This post takes another look at prefabs and temporary buildings, following on from those featuring Doecker and Ducker. Perhaps the most prolific supplier and manufacturer in England was Humphreys of Knightsbridge. It was Humphreys’ firm which, in 1907, provided the wood and iron hut for the British Antarctic Expedition led by Ernest Shackleton, that was assembled by the team in 1908 at Cape Royds, on the coast of the Antarctic continent. The hut was still standing in 2009 when Henry Worsley and two descendants of that party retraced Shackleton’s steps, and stayed in the hut.
Shackleton’s hut, image from a southern migration posted January 2010
James Charlton Humphreys (1848-1932) ‘small in stature… big in business’. Humphreys’ activities in Knightsbridge were covered in the Survey of London’s Knightsbridge volume. James’ father, also James, had been a corn dealer in the 1850s moving into iron and steel by the 60s. James Charlton Humphreys, was the youngest of the five sons listed in the 1851 census at their home in Smith Street, Chelsea. He started out as a dealer in iron before becoming an iron merchant and contractor. In the 1881 census he was employing 20 men and living at Albert Gate, Knightsbridge with his wife and two young daughters.
This is the most familiar form of corrugated-iron building to be seen today, a ‘tin tabernacle’. Corrugated-iron building at Snelsdon © Copyright Andrew Abbott and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
The iron-buildings business at one time had occupied a former floorcloth factory in Hill Street (Trevor Place), but by the early twentieth century was largely carried on in Pimlico, the company’s offices and showrooms remaining at Albert Gate Mansions. Humphreys himself became a well-known local figure, not only as an industrialist and property-owner but also as a member of the Westminster Vestry and a Volunteer officer. In the 1911 Census when James Humphreys was living in a large house in Haslemere, Surrey, he described himself as chairman of the firm, Humphreys Ltd ‘contractors for buildings of every description’.
In the 1922 edition of Henry Franklin Parsons’ book on isolation hospitals there is a chapter titled ‘Movable hospitals and hospitals of more or less perishable construction’ which illustrates some of Humphreys’ temporary hospital buildings and discusses their construction, merits and deficiencies. The one deficiency that they were unaware of at the time, sadly, was the health risk associated with asbestos. Fireproofing was a primary concern for this type of building which was essentially a large wooden shed heating by an iron coal or wood-burning stove. Lozenge-shaped asbestos-cement tiles in red, white or grey were often used in place of corrugated iron for the walls or roofs, internal lining of the huts was either the highly flammable match-boarding or asbestos-cement fireproof sheeting. As Parsons noted, match-board lining became very dry over time, and flames ran along the spaces between the timbers so that ‘buildings of this sort have in many instances been rapidly consumed, in some case with loss of life’. The danger point was where the flue of the stove passed through the roof or wall. As the buildings were so badly insulated, the stove was stoked up and the pipe overheated. Generally they were hot in summer, cold in winter and noisy in hail storms or heavy rain. (When I was a child, my family lived for a time in a house with a corrugate-iron roof, and I well remember waking up in terror the first time it rained as the noise was extraordinary – l thought it sounded like gunfire.)
The lightness of these buildings held further dangers: ‘Frame buildings covered with wood or iron have also been on several occasions blown over or wrecked during a storm, causing much hardship to the patients’. This seems something of an understatement. In Scotland a Deocker hospital hut put up in 1895 by the Lorn District Committee at Ellenabeich, Kilbrandon, was mostly blown into the sea and lost during a gale within a year of its erection.
I don’t know where exactly the but was erected, but this is an extract from the first edition OS map showing Ellenabeich, Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland
Humphreys’ patent iron hospitals were covered in Robert Taylor’s Hospitals Investigator issue no.8. He had come across an advertisement for their buildings in The Hospital, one of the most useful journals published in that period for information on hospital design. The advertisement, on p.429, volume 57 for 6 February 1915, gave a list of places where Humphreys’ iron hospitals had been erected.
‘From the presence of names such as Thingoe it is clear that this is not simply a list of places where hospitasl were built, but includes an uncertain number of names of local authorities that are different from the locations of the buildings, an important difference when it comes to identifying the buildings. ‘Oxford’ clearly means the surviving hospital at Garsington, the Gosport and Portsmouth hospitals survived in the early 1990s, and the Wareham hospital was said to survive in use as a house. Netley was of course the Welsh Hospital. Many others are known to be demolished, including Eton, Hardingstone, Ipswich, Loewstoft, Plymouth, Slough, Stowmarket, and Thingoe. Of those that can be identified at present, a large proportion seem to be smallpox hospitals. The Bury St Edmunds example could be either the municipal smallpox hospital or a private tuberculosis sanatorium already known to be by Hmphrey; both are now gone.
The advertisement also gives the current prices for hospitals, but omits to say how much ground work has to be done by the client. The prices quoted range from £403 for a 12-bed hospital to more than twice that, £820, for 40 beds.
