Issue 4 of Robert Taylor’s Hospitals Investigator was circulated in July 1992 and in his editorial he wrote that the theme for this issue would be lunacy, in particular, baths and fire precautions. It concluded with a report on the Cambridge team’s trip to Cornwall and what they found there.
‘One of the many criminal economies practised in public institutions in the 19th century was the sparing use of bath water. At the Suffolk Asylum at Melton the male attendants used a single filling of the bath for five men, but on the opposite side of the same institution the female attendants managed to make a single filling serve ten women. This amazing achievement gives a new and unexpected meaning to sexual discrimination. At some asylums things were managed differently, and they put two lunatics at a time into the same tub, thereby ensuring that all and an equal chanced to enjoy hot water. Oxford, however, held the record and regularly managed to bath three at a time, thereby beating Cambridge by a factor of three. We have yet to see the size of the Oxford baths.
Considering that the water was frequently delivered at such a high temperature that patients were in real danger of scalding themselves and the taps could only be controlled by the attendant, one wonders at the temperature of the bath water at Melton when the first woman got in, and when the tenth got out.’
While looking for an illustration of bathrooms in asylums, I searched through the Wellcome Images collection which has this photograph taken around 1930 of Long Grove Asylum, Epsom in Surrey. Shared bath water was no longer acceptable, and a modicum of privacy was afforded by the fixed screens.
Fire Precautions in Asylums
‘Methods of preventing the start and avoiding the spread of fire in hospitals have developed in stages, usually one set of ideas at a time.’
‘The first fire precautions in the 18th and 19th centuries were purely structural, along the same lines as the various contemporary local regulations and the London Building Acts. The aim was to make buildings unlikely to catch fire or to burn, in other words, fireproof construction. Most of these techniques had become standard best building practice by the beginning of the 18th century, and included such things as not having timbers let into chimneys. This particular concern can be seen in an obvious form at the workhouse at Tattingstone in Suffolk, where ceiling beams are skewed in order to miss the fireplaces. The use of masonry for walls, and slates or tiles for roof covering were standard from the beginning; timber frame and thatch are not used for purpose-built hospitals.’
‘At a later date non-burning floor structures were used, called ‘fireproof’ and depending at first on the use of iron beams and shallow brick vaults. This system had the disadvantage that it relied on exposed iron girders, which were liable to buckle in a fire. Later in the 19th century, devices such as hollow bricks forming flat arches, sometimes strengthened by steel rods cased in concrete, were used to avoid this problem and produce a lighter structure. Perhaps the most common fireproofing device is the use of stone for staircase treads, almost invariably combined with iron balusters.’
‘Despite all of these precautions, fires broke out and even spread. Limiting the damage done by a fire was an important consideration, and it is interesting to learn that in asylum building in the middle of the century it was considered desirable to restrict patients to two storeys, for greater ease of escape or rescue in case of fire, as well as to reduce the amount of building that might be damaged. [The Builder, 27 Nov 1852 p.754] This is a contrast with the earlier practice at workhouses, where three-storey main ranges to accommodate the inmates were common. The Commissioners in Lunacy seem to have been particularly concerned by the fire at the Cambridgeshire Asylum in 1872. No lives were lost, and damage was limited, but the general opinion was that the fire very nearly destroyed the whole asylum.’
‘The boilers and pumps were in the basement of the central block, and as the call for steam and hot water had increased, the size of the boilers had been increased, well beyond the capacity of both the basement and the flues. It seems that this situation was very common, and it was this that led to a new wave of precautions in asylums during the 1870s, particularly after 1875. In that year the reports of the Commissioners on their annual visits to asylums pay great attention to fire prevention, and include descriptions of a number of devices.’
‘The major new concern of this decade was with the provision of a sufficient quantity of water at high enough pressure to extinguish any fire that should break out. Water mains with hydrants were installed both inside and outside the buildings and examined during visitations, when the Commissioners hoped to see an efficient fire drill and a jet of water that toped the highest roofs of the asylum. The pressure was usually produced by a steam engine. A sufficient quantity of water to extinguish a fire was essential and the problem was underlined when the Commissioners visited Ipswich Asylum on the day when each week the water company did not supply water. Under such circumstances a large reserve supply was essential. Tanks at a high level, thereby providing a head of water without recourse to a steam engine that would take time to get going, were favoured. There was a water tower on each side of the establishment at Herrison, Dorset, in 1863.’
‘A new concern with the structural side of fire prevention is shown in 1874 by the visit to the Leicester and Rutland Asylum of Captain Shaw of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. He suggested a system of intersecting walls with iron doors to prevent the spread of fire. From the way in which the Commissioners in Lunacy reported this visit, one senses that they wished that more asylums would follow the same course and obtain professional advice. The extent to which this was done is not clear.’
There is a fascinating set of photographs of the asylum from the University of Leicester Archives and the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester & Rutland which can been seen on the website expresseumpoetics.org.uk
‘In the 1880s the major concern of the Commissioners in Lunacy was with the escape of patients from an asylum should it catch fire. Every ward had to have a second means of getting out, an alternative exit. As many rooms seem to have had only one entrance, this sometimes tested the ingenuity of those responsible. By 1885 the provision of external fire escape staircases was in full swing. The stairs had to be suitable for both infirm and deranged patients to use, and it is interesting to see how many still meet these requirements. It was necessary to have sufficient space a the top of the stair for patients to be prepared for the descent, and the stairs themselves had to be wide and easy. The time scale of this development is shown by the second Birmingham asylum at Rubery, opened in 1882 without fire escape staircases, which were provided in 1886.’
