The West Herts and Watford Observer has had a prominent place in the community since 1863. It prides itself on reflecting and shaping local opinion and lends its support to worthy causes. At the forefront of the appeal to build the Peace Memorial Hospital back in the 1920s, it became involved again in 1991, when campaigners battled to save the Hospital building and redevelop it as a much-need hospice for local people.
The Peace Memorial Hospital closed in 1985, and its services were moved to the Shrodells site in Vicarage Road, which became Watford General Hospital. The Peace Memorial buildings were partially demolished and the iconic administration building was left at the mercy of vandals. The South West Herts Health Authority, the owners, procrastinated about the long-term future of the site while the buildings deteriorated and decayed. There was talk of using the buildings for an old peoples’ facility, a clinic – or flattening the lot and selling the site for a housing development.
Members of the public began to vent their anger and frustration in the letters page of the Observer. In the context of the recent history of Watford, this was hardly surprising. By the 1950s, traffic congestion in Watford High Street had led to a recognition that the town centre was in urgent need of redevelopment. A programme of wholesale reconstruction was undertaken from the 1960s onwards, not all of it sympathetic. The town finished up with a new ring road, a large shopping centre and several multistorey car parks. To accommodate all this change, many familiar buildings were lost, including a number of timber framed shops and pubs in the Lower High Street. The demolition of the Cassiobury Park Gates in 1970, to allow for the widening of the Rickmansworth Road, remains a painful memory to this day.
So the potential loss of another well-loved building was almost too much to bear – and the Peace Memorial Hospital was regarded as a very special building indeed. It had been built after the First World War and paid for by public subscription. Some of the Observer’s correspondents, or their families, had contributed to the building of the hospital themselves.
Watford has been spoiled in so many ways over the years. The most important way was in taking away the lovely Park Gates. Now the hospital is going to be left to die the same as our servicemen did in the war. It is time somebody pulled their finger out and did something about this.
In February 1991, news that the South West Herts Hospice Appeal had been launched made front page news in the Observer under the headline HOSPICE PLAN FOR PEACE MEMORIAL. The Observer, led by Editor Mr Peter Wilson-Leary, immediately pledged its support in an editorial:
At long last something constructive is being planned at the old Peace Memorial Hospital site in Watford. This is most timely as for too long the grand old lady of Rickmansworth Road has stared gloomily out at passing traffic, with windows smashed and plaster crumbling – an awful advertisement for the prosperous borough of Watford. The Peace Memorial was paid for by the people, for the people of Watford and it is only right that once more it should serve them. With health care centralised in Vicarage Road the hospice plan seems the perfect answer for this prime town centre site. The Watford Observer will be backing any fund-raising campaign to the hilt.
While the Health Authority continued to drag their feet, a Hospice appeal was launched in July 1991 to raise the considerable sum of £2 million. The Observer weighed in with another editorial:
For more than five years this site has been deserted and has been slowly going to rack and ruin while the health authority deliberates over what should be done with it. Local people have long been furious and saddened by the increasingly dilapidated state of repair this once fine building has fallen into. The health authority should for once heed public opinion and make its final decision now. And that decision should be for the hospice the trustees have desperately wanted for so long to be built. It seems very wrong that the building, paid for by the people of Watford through penny subscriptions, should be used for anything but a public service.
Every week the Observer published a list of contributions to the appeal fund, and pictures of cheques being presented. There were toy sales, raffles, dinners and dances, auctions, concerts, fetes and all manner of sponsored events ranging from slims and swims to beard shaves. Everyone got involved: pubs, clubs, cubs, choirs, churches, schools and marathon runners, but still there was no decision about the future of the Hospital. In September 1991, the Observer published another editorial:
ACT NOW TO SAVE THE PEACE
The Peace Memorial Hospital was built for the people of Watford by the people of Watford. It should be a lasting mark of respect to those who gave their lives in the 1914-18 war. Passing this shattered, crumbling shell today it is easy to mistake it as a casualty of war itself. The windows are smashed, graffiti is daubed on the brickwork and its clock has long since disappeared. In a way, the building is a casualty of war, a victim of years of wrangling over the future of the site. Now is the time to stop the uncertainty and make a committed effort to save Watford’s Peace Memorial. It is a fine and fitting site for a hospice and centre for care of the elderly. It should be used to benefit the people of the town as it did for so many years before faceless bureaucrats decreed big was best and transferred everything to Watford General Hospital. It seems now that someone, somewhere is willing to allow this historic and touching building to deteriorate to such an extent that demolition is the only viable course of action. This would be a tragedy and a scandal: an affront to those it commemorates. It is time to stop the rot – NOW.
By the beginning of 1992, ten prominent local figures had become patrons of the Hospice appeal. They were concerned that the members of the Health Authority – none of whom lived in Watford – failed to understand the significance of the building or the depth of local feeling. In January, Watford Borough Council leader Mr Mike Jackson delivered a petition signed by 17,500 residents to the Health Authority. Patient Mrs Ann Gurdler collected a further 5,700 signatures. By April, the appeal had raised £112,000 and there were signs that the Health Authority were at last prepared to talk to the Hospice appeal committee.
November 27th 1992 was a proud day in the history of the Hospice. At last the Health Authority agreed to the redevelopment of the Hospital as a Hospice. The Observer trumpeted the news:
At long last the district health authority has done what everyone in south west Hertfordshire has been begging it to do for ages. It has granted the Peace Memorial Hospital site in Rickmansworth Road, Watford, a new lease of life by giving its blessing for the building to be used as a hospice. And about time too. After seven years of uncertainty and deliberation the Peace Memorial will be used for health purposes as was always intended.
The news provided a new focus for the appeal fund. A total of £250,000 was raised in 18 months and in May 1993 planning permission granted for a temporary Day Care centre in a porta-cabin alongside the Hospital – the first stage of the redevelopment into the Peace Hospice.
Since those days back in the 1990s, the Observer has continued to support the Hospice by printing the names of Lottery winners and reporting on Hospice news and events. In April 2016, with Editor Tim Jones at the helm, it announced its Every Day Matters appeal to mark the 25th anniversary.
A long and fruitful association continues.