health in Edinburgh with details of the plans. The Board praised the efforts of the community in the building of the hospital, however, it made several recommendations which would mean changes to the structure.

Already the building was needing to expand. The Board stated that the room set aside for X-ray work was too small for that purpose and required increased ventilation which could be achieved by utilising the room set aside for nurses. The appointment of a surgeon would require additional support staff and rooms.

By 1937 islanders were engaged in raising money for a £10,000 Extension Fund to the hospital. Various sizes of donations came in including £17. 17 shillings and 7 pence from an event held by the Orkney Motor Cycle Club. The ‘gymkhana’ at the Bignold Park, Kirkwall, attracted a huge crowd. Glasgow motorcyclist, Jack Wood, skidded and was thrown off his Coventry Eagle. He was treated at the Balfour Hospital for a fractured right collar bone.

Orcadians not only donated money but foodstuffs. This was particularly important during World War 2 when there was rationing. The  list of gifts included:  rabbits, chickens, geese, turkeys, eggs,  potatoes, cabbages, leeks, cakes, buns, sweets, and cigarettes. There was also a donation in 1941 from the pupils at Kirkwall Grammar School of 4 tables and a splint. The Comfort Fund of the Orkney W.V.S. donated a portable Wireless set.

The outbreak of the Second World War meant that hospital provision in Orkney would be required not only by islanders but by the hundreds of thousands of service personnel stationed in the islands. In September 1939 the Army and Naval Authorities asked permission to put up service hospital huts in the grounds. There would be 100 beds in each hut. The hutted ward blocks were constructed as part of the Emergency Medical Scheme.  In addition to the hutted wards, a new ward annexe was built and a new maternity block was added. 

The Post War Labour Government set up the NHS in 1948 with the NHS in Scotland  established as a separate entity with its own legislation, the National Health Service (Scotland) Act 1947. Many doctors had been opposed to the setting up of a health service, free at point of need to all.

“No society can legitimately call itself civilized if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.” – Aneurin Bevan, Minister of Health in the Attlee Government.

Throughout the rest of the 20th Century the Balfour Hospital, centred around the Garden Memorial Building continued to serve the people of Orkney and became a sprawling assortment of buildings linked together by corridors.

the entrance to the New Balfour Hospital on a snowy day
The New Balfour Hospital. Image credit Martin Laird

The £65million NHS Balfour Hospital was officially opened on 25th May 2021. Constructed by Robertson’s it was Scotland’s first zero net hospital. Departments transferred gradually over to the new building as it was being completed. The outbreak of the Covid pandemic in 2020 required the utilisation of the old Balfour with the setting up of Orkney’s vaccination centre in one of the buildings.

The old Balfour Hospital in use as a vaccination centre during the Covid pandemic

The Garden Memorial Building still stands, neglected and overgrown. The extraordinary contribution it made to the health of Orcadians and the vital services provided by our National Health Service should never be forgotten.

The Garden Memorial Building closed up and with barriers across it in the snow
The Garden Memorial Building. Image credit Martin Laird

Fiona Grahame

This article was first published in iScot Magazine

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