The John Radcliffe Hospital

On Thursday I visited a friend who was being treated at the John Radcliffe Hospital, a great sprawling modern series of buildings in the leafy suburbs of Headington, Oxford.

What has this to do with Wolverton? Well, the forerunner of this hospital was the Radcliffe Infirmary, established by Dr John Radcliffe’s estate in 1759, and, paid for out of the rents collected from the Wolverton Manor. Dr Radcliffe purchased the manor in 1713 for £40,000. He got 2,500 acres of farmland (at the time yielding valuable income) and the whole of the east side of Stony Stratford’s High Street, which had several large inns such as the Bull, the Three Swans, the Horseshoe and the Red Lion – all contributing to the rent total. The annual income from the estate was about £2,700. This seems like a piffling amount today, but in the 18th century it was quite enough to support the Radcliffe Library and pay for the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford.

The 18th century was a great age for building new hospitals. Northampton’s Infirmary opened in 1743. Edinburgh had a new one in 1729 and Winchester in 1736. In that context Oxford was a little late but the process did begin in 1747. It took time. First there was difficulty about acquiring land and then there were delays in building, but eventually the foundation stone was laid on 27 August 1759 at the 5 1/2 acre site on the Woodstock Road.  The building was mainly completed in 1767 but it took until 3 July 1771 for the formal opening ceremony to take place. The cost had been high. The Trustees had originally planned to spend £4000, but with the delays and additions the total bill came in at £12,791 15s. 6d. – just over 10 years’ net rents collected from Wolverton.

In the next century, new wards were added together with additional buildings to meet the demands of a growing population. The Radcliffe Trust continued to make a capital investment, but that was all. The city and the county and individual citizens were expected to contribute towards the operating costs of the infirmary. Doctors were expected to donate their time as a public service; it being assumed that they were well enough compensated by the fees of their prosperous patients. Nursing too, had yet to emerge as a profession, so the day-to-day operation of the hospital was largely entrusted to orderlies, who may not have been well paid.  In that regard the infirmary was a relatively cheap operation in the 18th century.

At around the same time as the Radcliffe Infirmary’s first phase had been completed the Trust acquired an adjacent field to build an observatory. Nobody at the time saw a conflict but towards the end of the 19th century, as the Infirmary (by this time the County Hospital) needed to encroach upon the Observatory land to satisfy the demands of a growing population. There was resistance from the Observatory who believed that their line of sight would be impeded by new buildings and that chimneys would cloud the atmosphere. They were probably right, but two Trustees, who gave their names to Wolverton streets, Sir William Anson and Lord Peel, found themselves on opposite sides of the argument. Anton favoured Infirmary expansion; Peel did not. In the end the demands of people overcame the unimpeded view of stars.

Wrangling continued for some years in the early 20th century until the intervention of William Morris in 1927. He was willing to make a substantial contribution to the development of the hospital, but only upon the condition that the land housing the Observatory be made available. The Radcliffe Trust, who ha in any case been considering moving the observatory, concluded that this would now be the time. They set a price of £100,000 on the land, which was accepted without demur, and it was sold in 1930. Morris could call upon wealth that far outstripped that of the 18th century John Radcliffe and the combined site became the Sir William Morris Institute of Medical Research, later changed to Nuffield after Morris’s elevation to the peerage.

Map of Headington Manor showing the proposed site development.

The Radcliffe name more-or-less disappeared at this point at the main infirmary, but earlier, in 1919, the Radcliffe Trust had purchased the Manor of Headington as a site to treat tuberculosis patients. In 1960 this site was chosen to build a new hospital, and by this time the NHS was steering the ship. The site was chosen for a maternity hospital and John Radcliffe’s name was chosen.  And in 1982, when Oxford’s hospitals were centralised at Headington the name of John Radcliffe was preserved as the “Churchill John Radcliffe Hospital”. In 1994 “Churchill” was dropped and it has been known since as the John Radcliffe Hospital.