The establishment of a convalescent home at Hunstanton was first suggested in 1869 in Ely Cathedral, so that sick and poor people from Ely could recover their health with the assistance of sea air. As a result, cottages in Hunstanton were hired to accommodate patients on a temporary basis, but when other districts in the east of England were added to the scheme, there were 40 applicants for each of the 18 beds.
Edward, Prince of Wales, and his wife, Princess Alexandra of Denmark, spent much of the year at Sandringham House. He was not to ascend to the throne until the death of his mother, Queen Victoria in 1901 when he was 59 years old, and until then, he spent much of his time at social and sporting events, as a good humoured seeker of pleasure. However during the winter of 1871 he contracted typhoid, the disease which had killed his father Prince Albert, and for several weeks he struggled for life at Sandringham. By January 1872 he had recovered, and as part of the extensive national thanksgiving, it was decided to build a permanent convalescent home in Hunstanton. In 1874 a plot of land was purchased from the Le Strange Estate for £500. It was situated on the brow of the hill above the town close to the junction of Greevegate with the road to Heacham.
The Countess of Leicester laid the foundation stone on 22nd August 1877, and the home was built for £4000, £1000 of which had been donated by her husband. The remainder of the money was collected from churches and chapels of West Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Bedfordshire, South Lincolnshire, Essex, Northamptonshire, and London in order to give the poor the opportunity to contribute as well as the rich.
The main walls were constructed of 14-inch thick carrstone by the builder William Southgate of Rose Cottage, Hunstanton. The roof had 3 gables and a bell tower and was covered with the best Welsh slate. The ground floor of the house formed the letter H and the front section was divided into 2 wings for the separation of male and female patients. To the rear were the dining room, the kitchen, scullery and laundry room. The building faced south-west, allowing all the upper rooms to have views of the sea in one direction, and undulating, well-wooded countryside to the other. The male and female wards on the first floor were approached by different staircases, and the matron’s room also separated them. There was a bath on each wing. 40 ladies donated the 40 beds complete with sprung mattresses and scarlet and white counterpanes.
Potential patients had to be recommended by their doctor and their application had to be endorsed by a clergyman, certifying that the person was of good character. Children less than 7 years old were not admitted, neither were patients subject to fits, unable to dress themselves, suffering from contagious, infectious, incurable diseases, or of an immoral character. Everyone was required to make their own beds, and to have risen from them by 7am, when the day started with prayers said by the Matron. After the inmates had finished whatever work they had been given, they were required to spend as much time as possible in the open air, ‘reading, writing and occupying themselves in a rational manner,’ during which time everything was said to be done to promote their cheerfulness, contentment and thankfulness. The patients were forbidden from entering any public house under any pretence, and no visitor was allowed to provide them with food or drink. They were however, given the option of choosing which place of worship they would attend. If anyone disobeyed any of the rules they were ejected. They were required to have returned to their dormitories by 8.30pm and to be in bed by 9pm.
The Prince and Princess of Wales agreed to officially open the home on Easter Monday, 14th April 1879. As soon as the date was known, all the villages between Sandringham and Hunstanton began making preparations on a grand scale to honour the visit. During the Easter weekend the weather was foul with keen east winds, rain and snow. The day of the visit commenced with a dull leaden sky, no apparent sign of an improvement, and not even the numerous decorations could make Hunstanton look anything less than miserable. However by noon the clouds lifted and the sun shone, crowds gathered, the railway brought in 3,000 visitors and thousands of others entered by road.
The Royal party left Sandringham soon after 3pm in a carriage drawn by 4 dark chestnuts ridden by jockeys and preceded by 2 outriders. In the coach were the Prince and Princess and their 2 sons dressed in naval uniforms, Prince Albert Victor and Prince George of Wales. They were followed by another carriage containing Rear Admiral Sir Henry Keppel and Lieutenant General Sir Dighton Probyn.
The route followed by the Royal party was lavishly decorated and lined by parishioners cheering vociferously. They passed flags displayed everywhere from church towers to hedgerows, and from all schools, public and private houses. At Dersingham, the church bells started the pealing which was carried on through all the villages. In Snettisham, there were 2 triumphal arches bearing the words, ‘The Empire’s Hope,’ and ‘Royalty, Loyalty and Charity,’ and cannons were fired from the high ground. At the southern entrance to Heacham, 2 lofty poles carried a 21-foot long Danish flag and another with the word ‘Velkommen,’ and for a quarter of a mile there were a variety of flags of all nations at a uniform height of 22 feet.
