LUNACY, madness, ludicrous, unimaginable, dismayed, outraged, disgusted, angry, devastated, ridiculous, utterly unacceptable, crass stupidity, sheer folly, quite immoral, extremely concerned, very, very concerned… Rarely had the letters pages of this newspaper been inflamed with such passion and indignation as readers aired their views over what was almost certainly the most contentious local issue of the Nineties.

It was a controversy that saw almost 50,000 people – equivalent to more than a quarter of the borough’s population at the time – sign a petition. It sparked a heated debate in Parliament while a coachload of indignant Swindonians took their fight to the doorstep of Number 10 to register the enormity of local opposition.

And, on a blazing summer’s day, around 150 people including many hearty elderly folk marched all the way up a very long and a very steep hill to lodge their disapproval.

If you motor up Brimble Hill near Wroughton today and head towards Barbury Castle you will see some smart newish houses on the right, many of which command picturesque views of The Ridgeway.

Not so long ago the scene was very different. An RAF aircraft could be found in front of one of the finest hospitals of its kind in Europe – an institution that had not only taken care of countless military casualties but played an incalculable role in the lives of many Swindon people.

Some of those reading this article may well have been born in Princess Alexandra Hospital at RAF Wroughton which closed 20 years ago next month after serving the military for more than half a century, and the community of Swindon in more recent years.

At one stage one in ten babies delivered in the Swindon came into the world at the hilltop hospital on the downs above Wroughton. Thousands more local patients had routine operations there, from hip replacements to hernias.

Such was the significance of Princess Alexandra Hospital (PAH) that in 1989 it was granted the Freedom of the Borough of Thamesdown (the predecessor of today’s Borough of Swindon) – a rare honour for an organisation.

Statistics showed that in less than a decade, 79,000 NHS patients had been treated at PAH as beleaguered Princess Margaret Hospital struggled to cope with a bulging population.

So it was a blow, to put it mildly, when the Conservative Government announced in July, 1994 that 261-bed PAH was to be axed as part of Defence cuts.

“Shock and anger as worst fears fulfilled” ran our headline. Staff and patients were “outraged” at the moves to close PAH and re-locate all military hospital activities to Gosport near Portsmouth.

Only three years earlier a £10 million theatre block opened at Wroughton while a £5.5 million extension was in the pipeline.

“I feel shattered,” exclaimed Wing Commander Heather McLoughlin, reflecting the feelings of hundreds of military medics, civilian staff and patients. Swindon folk, by and large, were fuming – and were up for a barney.

Days later another Adver headline revealed: “Old soldier leaps to the defence of hospital.” Stepping up to lead the fight to save PAH was one of the town’s most colourful and pro-active characters.

Having taken part in the D-Day Landings, fought at the infamous Bridge Too Far battle at Arnhem and aided Belsen survivors, Jim Masters returned to Swindon Railway Works after the war and served as a Labour councillor from 1963 until his death 36 years later. Age hadn’t diminished Jim’s fervour when it came to fighting the good fight. This plain speaking, immensely likeable man, who was 74 in 1994, declared: “I am prepared to go into battle for this one.”

The former Mayor of Thamesdown went on: “By working together the people of Swindon can change the Government’s mind. Many of my colleagues have been treated at Princess Alexandra Hospital – it would be a disaster for Swindon if it closed.”

Even as he spoke his old Labour buddy, ex-council leader Arthur Miles, 77, vociferously backed the campaign – fittingly from his bed at PAH where he was recovering from a heart attack.

It is doubtful whether any campaign ever undertaken in Swindon garnered so much support in so little time. Within three months they had amassed more than 45,000 petition signatures.

Jim and colleagues spent hours every day collecting autographs outside shops. A logo in the shape of a large blue hand that appeared on t-shirts badges and posters – signifying ‘hands off our RAF hospital’ – became a familiar sight.

A protest march saw around 150 people hike up Brimble Hill from Ridgeway School in Wroughton on a sweltering August afternoon – no mean feat – before staging a rally outside the hospital.

Marcher Jonathan Smith told us: “I think Swindon needs two hospitals. It is growing too big for just one.”

His wife Karen had given birth at PAH. “It was lovely there… just like going private,” he added.

One of several “battling pensioners” Kathleen Blanchard, 81, asserted: “It doesn’t make sense to shut the hospital at a time when the population of the borough is growing so fast.” As the campaign coach pulled up outside the gates of Downing Street in October, 1994, Jim, sporting a full regalia of military medals remarked. “It feels like D-Day all over again…”

“This is clearly a hospital local people want to keep,” offered future Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who was there to greet them.

Among the protesters was lay preacher and British Telecom engineer Rev Bert Jones, of Wroughton, who proclaimed: “They cannot ignore the voice of the people.”

But of course, they did. A few days later MPs voted for its’ closure.

The never-say-die campaign rattled on throughout 1995 and continued in fits and starts well into ’98 under a re-badged ‘re-open our hospital’ battle-cry.

A bemused Mavis Childs, who chaired the action group, exclaimed: “I cannot understand how common sense has not prevailed.”

The hospital’s closing ceremony took place on a frosty December morning in 1995 although the RAF ensign was not lowered at PAH until the gates finally shut in March, 1996.

“This is a truly sad day not only for Thamesdown but for the whole country,” the Mayor Bert Jones told 300 assembled people.

“This hospital has provided a wonderful service and has helped people from all over the world.”

After the scrolls of the Freedom of Thamesdown were handed back to the Mayor, a forlorn but proud Jim Masters added, without really needing to: “We fought a good campaign.”

  •  THE Adver did not sit on the fence during The Great Hospital Debate and fully supported the campaign to keep the facility open.
    This was essential, we argued, to ease the burden at over-stretched Princess Margaret Hospital which did not make way for the Great Western Hospital until 2002.
    “The closure of Princess Alexandra Hospital is illogical,” we piped in one of many editorials. 
    “It will mean a reduction in the amount of care that can be provided for local people, both civilian and military…”
    “The people of Swindon cannot afford to lose it… it must be kept open,” we boomed. 
    So we lost too.
  •  A HOSPITAL opened at RAF Wroughton in June 1941 for troops injured in World War Two and was expanded to cope with D-Day casualties three years later.
    After the war it treated military and civilian patients and was renamed RAF Princess Alexandra Hospital in 1967 following a visit by the royal of that name.
    Some 600 wounded servicemen were treated there during the Falklands War in 1982 including burns patient Simon West, and more casualties followed from the Gulf War in 1990.
    High profile Middle East hostages including Terry Waite and John McCarthy were also hospitalised at Wroughton following their return.
    PAH was finally demolished for housing in 2004. Today, a small “in commemoration” plaque, desperately in need of a spruce-up, marks the spot where it once stood.  
  •  IF Swindon’s Conservative MP Simon Coombs inwardly groaned when he was told in 1994 that PAH was to be sacrificed as part of Defence cuts you could hardly blame him.
    He was uncomfortably located between a rock and a hard place – keen to appease his Swindon constituents while also supporting party policy. 
    The MP received a fair share of flak in our letters pages. Initially he backed the bid to save PAH but was increasingly elusive when it became apparent that there would be no Government U-turn.   
    Backing the proposed Defence cuts that included the closure of PAH during the Commons debate, he cited that he could hardly vote against them as he would be backing a Labour motion.