Today we look at a small miracle in South Africa which even has the attention of the Princes William and Harry, and it’s a miracle that really captures the imagination. This miracle is a very special type of war memorial.
Over the years there has been many debates on how to commemorate those who have paid the supreme sacrifice for the country in war. Should a concrete or granite memorial be erected, a wall of remembrance be constructed, maybe a sport pavilion or a ‘living memorial’ that will continue to serve a community.
In South Africa we have two ‘living memorials’, one for the First World War, the annual running of the Comrades Marathon between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, and another for the Second World War, the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in Cape Town. Sadly commonly referred to as the Red Cross Children’s Hospital, so not many people know of its wartime origin and its true intention.
The story of this iconic Cape Town landmark originates from the final days of World War 2, when South African ex-servicemen were waiting to return home from Italy. They had been so moved by the plight of war-torn children, that they contemplated what could best serve as a living memorial to their fallen compatriots.
The idea of a children’s hospital – a place of healing – captured people’s imaginations and gained popularity. Many of the servicemen donated two days of their pay towards this ideal and these funds were held in trust by the South African Red Cross Society who began to champion its establishment.
Since the Hospital first opened its doors, thousands of desperately sick children have been given back their childhood. Just as the returning World War 2 heroes fought for a better world, brave children at this incredible Hospital fight their own battles every day, to return home to their families and live the lives they were destined for.
The hospital is a beacon of hope and excellence in Cape Town, it is the largest, stand-alone tertiary hospital in sub-Saharan Africa dedicated entirely to the care of sick children. Children are referred from all over the African continent for medical intervention from the dedicated specialists who work tirelessly to heal and cure.
So how exactly did this miracle unfold?
The South African Red Cross Society started planning the building at a cost of £700 000. The building committee’s chairman, Vyvyan Watson, was the driving force behind its construction and fundraising. The first public appeal outside the war veterans contributions was launched and a generous response from the Cape Town public resulted in a contribution of £207,000. The rest of the funding was provided by the Cape Provincial Administration.
Building began late in 1953 and the Hospital officially opened its doors in June 1956 with a 90-bed capacity. By 1957 rapidly increasing patient loads necessitated the opening of all the remaining beds, bringing the total to 176 beds, with inpatient admissions at just over 1000 and 36 000 outpatients treated. This expansion continued with the kind support of private initiative well through the 1980’s and 1990’s to the fine institution and beacon it has become today.
The hospital even has the attention of the Royal family in the United Kingdom, and hosted a visit by both Princes William and Harry on a visit to the hospital in June 2010.
The hospital’s purpose is best summed up in a memorial plaque at the entrance, it states;
The Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital has been established by the Cape Region of the South African people in World War II 1939-1945. It is hoped that future generations, in their thankfulness for the benefits of this hospital, may be mindful of those in whose memory it has been erected.
In the forecourt of the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital stands a bronze statue of Peter Pan, and it is the location where war veterans annually lay wreaths in memory and appreciation. The Peter Pan statue was commissioned by the parents of Peter Watson, a four year old who died of diphtheria at a time when there was no specialist children’s hospital in Cape Town.
Related Work and links
Comrades Marathon; A ‘Living’ War Memorial, The Comrades Marathon
Comrades Marathon; Why the Comrades Marathon is called the ‘Comrades’
Researched by Peter Dickens with much thanks to Charles Ross, images of wreath laying thanks to Liz Linsell.