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William Harvey Hospital in Ashford celebrates 40th anniversary including visit of Princess Diana

Forty years ago, the William Harvey Hospital opened its doors to patients, replacing the older Ashford Hospital which had been running since 1928. To mark the anniversary, Steve Salter delved into his archive...

In 1970, the South East Metropolitan Regional Hospital Board covering east Kent put the long-standing medical facilities in the area under intense scrutiny with a view to replacing them.

An aerial view from 1977. Picture: Steve Salter
An aerial view from 1977. Picture: Steve Salter

Scattered far and wide, some of the facilities were deemed years out of date and no longer fit for purpose.

With increasing numbers of people moving to the area, those operating the services were struggling as far as the evolving NHS was concerned.

The main hospital services in Ashford consisted of Willesborough Hospital in Kennington Road built in 1835 - originally a Poor Law Union Workhouse - and Ashford Hospital in Kings Avenue which opened in 1928, the latter largely possible due to the pre-welfare state public subscription.

The scrutinising process identified that a ‘fully balanced’ and ‘modern’ hospital was needed in one major centre that brought together the best and up-to-date equipment, ensuring both effective diagnosis and treatment of illness.

A 30-acre site at Lacton Green beside the A20 Ashford-Folkestone road was chosen, where sections of the network were being adapted for the new M20.

Princess Diana opens the Paula Carr Diabetes Centre in October 1992
Princess Diana opens the Paula Carr Diabetes Centre in October 1992

Designed to serve south-east Kent, the name chosen was William Harvey Hospital, named after the famous Folkestone-born physician who was the first to describe, in detail, the human circulatory system.

Nearby Willesborough Hospital closed, as did Warren and Hothfield Hospital, with St Mary’s Hospital, Etchinghill, following suit at a later date.

Ashford Hospital and Royal Victoria Hospital at Folkestone were spared, with the latter still operational today.

With a budget of £7-8 million, work started in 1973 and it opened in stages in 1979.

The first outpatients used the hospital from April 1979 with midwifery open for business by May 1 that year.

The main entrance under construction in 1977. Picture: Steve Salter
The main entrance under construction in 1977. Picture: Steve Salter

Although there wasn’t an ‘official opening’, the wards opened gradually every week until September 1979 when 95% of the hospital was open.

The last services at the new hospital were made available by November 1979.

Several accommodation blocks were also built for serving nurses and doctors at the time of the original construction.

Many of the staff transferred from the old Willesborough Hospital, and have been reminiscing about their time at the Harvey, which has been developed and extended over the decades.

Valerie Hickman, who worked in the maternity department, the first ward to open, shared her memories with the East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust's 'Your Hospitals' magazine.

A cutting from the Kentish Express of the first baby born at the Harvey on May 1, 1979. He was named Darren William Harvey Davis and was invited back to open the 20th anniversary fete
A cutting from the Kentish Express of the first baby born at the Harvey on May 1, 1979. He was named Darren William Harvey Davis and was invited back to open the 20th anniversary fete

She said: “I worked nights and on the first night we had to find where the day staff had put everything – luckily no babies were born that night!

“We made several visits to see the new hospital and the curtains and crockery and so on.

"The theatres and x-ray department were all partially built at the time – there have been so many changes since then.”

Others remembered Princess Diana visiting in December 1985 as patron of the National Rubella Council and again in October 1992, as well as the birth of sextuplets soon after the hospital opened.

Lynne Sharp, who started at Cambridge M as an auxiliary nurse, then worked on Cambridge L and in orthopaedics before training as a staff nurse, said: “While on orthopaedics we had a German lady as a patient who could not speak much English.

February 1976 - site view from Kennington Road. Picture: Steve Salter
February 1976 - site view from Kennington Road. Picture: Steve Salter
The main hospital under construction looking towards the water tower in 1977. Picture: Steve Salter
The main hospital under construction looking towards the water tower in 1977. Picture: Steve Salter

"We taught her some English and she taught us a little German.

“She also asked us to draw round our bare feet and she made us a pair of woollen socks – I’ve still got mine and wear them in winter. Those were the good old days.”

When Carolyn Sutton first started working at the Harvey, there were no patients at all.

The only departments open were switchboard and laundry, and staff would give weekend and evening tours to interested locals, showing them round the empty wards and theatres.

She began as a cashier, before taking on roles in relative support, managing the bed bureau, then moving to head and neck as operational manager.

Princess Diana visits the hospital to open the Paula Carr Diabetes Centre in October 1992. She also visited in December 1985 as patron of the National Rubella Council
Princess Diana visits the hospital to open the Paula Carr Diabetes Centre in October 1992. She also visited in December 1985 as patron of the National Rubella Council

Forty years on, she still works at the hospital, now as operations manager for pathology across the trust.

Ms Sutton said: “The main change has been the computers – everything is now done on screen.

“It feels like my whole life is on there sometimes, whereas in the past everything was written down.

"At the time we were all so excited to be working in the first new hospital in Kent for years and all the equipment was cutting edge.”

As the Harvey celebrates its 40th anniversary, the NHS is currently exploring two options for reconfiguring the three main east Kent hospitals.

The main site during the early construction of the William Harvey Hospital in 1975. Picture: Steve Salter
The main site during the early construction of the William Harvey Hospital in 1975. Picture: Steve Salter

The first would see all specialist services move to the William Harvey, with the Kent & Canterbury heavily downgraded, while the second option offers a ‘super hospital’ in the Cathedral city where there would be a sole A&E department for hundreds of thousands of patients.

If option two is chosen, the A&E and maternity departments at the Harvey and the QEQM in Margate would close, something Ashford residents are vehemently opposing.

While it's not everyone’s favourite place, we all need its services at some point in our lives.

So here’s to the next 40 years of care at the Harvey...

An overview of the hospital from the water tower showing the mortuary road (left) with the casualty (A&E) department (right foreground). Picture: Steve Salter
An overview of the hospital from the water tower showing the mortuary road (left) with the casualty (A&E) department (right foreground). Picture: Steve Salter

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