Leeds Infirmary Winter Garden

As with many other hospitals, by the mid-nineteenth century the old Leeds hospital was no longer able to cater for the city’s rapidly increasing population. To solve this problem George Gilbert Scott was appointed as the architect for a new hospital. In 1864, plans and an etching of Gilbert Scott’s designs were published in The Builder magazine. There was no mention of a garden on any of these although an open central courtyard was depicted. However, when the building was completed the central courtyard was covered in a glass roof and was referred to as a ‘winter garden’ in an article in The Builder in 1868. It appears that the roof was requested by the organisers of the ‘National Exhibition of Works of Art’, which was holding its exhibition in the new building to help raise funds for the hospital. According to the Building Committee’s Minutes record that, ‘the Exhibition Committee having represented to this Committee that for the purposes of the exhibition it will be necessary to cover with a glass roof the large Central Court’. However, given their interest in ensuring that the building followed the most recent ideas concerning hospital hygiene the Committee reported that they asked for advice from the hospital’s medical staff. They received assurance and recorded that, ‘on the recommendation of Mr Scott and with the approbation of the Medical Officers of the Infirmary, it appears desirable that the Central Court should be permanently covered in’. The cost of this roof was financed by both the Building and Exhibition Committees, and it can be seen on one of Gilbert Scott’s architectural drawings.

Although the roof appears to have been created as a direct result of the Exhibition Committee’s request, the use of a glass-covered area by patients had already been suggested in an editorial concerned with pavilion hospital design in The Builder in 1858:

The square within the hospital, and the spaces between the pavilions, should be laid out as garden grounds with well-drained and rolled walks, and shaded seats for convalescents. It is of great importance to provide places of exercise under shelter, for patients, to be appropriated to that purpose alone. Such recreation and winter-airing grounds may be comparatively large, and yet of cheap construction, if roofed on the Crystal Palace Plan.

The idea of covering a whole area can be seen as an extension of the idea of using colonnades as sheltered walks. This was still popular in the 1890s as a means of providing a covered area for exercise within a domestic setting. The Beeton book of garden management suggested that ‘the conservatory may appropriately be termed a winter garden, for such is its most useful purpose; it is really an essentially necessary adjunct to a well-ordered country house of any pretensions, affording means of exercise to the ladies and visitors in inclement weather’. The development of a whole garden covered in glass, can also be seen as a direct result of developments in technology.

Conservatories and glasshouses became both fashionable and affordable during the nineteenth century. The combination of these elements was famously demonstrated by Joseph Paxton in his building to house the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, which became known as the Crystal Palace. The doctor, Benjamin Ward Richardson, also hypothesised the use of glass to cover gardens to create ‘Palaces of Health’. He proposed that city squares could be covered in glass so that the internal air could be kept at a constant temperature similar to the south of France. This was based on his idea that man can, ‘if he will, compete with Nature in the matter of climate, and in the matter of steadiness of climate can beat her’.

In 1868 the new Leeds General Infirmary was completed and ‘The National Exhibition of Works of Art’ was held in the winter garden the same year. An illustration of this, taken from a trade catalogue advertising glass and iron constructions, appeared in The Builder in 1858. This illustration shows the winter garden with a fountain, plants hanging from the pillars and what appear to be containers full of plants. Although this engraving was made a year before the hospital finally opened to patients in 1869 it is possible that it was intended to be the type of conservatory garden popular at the time and one that could be used by the patients. An illustration from the same catalogue, also reproduced in The Builder, shows an unnamed, but presumably domestic iron conservatory, which contains a fountain and similar planting.

The popularity of the winter garden at Leeds Infirmary was short lived. Criticisms about the stagnation of air caused by the roof over the courtyard were being voiced as early as 1869 in the British Medical Journal, as one writer suggested that the roof should be taken down. This demonstrates a tension between providing constant climatic conditions and all weather areas for patients, and the constant desire for natural ventilation. When Henry Burdett visited in 1893 the area was being used as a carpenter’s shop and he too suggested that the roof should be taken down. Finally, in 1911, the roof was removed and a hard tennis court was laid in 1914. Today the area has once again been converted into a garden for the use of patients, staff and relatives, albeit without a roof.

This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, ‘Therapeutic Landscapes’ to be published by Manchester University Press in 2013.

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2 comments

  1. I recently purchased a postcard (photo) of the indoor tennis court (Winter Garden) at Leeds Infirmary and found your article very interesting!


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