How it all began, and how it's going for the Princess of Wales hospital

1987 and Diana, Princess of Wales, arrived to cheers of welcome at the 168-bed hospital.  

1987 and Diana, Princess of Wales, arrived to cheers of welcome at the 168-bed hospital. - Credit: Archant

This summer planning consent was given for a £45m re-development of the Princess of Wales hospital at Ely. 

And so, begins the next chapter in the city’s own hospital. 

Princess of Wales Hospital, Ely

Princess of Wales Hospital, Ely. How it should look once a £45m upgrade completes - Credit: Archant

Mike Petty has compiled a history of the hospital – beginning by noting that it was initially established at The Grange, Littleport. 

The Princess Royal, as Air Chief Commandant of the Princess Mary’s RAF Nursing Service, opened new Outpatients Department

The Princess Royal, as Air Chief Commandant of the Princess Mary’s RAF Nursing Service, opened the new Outpatients Department at the Ely RAF Hospital. - Credit: Archant

Using past copies of the Ely Standard and other sources, here’s the chronology of the Princess of Wales.  

1938  

Air Ministry may erect military hospital or landing ground, Ely; land High Barnes Road to be surrendered.  

1939  

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Hospital opened in The Grange Convalescent Home, Littleport and moved to Ely next year 

1941  

The Ely Standard of 24th January 1941 reports that Britain's latest and most beautifully equipped RAF Hospital received a surprise visit on Saturday afternoon from their majesties the King and Queen.  

1943  

Jock Allaway was just one of the “Guinea Pigs” at Ely R.A.F. Hospital.  

He writes: “I arrived on October 10th 1943 with third degree burns of the hand, face and body after crashing.  

The plastic surgeon in charge was Wing Commander Morley who eventually became an Air Vice Marshall in charge of all RAF Medical Services.  

During my stay at Ely, I had many operations, new top and bottom eyelids, nose and many ops on both my hands.  

Every month the distinguished surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe used to visit and pick patients to be transferred to the new Queen Victorian Hospital, East Grinstead, Sussex.  

The city of Ely was very good to us, I even had two weeks’ convalescence at the Bishop’s Palace.” 

1943  

On the night of 16th/17th December 1943 in the area around Bourn. Lancaster bombers took off for their perilous journeys deep into Europe.  

The planes were crewed by men who had done it all before; they were also crewed by those for whom it was the very first trip, including Peter Mack, always known as Joe.  

He climbed aboard his Lancaster. They crashed on return during dense fog.  

Joe was pulled out by a passing airman, who’d been making his way back to base after an illicit visit to Cambridge, and by his only other crewman to survive.  

But he was horribly injured and rushed off first to the Leys School, which had been taken over as an annexe for Addenbrooke’s Hospital. 

Later he was transferred to the Royal Air Force Hospital at Ely.  

At the time of his admittance, it had been opened for some three and a half years and was regarded as the most modern and well-built of all the RAF hospitals.  

It was here that Joe was treated in saline baths for the severe burns and fractured legs he suffered in his crash. There were two orthopaedic wards. Ward 2 was known as the ‘clean’ ward and Ward 3 was the ‘dirty’ or ‘stinking’ ward.  

Here the smell from fractures that had become infected could be unbelievably awful, especially during hot weather.  

Joe recalled how masses of flies would descend on the sheets of the worst cases. 

1956 

Princess Royal visited  

1961 

Ely RAF Hospital has been awarded the trophy for the best airmen’s mess in the UK 

1963  

The Princess Royal, as Air Chief Commandant of the Princess Mary’s RAF Nursing Service, opened the new Outpatients Department at the Ely RAF Hospital. 

Royal visit to Ely hospital

Royal visit to Ely hospital - Credit: Archant

1964  

A wartime Spitfire has made the 250-mile road journey from RAF Middleton St George Yorkshire on a 60-foot transporter to Ely.  

