October 1992 brought forth the sixth newsletter from the Cambridge team of the RCHME Hospitals Project. It included short pieces on mortuaries and asylum farms, and accounts of the Victoria Cottage Hospital, Wimborne, Dorset, with thoughts on holiday closures of hospitals. There is also a note on Sleaford’s isolation hospital, a portable hospital with what sounds like a camper van for the nurse. Extra curricular activities at hospitals were discovered too, with money making schemes in a Yorkshire madhouse and an unofficial B&B at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge.
Victoria Cottage Hospital, Wimborne
This unremarkable little Dorset hospital has a history written in 1955 by someone hiding behind the initials G. H. W. From this booklet we can extract several amusing bits of hospital history.
First must come the sanitation. In 1887 when the hospital was built there was one earth closet for the patients. This came to light in 1907 when water was installed along with an extra closet. The operating theatre was another horror for it doubled as the bathroom from 1887 until 1904 when a new operating room was built. Even this new theatre did not have an electric light until 1934. Provision of a separate operating theatre did not end the dual use of the bathroom, however. Until 1927 it housed the telephone. In that year the telephone was moved to the matron’s office.
Until 1924 the hospital closed completely for about a moth every year, for cleaning and repairs. During this time the staff took holidays, and the patients were dismissed. Some were sent to the small 18th-century workhouse in Wimborne, for in 1922 the Guardians sent the hospital a bill for care of patients. We have met this sort of annual closing and cleansing elsewhere, but it seems poorly documented. In 1946 the Passmore Edwards Hospital at Liskeard closed for a moth because that was the only way in which the staff could take a holiday; our source does not say whether this was a regular event. The Royal National Sanatorium at Bournemouth closed in winter, allegedly because the hospital was only intended to provide a summer break for consumptives (and thus for their carers as well). At Northampton the General Infirmary managed cleaning and repairs by simply closing one ward at a time, but as this was a large hospital part-closing was easier than in a small hospital like Wimborne.
Finally, on a frivolous note, when the townsmen were discussing whether to commemorate Victoria’s jubilee by building a hospital or by some other means, one suggestion was ‘erecting a statue of Queen Victoria with a clock on top’. Just how this was to be arranged is not explained.
The Sleaford Rural District Council bought an isolation hospital in 1901 for the sum of £127. It was ‘an ingenious contrivance’ of numbered wooden sections that could be put together in a few hours, measured 20 feet by 12 feet and could hold up to four patients. A van on wheels provided both accommodation for a nurse and the necessary cooking arrangements. There was also a portable steam disinfector that was reported to be too heavy to be portable. This magnificent hospital was stored at the Sleaford Workhouse, and was erected for the very first time for the benefit of an inquisitive Local Government Board inspector in 1905. It is not known whether it was ever used after that. [The inspector’s report is in Parliamentary Papers, 1907 XXVI, 200-201.]
The East Stow Rural District Council in Suffolk had a ‘small portable hospital’ for smallpox cases in 1913, and presumably this was also a sectional wooden building. [PP 1914 XXXVII, 746] In 1913 Bournemouth Corporation had lent the neighbouring Rural District Council a Doecker Hut for use as an extra hospital ward during an outbreak of enteric fever at Ringwood, another portable structure. [PP 1894 XL, 565 and see Doecker Portable Hospitals]
At least these buildings were of wood. Shortly before 1890 the Gainsborough Rural Council bought a hospital marquee for patients and a bell tent for the nurses. They were aired from time to time, but appear not to have been used. [PP 1894 XL, 565] Perhaps even these tents were better than the converted dog-kennels at Bishop Auckland in 1895. [PP 1896 XXXVII, 704]
In the course of research for the project a file copy turned up of a Government questionnaire headed ‘Isolation Hospital Accommodation’, and filled in for the Southampton Smallpox Hospital. The printer’s rubric shows that it dates from 1926 and that some 10,000 copies were printed. The answers, together with a crude plan from another source, make a description of this vanished hospital possible, but there is little of interest until the question ‘is there a mortuary at the hospital?’ The answer is simply ‘Cubicles in Observation Hut used for this purpose’. The observation hut was a small building with two single-bed wards and a duty room If one cubicle was occupied by a patient, the psychological effect of comings and goings in the other cubicle can hardly have been good. Perhaps the real significance of this arrangement is that the observation wards of isolation hospitals were probably rarely used, and that there never was a living patient to be disturbed by the arrival and departure of a dead one. It also helps to suggest ways in which hospitals without mortuaries might have functioned.
The smallpox hospital was at Millbrook Marsh, an inhospitable looking place even as late as the 1930s, surrounded by mud and marsh. It is interesting to see that development of the estuary was just beginning at this time, to the east is the King George V graving dock under construction. By the 1950s the hospital site had become a boat yard, re-using the existing buildings. A couple remained in the late 1960s, when the area to the north had become a sewage works, which eventually swallowed the remaining former hospital buildings.The huge Prince Charles Container Port was built over the mud flats and saltings.
Southampton, in common with other ports, provided a number of isolation hospitals. As well as the smallpox hospital there was another isolation hospital at West Quay.
It is in the usual location, close to the water so that anyone arriving by ship suspected of having contracted an infectious disease could be taken directly to the hospital by boat. The site was later an Out-bathing and Disinfection Station for Infectious Diseases and later still used for a clinic and a mortuary. That was in the post-war era, and by then land reclamation had seen the site removed from the water’s edge. As far as I can make out, the Grand Harbour Hotel seems to occupy the site now.
Slowly it is becoming clear that asylum farms were unlike those in the world outside, at least in the South of England. Large barns for storing crops are absent from those seen so far, but piggeries are ubiquitous and any fragments of yards and single storey buildings appear to have been for cattle. Sometimes there are stables and cart sheds, but it is not certain that these were specifically for farm use. Indeed the buildings suggest that attention was concentrated on stock, especially pigs and cattle, and perhaps market gardening, where there was greater scope for farming as occupational therapy. At Digbys, Exeter, there is a tall building which had large opposed loading doors, one opening on to the yard, the other on to a lane outside the hospital grounds. The building is not large enough to hold much, and certainly is not suitable for storing a grain crop. It seems to have been intended for receiving bought-in material, presumably feedstuff for the pigs and cattle.
The advantages of concentration on livestock is that it would provide the asylum with pork, bacon, milk and beef, while a market garden would provide soft fruit and vegetables. All of these are labour-intensive occupations, providing maximum work throughout the year for the relatively large number of patients.
John Beal was the proprietor of a private madhouse at Nunkeeling in the Yorkshire Wolds. The financial success of this venture seems out of proportion to the small number of patients and the remoteness of its position. The truth emerged in 1823 when the excise men found 24 casks of tobacco, 25 of tea, and 264 of assorted spirits, mainly gin, concealed about the premises. Perhaps we should pay greater attention to such institutions, in the hope that more than just buildings survive.
Those hospital administrators busy trying to generate income have all failed to exploit one obvious opportunity that was seen as long ago as 1770 by the Matron of Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge. The town has long had a shortage of short-term accommodation. The matron saw this and let beds to overnight visitors, presumably giving them breakfast as well. On discovering this the Governors dismissed her, partly because she was pocketing the income.