A Short History of the Conquest

From the Diaries of Dr Richard Wray

A hospital is a fruitful amalgamation of people and places over time to provide, where possible, health benefits for a population. Hastings just before 1991 had a number of small hospitals. The Royal East Sussex, Buchanan and St Helens were the largest. Don Valentine ran St Helens and Geoff Lovering was the senior manager in charge of the Acute Services Unit. Prior to 1925 the Royal East Sussex Hospital was situated on the seafront opposite the Hastings pier. Then it was moved to a site next to Hastings Museum in Cambridge Road before closing in 1991 with the opening of the Conquest Hospital.

A consolidation of smaller Hospitals

St Leonard’s Eversfield Hospital
West Hill road

Hastings Buchanan Hospital
Springfield road

Hastings St Helens Hospital
Frederick’s road

Hastings Royal East Sussex
Cambridge road

In the begining

In the early 1980’s at a routine meeting of South East Thames Regional Hospital Engineers (who incidentally were almost without exception ex Merchant Navy marine engineers) it was announced by the Chief Regional Engineer, much to everyone’s surprise, that money to build a new District General Hospital had just been allocated to the South East Thames Health Authority.

“Brighton” was asked if they had a plan ready and they said no. He then turned to Hastings and John Lightfoot our very able chief engineer said yes we had a plan and so we got the Conquest Hospital. I, Dr Richard Wray, was deputy planner/representative for the Medical Profession locally on the planning team. Dr Eric Plumpton an anaesthetist was the lead clinician.

In 1987 The construction company Cementation, started preparatory works. This involved sinking about 1000 reinforced concrete piles to stabilise the site. Then followed the laying of “French” pipes for water drainage from the numerous springs which had been mapped on the site. Heavy equipment soon floundered in the soft clay during the wet first winter but eventually the extensive concrete base was established. A different type of clay existed in many parts of the site in pockets termed”lenses”. This complicated the building process.

Laying the foundations

Rt Hon Kenneth Clarke CH QC MP and Rolf Killingbeck, Chairman of Hastings Health Authority, at the stone laying ceremony

Kenneth Clarke the Health Minister at the time turned up by arrangement in 1988 to unveil a plaque which is now located on an outside wall in Radiology.

The hospital followed a modified “nucleus” design and the architect had recently designed Maidstone Hospital which followed a similar pattern.  In addition the coffee cup story should be noted; when the final plan for Maidstone was prepared the round coffee stain within a courtyard was copied many times and this led a puzzled building team to put a raised round flowerbed in that courtyard. There are many other stories about problems with new build hospitals known to those who were involved.

Water from the springs is collected in a series of “ponds” progressing down the slope on which the hospital is built culminating in the Lake with an island, visiting ducks and, in the past, black swans. Planned water drainage from there is into the existing beck. One day a 2nd island appeared in the lake (but we have have yet to see “Excalibur ” rise out of the water ). This proved to be caused by ground gas which had no means of escaping. After many failed attempts to solve the problem a large nail hammered with some difficulty though the rubber lining gave the answer and the 2nd island disappeared never (so far ) to return.

Phase 1

Phase 1 was completed by 1991. The Hospital fully opened in 1992. HRH Princess Royal unveiled a plaque to commemorate the opening in February 1993. She took an interest in detailed and very insightful quizzing of all the staff that she met. The meticulous and extensive security planning involved certainly came as a surprise to us all.

The first area to open in late 1991 was a Cardiology Ward and the first admission occurred as the old medical hospital (St Helens) was closing. The Ambulance brought a local “worthy” with chest pain to the end door where the orthopaedic wards are now situated. There was some difficulty getting the door open as he arrived sooner than we had expected. This was before the days of easy communication using mobile phones and other devices. Incidentally the Hastings Ambulance staff were the second group in the UK to be trained and equipped for on-board cardiac resuscitation. My predecessor Dr Duncan Lawrie was responsible for this training following the example set by Dr Douglas Chamberlain in Brighton. Prior to that medical staff rode on the Belfast and Hammersmith dedicated cardiac ambulances.

At this stage I and others involved were shown around all parts of the new building. Two thirds of the floor area consisted of wards, outpatients and public spaces.

HRH, Princess Royal at the opening ceremony with Rolf Killingbeck, Chairman of Hastings and Rother Health Authority

The other third is never seen by the public. The latter area encompassed phase1 services and most of the plant rooms that would be needed in Phase 2 so when that opened in 1996 only about 15% of the floor area was inaccessible to the public. Princess Anne opened the second Phase in 1997 and I was quizzed in even more detail together with Jayne Cannon the Senior Cardiological Nursing Manager at the time.

The Spire

Nurses at the Conquest in replica uniforms, first worn in 1948, to celebrate 50 years of the NHS

The hospital viewed from the front looks to be of only average size but viewed as a whole it is actually quite large. It got larger when a BUPA hospital was closely attached to the western end of the (mainly) surgical wing. This arrangement has had its ups and downs but handled sensibly provides flexibility for the Trust and enhanced safety for the Spire Hospital who took over from BUPA.

In those days we were called Hastings Health Authority and the headquarters were situated at White Rock House with Mr Davis in charge. He had taken over from Mr Wright with the opening of the Conquest Hospital. The Authority comprised all Hospital and community services including psychiatry. There were about 2,500 beds in local community hospitals and nursing homes. The number had been diminishing throughout the 1980’s. An Almoner who possessed authority and common sense allocated patients, mainly geriatric, discharged from hospital to these places when necessary. She retired and the social work profession multiplied.


We became a District General Hospital with a comprehensive accident and emergency department. Orthopaedics was the star department with specialist joint replacements and early ambulatory practice pioneered by cooperative working between geriatrics and orthopaedics. Not surprisingly Hastings continued to be a magnet for high quality junior medical staff from home and overseas who wished to develop their orthopaedic skills.

From 2002 we joined Eastbourne Hospitals NHS Trust to form the East Sussex Hospitals NHS Trust and from 2007 we took on community services widely within East Sussex to form the East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust.

The hospital foyer was originally uncluttered. On entry there was a small circular reception desk with friendly volunteers to welcome visitors. My wife, Julia who volunteered and others termed this the “wishing well”. There was the Friends shop and little else. Interestingly the “wishing well” is being reinstated as part of the many 2016/2017 changes to the front of the hospital. From the 1980’s during early planning I had thought of this space as being a “musician’s gallery” and so two decades later it became.

Something that was special about the Conquest Hospital from very early in the planning process was the view by the architect and the UK Arts Council that Art both visual and performance was a vital aid to recovery from illness. Accordingly, there is a large art collection on walls throughout the hospital. Frequent exhibitions are held. The original art curator was Mary Hooper. Financial support came from the Hastings Health Authority charitable trustees and from the Arts Council. The present Curator is Margaret Richards who works part time across both sites.

There are 17 internal gardens of varying sizes within the hospital. One or two are looked after extremely well. Recuperating patients can use these gardens with permission and with obvious benefit.