The Old Fortress of Corfu is the jewel in the city’s crown. It stands proud and impressive, visible from every direction. As we arrive by ferry, the sight of the fortress welcomes us and its striking beauty is awe-inspiring. From its northern side, a building stands out between its two peaks: it is the British hospital. At first sight and from afar, it looks like a visitors’ centre, perhaps a museum.
Once visitors enter the Old Fortress and follow the path to the cross, the sight of this building cannot but intrigue them.
The British Hospital stands there, abandoned in the lush vegetation and out of bounds to all visitors, exposed to the elements and the merciless ravages of time.
However, nothing can diminish its historic significance since this as well as dozens of other monuments of the island have borne witness to everything that has taken place in Corfu throughout the centuries and during the rule of numerous conquerors.
This important historic building, full of memories and the scars of history evident in every corner is now closed to the public and every year it falls in worse disrepair. The rain and wind enter the building through the open doors and windows and the whole building is falling apart.
Dust collects on the floor, wall plaster showers down, military banners on the wall and murals fade away day by day, abandoned documents rot away and disintegrate, the ceiling is about to collapse and the floors are full of holes ready to cave in should anyone tread on them.
It could be either its abandonment or its unsavoury history that have given birth to all the legends surrounding the building; it is thought that The British Hospital is one of the most haunted buildings in Greece. According to numerous websites and blogs, many people have witnessed paranormal activity such as sightings of executions, dark figures at the windows or heard screaming, voices asking for help or shootings. There is also a document of a local newspaper of 1982 which reports similar testimonials.
Indeed, the British hospital causes unease to those who walk through its broken door: its abandonment and knowledge of all that happened between those walls would make anyone nervous . The whoosh of air that passes through the windows and wall cracks can be said to sound like someone wailing.
The condition of the building has not moved either the government or the authorities. Thus, a building that could be used and house perhaps a faculty of the Ionian University, a museum or even public services, remains without use, abandoned and is falling apart. If the British hospital had a voice, it would underline the irony of the fact that what bombs and human violence did not achieve, negligence has made a possibility: its demolition.
British hospital, back in time
It all started in 1814, when the British occupied Corfu, completing in this way the occupation of the Ionian Islands. The period of British rule was beneficial – if we could describe a period of occupation this way – as the British undertook a series of public works, pertinent to the island’s daily life and infrastructure. Apart from constructing the island’s road network and the creation of an aqueduct, particular attention was paid to health services.
During the British rule, there were two military hospitals that operated in the town centre. One at the northern part of the Spianada which was large and could treat up to 270 patients and a second, smaller one that was the one located in the fortress. It was erected in 1835, and in 1858 certain additions were made to the main building. With four main central rooms, the hospital could treat 100 to 120 patients.
On August 31st 1923, the Italian fleet bombarded Corfu town and occupied the island and the British Hospital for a month. There was a large number of refugees in the Fortress whose fate after the Italian occupation remains unknown. All patients and wounded were evicted from the hospital and all the staff, about 60 people, were captured. Thankfully, the Italian occupation was brief.
The hospital was actively in use, especially during World War I, when wounded British soldiers and allies were taken there. It was similarly used during 1940, when the British offered use of the Hospital to the Greek army.
Nevertheless, the story of the British Hospital took a dark turn in 1941 when Corfu surrendered to the Italians. The Italians used the hospital not only to treat the wounded but also as the headquarters of the occupation forces. Unfortunately, they did not stop there; the back yard was used as a site of execution, whereas according to the Italian records of that time, some of the rooms were used as torture chambers. Thus, a building which was built originally to save people’s lives ended up as a place of suffering and death.
A hole in the basement is said to have been used to discard the bodies of the executed and of those who did not survive torture. Others claim that prisoners were left to die from thirst and hunger. This hole was also called “kokkaliera” (bone hole) and bears witness to the horrors that took place in the erstwhile hospital.
A brief respite to the horrors that took place in the hospital came on September 14th 1943 when Germans shelled the island. The Old Town was full of bodies and ruins, the beautiful Municipal Theatre burnt down and the British hospital burst into flames along with the people who were inside.
The British hospital was restored by the Germans who used it just as the Italians did. However, after the end of World War II, it was given back to the Greek army which sealed the “bone hole” and used the building as a hospital and a Military School.
Gradually, parts of the hospital stopped being used and housed some bureaucratic services of the army. The final stage of its eventual abandonment started during the 80s. In 1985, the Ministry of Culture offered the building to the Ionian university to house the Faculty of History. However, this did not happen for unknown reasons and as a result, the hospital was fully abandoned.