The carriages entered Hunstanton punctually at 4pm and were greeted by the Hunstanton Decorative Committee and the band of the 5th (March) Rifle Volunteers, playing the National Anthem. Although they were only 100 yards from the Home, the Prince with his usual good nature, consented to drive down the hill and round the town, preceded by the Rifle Band playing various marches, past thousands of cheering spectators. Each balcony and window was occupied with people waving handkerchiefs. Every now and again the Prince and Princess bowed their acknowledgements. The route had been lined with builders’ scaffold poles painted red white and blue and placed at close intervals, ornamented with evergreen shrubs to the height of 7 feet and displaying flags and shields along the top. They commenced at the junction of the Heacham Road with Shingle Pit Road and continued along Greevegate Road. Evergreens, and flags and flowers were looped from pole to pole and wherever there was a junction, a square or diamond was created. In addition to these decorations, three fine triumphal arches had been erected from designs by John William Beeton, who personally superintended the work. The first was an arch on the Heacham Road decorated with the Prince of Wales plumes, the royal initials and the words ‘A Hearty Welcome,’ in red and white letters on a blue background. The second was a 50-foot triple arch near the Sandringham Hotel, coloured to resemble marble and bearing the words ‘Long Live the Prince of Wales,’ and ‘England’s Hope.’ The whole arch was studded with imitation diamonds. When the royal party passed through the arch, 2 members of the coastguard stationed on pedestals saluted them with Union Jacks. Another triple arch near the church bore the words ‘Prosperity’ and ‘Success to Trade.’ Those arches were covered in flags, shields, scrolls and feathers.
The Great Eastern Railway Company had decorated the station extensively. The interior was covered with flags and evergreens. Young firs had been dug up from the sides of railway embankments from as far as 60 miles away. A number of fir trees had been placed on either side of the station yard fence next to Shingle Pit Road, and five poles flew flags of numerous nations. Signal flags spelt out in code ‘Welcome to the Prince and Princess of Wales.’ The tops of every tree were adorned with large rosettes. All shops and private houses were festooned with decorations. The broken cross, which had been moved from the village of Hunstanton to The Green, bore a flag displaying the imperial eagles of Austria.
The members of the procession admired the sun ‘reflecting on the placid German Ocean,’ then turned up the hill and approached the grounds of the home on a new road passing the Police station which had only been laid the previous Saturday. The children of the St James Street School opposite, stood on a platform in their playground and sang, ‘Lord bless the Prince of Wales.’ A Royal salute of 21 guns was fired by officers of the Coastguard from a field owned by Mr Guy.
The decorations outside the Convalescent Home were on such an elaborate and artistic scale that they were said to be impossible to describe. The entrance to the grounds was spanned by a large triumphal arch of evergreens and numerous flags. Surrounding the boundary wall were 150 flags of all nations, and a grandstand had been erected on the road outside with seating for the 1300 spectators in possession of tickets. The Guard of Honour was provided by A and H companies of the 3rd Norfolk Rifle Volunteers and they presented arms at the orders of Captain Rolfe and Lieutenant Cresswell.
At the door the Royal party was received by the Earl and Countess of Leicester, the Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire, the Earl and Countess of Romney, Sir and Lady ffolkes, the Venerable Archdeacon of Ely William Emery, Mr Hamon Le Strange, the Mayors of Lynn Regis, Norwich, Huntingdon, Stamford and Wisbech, and many other persons of rank and distinction. During a tour of the home, the day room for male patients was entered. It was named the ‘Cambridge’ as the furniture had been bought by residents of that city and the Prince consented to it being renamed the ‘Albert Edward.’ Similarly the Princess consented to the ‘Wisbech’ day room for the female patients that had been lavishly furnished by residents of that town, to be renamed the ‘Alexandra.’ They were next conducted to the upper floor. The character of the building, the bright fires blazing, the fine views of the hills and sea from the windows greatly impressed the Royal visitors, who also noticed that the walls were decorated with pictures from the society for promoting Christian knowledge. Having completed the tour the Royal party entered the dining room, which again had one door for the use of males and another door for females. The Princess inspected the kitchen which had been entirely equipped by the Mayor of Stamford and expressed her pleasure. Tea was served in cups bearing the monogram HCH for Hunstanton Convalescent Home, after which the Royal family all signed the visitors’ book. The Princess then rang the great bell normally used to summon the inmates to prayers or meals and declared the Home open to loud cheers. The visit concluded and the Royal party returned to Sandringham.
The crowds were well behaved all day and were controlled by 40 constables of the county police under the Chief Constable of Norfolk, Lieutenant Colonel Black.
In the evening there was a display of fireworks on the Green completing a day which all agreed had been a success which exceeded all expectations.