‘References to fire escapes should, however, be interpreted carefully, for not all were fixed to the building. In 1888 Cornwall Asylum bought a fire escape and built a house to put it in; the two similar contraptions at the Norfolk asylum in 1896 were of wood. At Norfolk the Commissioners were more concerned with their inadequate number than with their material. The introduction of fire escapes at asylums continued into the present century. It seems that in workhouse infirmaries the similar provision of fire escapes was about a decade later than in asylums, only getting under way in the 1890s’.
‘The fire at Colney Hatch on 27 January 1903, when 51 patients lost their lives in a fire in temporary buildings of 1895, brought a new realisation of the problems associated with fire. Rescue had been hampered by smoke, and a new urgency was now given to the containment of smoke in large asylums, particularly on staircases. In that same year, smoke doors were called for at the heads of certain staircases at Knowle in Hampshire, and at the Buckinghamshire asylum the doors with bars that opened onto the staircase had to be made solid. Smoke doors had already appeared in some institutions, as at Northampton in 1901, but are rarely mentioned.’
‘Immediately after the Colney Hatch fire, the Commissioners in Lunacy enquired after other temporary buildings, and tried hard to have them removed. They continued to accept timber framed buildings clad in corrugated iron, particularly it seems when the interiors were plastered rather than clad in boarding.’
A Letter from Cornwall
‘Five days of fieldwork were allotted by the Cambridge Office to investigate … the hospitals of Cornwall… The first that we visited, Truro workhouse, introduced us to the intractable nature of granite and the most informed attempt at Grecian style so far. The granite was so hard and difficult to work that the mason could do no more than produce a blocky outline of what was wanted but the result was still striking.’
‘Much of the county is swept by high, wet, winds, so that most of the early settlements hide in hollows or the lee of hills for shelter. The windward side of a building is often slate-hung to give extra protection. Although rendering houses is not as common as in some other exposed communities, the fashion for rendered walls in the 1920s was welcomed here. The textures are not always interesting, and when the paint is not renewed the effect is usually sombre.’
‘Despite the winds, workhouse were built on hills just as everywhere else in England, although the thick jungle around some of them shows that they are on the sheltered side. Palm trees were an unexpected impediment to photography at Truro and elsewhere. The usual Cornish workhouse consists of three parallel ranges. First comes an entrance range, often single storey; then comes the House, sometimes with short cross-wings but always a linear building with a single-storey kitchen behind. Finally comes either a row of workshops with the infirmary in the middle, or just the infirmary in large workhouses. There is almost no variation on this pattern. Bodmin had a rectangular infirmary, but several including Truro and Redruth had a small U-shaped block usually with a lean-to on the workhouse side There were always two doorways, but the internal arrangements could not be discovered.’
For images of Liskeard Union Workhouse, built 1937-9 to designs by Scott & Moffatt, including a postcard from around 1915 see workhouses.org.uk
‘Many workhouses also had a small isolation hospital placed close to the main building. Few are dated, including Falmouth of 1871, and that at Bodmin could be 1842. They have a standard arrangement of two wards flanking a central duty room or set of central rooms, and all are uniformly plain. Some may by chance respect the 40-foot cordon sanitaire that was required by at least 1892, but they probably all date from before about 1880. It is interesting to compare them with Suffolk, where the only isolation hospitals associated with workhouses respected the quarter-mile cordon required for smallpox hospitals, and none was recognised closer to the workhouse except at Semer.’
‘Apart from these workhouse examples, surviving isolation hospitals were prominently absent from the cornish landscape, and one of the two that we did manage to find was occupied by such a desperate character that we did not approach too closely. …’
‘The Cornish cottage hospitals were frankly disappointing, for they had been savagely treated by enlargements. A curiously high proportion had a main range and cross-wings type of plan, or appearance, for the plans did not always accord with the outside. Our greatest joy was to discover that the Falmouth hospital, built in 1894 and replaced by a new building on a new site in 1930, survived intact and unaltered…’
Images of Falmouth Hospital, designed by H. C. Rogers and built with funds from J. Passmore Edwards can be seen on the web site passmoreedwards.org.uk
‘Two hospitals, at Redruth and St Austell, and been established with the needs of accident-prone miners in mind, but the buildings told us nothing about these needs.’
‘Cornwall has a large number of ports, and had a corresponding number of Port Sanitary Authorities in the late 19th century. In general they provided makeshift hospitals of no size, and only a fragment of the Falmouth hospital, which also served the local urban population, was discovered. Fowey, constituted in 1886, had a corrugated iron building with a duty room and four beds by 1899; it got its water from a nearby spring, and although last used about 1920 it was still being maintained in 1943. The Truro hospital was near the centre of the town and has not survived. Perhaps because the provision in the county was so small the Truro workhouse was converted into a 110-bed isolation hospital in 1940, mainly for the benefit of evacuees. We did not notice any evidence of pest-houses to either explain or supplement this poor provision of isolation hospitals.’
See also: old photograph of Truro workhouse on Truro Uncovered website