Now fitters are re-assembling it on the lawn at the entrance to the RAF Hospital where it will be on permanent display and floodlit at night 64 05 12 

1968  

At one minute past midnight Ely RAF Hospital became a station of Strike Command, the RAF’s new principal front-line organisation.  

To mark the birth of the new structure there was a colour-hoisting parade at the hospital today.  

1973  

Ely RAF Hospital may be developed as one of the three main service hospitals in the country.  

The report of an inquiry into Defence Medical Services says each service should have one major hospital of up to 400 beds.  

Hospital gate 1976

Hospital gate 1976 - Credit: Archant

In the case of the RAF, it suggests that either to Ely hospital or the one at Halton, Bucks, would be suitable for this kind of development.  

Ely RAF Hospital was opened in 1940 and since then has been considerably extended.  

For a number of years, it has also admitted civilian patients and it is reckoned that about 30 per cent of people treated there are civilians. 

Last year it treated 6,000 in-patients and just over 31,000 out-patients 

1977  

The RAF Hospital at Ely, whose future was in doubt because of defence cuts, will stay open. 

It is thanks to a decision by the Cambridgeshire Area Health Authority to help with its costs until there is a substantial expansion of National Health Service facilities.  

Closure of the hospital, which carries 65 much-needed NHS beds, would have a serious effect on hospital provision.  

They also pledged to keep the maternity service in Ely going should the Defence Department give them notice to quit the Grange Maternity unit 

1980 

A major expansion scheme expected to cost nearly £4 million is planned for Ely RAF Hospital.  

Four operating theatres, two new wards and a number of other facilities are to be added.  

The expansion – brought about by the decision to close the RAF Hospital at Nocton Hall, Lincolnshire – will mean a significant increase in the number of civilian and service jobs.  

From 1983 Ely will be the RAF’s only hospital in the Eastern Counties and the new facilities will be needed to cope with the extra number of in-patients.  

The present hospital has 142 beds in seven wards and two new wards are to be added as part of the expansion scheme.  

Four new operating theatres will be built to replace the two existing ones which will be converted for other uses.  

A new physiotherapy unit, gymnasium and remedial therapy centre will be added and the size of the dental clinic will be increased.  

The hospital already takes National Health Service patients in the area but the spokesman was unable to say whether their numbers would be increased after 1983 

1980  

Mothers in the Ely area cannot have their babies at home despite assurances this would compensate for the closure of the Grange maternity unit.  

Parliament was told that most mothers would now be expected to use the RAF Hospital freeing midwives for home deliveries.  

But there are none capable of providing 24-hour cover and the RAF hospital is not staffed to provide a flying squad.  

The nearest cover is at Mill Road, Cambridge where there is one midwife working a 40-hour week and the other who backs her up has a 10-mile radius to cover.  

1987  

Group Captain John Baird, the new Commanding Officer of RAF Hospital, Ely was welcomed by the previous Commanding Officer, Group Captain Jim Greig.  

But changes were in the air and closure was announced.  

The last RAF patient left in July 1992 and the hospital passed to Cambridge Health Authority as a community hospital after a considerable campaign by residents to keep a hospital facility in Ely.  

1987  

Diana, Princess of Wales, captivated everyone with her beauty and charm during her visit to Ely where the former Royal Air Force Hospital was renamed in her honour.  

Wearing a navy blue and white striped silk suit, she arrived to cheers of welcome at the 168-bed hospital.  

The Commanding Officer, Group Captain John Baird showed her to the male surgical ward where she met three men recovering from cataract operations.  

After lunch and a walkabout where she thrilled the crowds with chats the Princess opened a three-day flower festival at Ely Cathedral and attended a private Evensong in the Lady Chapel  

1992

Flypast to mark RAF Hospital closure 1992 

Flypast to mark RAF Hospital closure 1992 - Credit: Archant

If you have special memories of the hospital, please let us know. 

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