Abingdon, Accrington, Amble, Ampthill, Annfield Plain, Ashby de la Zouch, Asylums Board, Barking, Barrow in Furness, Barton Regis, Beaconsfield, Bedford, Bedminster, Biddulph, Bideford, Bierley Hall, Birmingham, Bishops Castle, Blackpool, Blyth, Bolton, Bootle, Bournemouth, Boxmoor, Bracknell, Bradford, Bridgenorth, Brighton, Bristol, Buckingham, Bury, Bury St Edmunds, Canterbury, Castleford, Chatham, Charlton, Chester, Chester le Street, Chesterfield, Cleckheaton, Coalville, Crediton, Croydon, Dagenham, Darenth, Dartford, Devonport, Doncaster, Dorking, Dover, Durham, Easling, Eastbourne, East Ham, Eastry, Enfield, Eston, Eton, Finchley, Fulham, Gillingham, Gravesend, Grays, Great Yarmouth, Greenhithe, Gloucester, Godalming, Gosport, Guildford, Halifax, Hambledon, Hampstead Norris, Hanley Castle, Hants reformatory, Hardingstone, Harrogate, Hayes, Hebburn on Tyne, Hereford, Hertford, Hexham, Hitchin, Homerton, Houghton le Spring, Hungerford, Hythe, Ilkley, Ipswich, Jarrow, Keighley, Kendal, Keynsham, Kidderminster, Kingsholme, Kings Norton, Lambeth, Leeds, Leicester, Leigh (Essex), Leigh (Manchester), Leighton Buzzard, Lewes, Leyton, Liverpool, Liversedge and Mirfield, Lowestoft, Ludlow, Luton, Macclesfield, Maidenhead, Maidstone, Malvern Link, Manchester, Mansfield, Manson, Market Harborough, Melton Mowbray, Netley, New Quay, Northfleet, Northleach, Newcastle on Tyne, Oldham, Orsett, Otley, Oxford, Plymouth, Portland, Portsmouth, Ramsgate, Rawtenstall, Redcar, Redhill, Rochester, Rochford, Rushden, St Albans, Salford, Scarborough, Seacroft, Sedgefield, Shanklin, Sheffield, Shirehampton, Slough, Southampton, South Shields, South Stoneham, Stamford, Stannington, Stapleton, Stockwell, Stone, Stowmarket, Stratford upon Avon, Tadcaster, Taunton, Thingoe, Tonbridge, Tottenham, Tunbridge Wells, Tynemouth, Uppingham Upton on Severn, Uxbridge, Wakefield, Ware, Wareham, Warwick, Watford, Wellingborough, Welwyn, West Ham, Weston super Mare, Whatstandwell, Whitehaven, Whitwood, Wigan, Willesden, Willington Quay, Wimbledon, Windsor, Wolverhampton, Wombourne, Worcester
Bury St Edmunds: this is probably the Humphrey sanatorium built in 1910 for a private company as the Bury and West Suffolk Sanatorium.
Chesterfield: the Borough Council had a temporary 10-bed hospital in 1895, considered unsatisfactory by the LGB inspector (PP 1896 XXXVII, 723)
Durham: the Borough Council built an iron hospital in 1894 which the LGB considered unsatisfactory even before completed (PP 1896 XXXVII, 746).
Gosport: one building was extant in the early 1990s, collapsing but still in use, recognizable as Humphrey’s.
Hereford: the Borough Council erected a 16-bed hospital of corrugated iron lined with wood in 1893, considered unsatisfactory by the LGB inspector (PP 1896 XXXVII, 779)
Keighley: perhaps the ‘temporary’ smallpox hospital here in 1894 (PP 1896 XXXVII, 797)
Leigh (Manchester): Leigh Joint Hospital Board was constituted in 1894; a smallpox hospital at Astley consisted of two corrugated iron buildings, presumably Humphrey’s. One had 16 beds and a nurses’ bedroom, the other 12 beds and a nurses’ bedroom and a kitchen (PP 1909 XXVIII, 81).
Macclesfield: in 1887 a ‘Ducker temporary hospital’ was erected here for smallpox, this may have been replaced or supplemented by a Humphreys model about 1890 (PP 1890 XXXIV, 129).
Netley. The Welsh Military Hospital, built in 1914 to the designs of E. T. and E. S. Hall at a cost of between £6,500 and £7,000 as a gift from the people of Wales to the fighting forces. It was first erected on the parade ground at Netley Hospital, with the intention of moving it to France later.
Orsett: the Joint Hospital Board erected a Humphrey’s corrugated iron building at Thurrock in 1901 (PP ?1901, XXVI, 140)
Oxford: the borough smallpox hospital was in Garsington parish, with a building recognizable as Humphrey’s containing two wards, an administration building with a few characteristics, and a small mortuary, all surviving in the early 1990s.
Portsmouth: A recognizable Humphrey block with two wards survives as an addition of 1909 to the municipal infectious diseases hospital now (1992) St Mary’s Hospital; it is used as Medical Records.
Thingoe: Thingoe Rural District Council, Bury St Edmunds, built a ‘temporary’ wood and iron hospital for smallpox in 1902 for £606 (PP 1909 XXVIII, 57).
Windsor: the smallpox hospital here was a temporary corrugated iron building erected alongside the sewage farm in 1893 to cope with a smallpox epidemic (PP 1900 XXXIV 99).
See also the isolation hospital, Arne, Purbeck, Dorset. From Michael Russell Wood’s Dorset’s Legacy in Corrugated Iron, 2012. “Halfway between Wareham and Corfe Castle, just off Soldiers Road, Arne, stand the Isolation Hospital and Nurses’ Bungalow. They were put up in the early 1900s. This hospital is the finest remaining example of the type and, together with the bungalow, is listed grade II. These are the only listed iron buildings in Dorset.”