Earlier this year I spent a wonderful weekend in Margate and was fortunate to be staying just around the corner from the former Sea Bathing Hospital. This was a building that I first visited in September 1991. Since then it has been transformed into a gated private housing development, with some very swanky newly built ‘beach huts’ overlooking the bay.
Back in the early 1990s the future of the hospital was uncertain. Remaining services were then scheduled to move to a new building on the Thanet District General Hospital site. Ten years later the buildings were in a sorry state. In 2001 a planning application was submitted to convert the historic core into luxury apartments.
What makes the hospital so special is its long history – it claims to be the earliest specialist orthopaedic hospital in Britain if not the world, and was a pioneer in the use of open-air treatment for patients with non-pulmonary tuberculosis. Founded in 1791 by John Coakley Lettsom, the first building went up in 1793-6 to designs by the Reverend John Pridden. Lettsom was a Quaker physician who espoused the benefits of treating disease with sunshine, fresh air and sea bathing.
The idea that sea bathing had health benefits was not new. A Dr Wittie promoted sea bathing as a cure as early as 1660 in Scarborough. By the mid-eighteenth century sea bathing for health had become widely popular. The small fishing village of Brighthelmstone grew into the resort of Brighton on the strength of the perceived healthiness of its especially salty sea as well as through the patronage of the future George IV. Just about any illness was claimed to be curable by the application of sea water – externally or internally, but glandular and respiratory complaints were thought to be particularly likely to benefit from such treatment.
John Coakley Lettsom firmly believed in the efficacy of sea air and sea bathing for the treatment of scrofula (also known as the king’s evil, this skin disease is caused by a form of tuberculosis). Lettsom’s idea to found an infirmary at Margate for the poor was given royal patronage almost from the start, so his intention in July 1791 to found the ‘Margate Infirmary for the Relief of the Poor whose Diseases require Sea-Bathing’ soon changed to the ‘Royal Sea Bathing Infirmary’.
Margate, on the north-east coast of Kent, offered sheltered conditions and a moderate climate. It was within easy reach of London by boat. The site was outside the town in Westbrook, a tiny hamlet that remained largely undeveloped until after the First World War. The new building was designed with access to fresh air in mind, with open arcades and verandas. Its clerical architect, the Reverend John Pridden, was an enthusiastic supporter of Lettsom. He was both an antiquary and an amateur architect – not an especially unusual combination of interests in Georgian Britain.
His first design was drawn up as early as June 1791 for a hospital large enough for 92 patients. In the end this proved too ambitious and was simplified to provide for 30 patients. With the plans approved, building work began some time after May 1793 and it was ready by the spring of 1796. Though much altered, Pridden’s building survives at the heart of the present complex.
Pridden’s design prefigured open-air sanatoria of the early twentieth century, with wards opening out on to colonnades, or piazzas as he called them, so that beds could be pushed out into the open air. There were wards with nine or six beds on either side of a two-storey block containing offices and staff accommodation.
The Royal Sea Bathing Infirmary was a charitable institution, funded by subscriptions and donations. Patients were admitted on the recommendation of the governors after examination by a medical board in London. Out-patients as well as in-patients were treated.
The sea-bathing element of the treatment was administered under the supervision of bath nurses, who escorted patients down to the shore in the hospital’s own bathing machine in order for them to be fully immersed in the water. In addition to this stimulation, the fresh air and decent food provided were of great benefit.
Until the 1850s the infirmary was only open during the summer. In 1853 indoor salt water baths were introduced. A horse-driven pump forced sea water up from the shore 30 ft below. This facility allowed the hospital to remain open all year round. By then the hospital had expanded, with a new single-storey wing added to the south in 1816 that increased the capacity to 90 beds. Another wing, this time of two storeys, had been added by about 1840 facing north. The extended infirmary was subsequently altered and further extended to give it a more coherent appearance with Greek Revival dressings. It was raised to two storeys throughout, and the west-facing entrance front given a tetrastyle Doric portico (the columns supposedly came for nearby Holland House). The portico was later moved to its present position on the south front.
Wards for children were added in 1857-8. A large dining hall and a school were also added, connected to the main building by a covered way, and a house for the Governor. More substantial additions were made in the 1880s.
James Knowles Junior produced the designs for a long, single-storey building adjoining the old hospital to the west – hence the re-siting of the portico.
Funds for the extension were donated by Sir Erasmus Wilson, a director of the hospital who had a house at Westgate just up the coast. He gave £30,000 to build more wards, a heated indoor swimming pool and a chapel. The statue in front of the main entrance is of Wilson, erected in his honour in 1896.
A description of the new ward block noted:
The general wards, which are provided with hot and cold sea-water baths, are utilised largely for “dressing” the tubercular joints and glands, and for sleeping accommodation during unusually inclement weather. For the most part, however, the patients remain both by day and night on the verandah surrounding the “quadrangle”. In this position the patients while in their beds are able to enjoy the sea air both by day and night, while those who are able to move about secure exercise in the grounds and, in suitable cases, sea-bathing on the beach. [PP 1907, XXVII, 406-7]
The ward block also had a flat roof, creating a promenade, protected by an attractive balustrade of pinkish terracotta. To the south of the ward block was the swimming bath, supplied with fresh sea water by the horse pump which piped water to underground tanks.
More architecturally ornate is the Gothic chapel. Its tall nave and semi-circular apse is reminiscent of Gilbert Scott’s collegiate chapels.
The interior was given a complex decorative scheme. Stained-glass windows illustrated Christ healing the sick, the virtues, and medicinal plants, while a mural depicted the story of Naaman bathing in the River Jordan.
Other murals depicted saints, angels and the Tree of Knowledge. Part of the nave was kept free of seats to enable beds or wheelchairs to be brought in directly from the quadrangle verandah.
During the First World War the hospital treated British and Belgian servicemen with TB, as well as the wounded and those suffering from shell shock. A new wing, the King George V Wing, was built in 1919-20 to the west of the main complex, but this has now been demolished.
The last major addition to the site was the nurses’ home, on the corner of Canterbury and Westbrook Roads. Originally built in 1922, it was extended in 1935 from two storeys to four.
Anon 1812. An Account of the Proceedings for establishing Sea-Water and other Baths, and an Infirmary, in the vicinity of London…
British Medical Journal (BMJ), 1898, ii, 1768
Cazin, Le Dr H 1885. De L’influence des Bains de Mer sur La Scrofule des Enfants
Colvin, H M 1978. A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840
Gentleman’s Magazine, vol.LXVII (ii), Oct. 1797, 841; LXXXVI (i), Jan. 1816, 17
Honour, H 1953. ‘An Epic of Ruin-building’. In Country Life, 10 Dec. 1953
Illustrated London News, 16 Sept. 1882, 298
Kent Record Office, Maidstone
Lettsom, J C 1801. Hints Designed to promote Benificence, Temperance & Medical Science (3 vols)
MacDougall, P 1984. ‘A Seabathing Infirmary’. In Bygone Kent, vol.5, No.9, Sept. 1984, 511-6
Metcalf, P 1980. James Knowles Victorian Editor and Architect
Nursing Times, 10 March 1977, 9-12
(PP) Parliamentary Papers 1907, XXVII. Annual Report of the Medical Officer of the Local Government Board
Royal Sea Bathing Hospital Archives
Strange, F G St Clair 1991. The History of the Royal Sea Bathing Hospital Margate 1791-1971
Whyman, J 1981. Aspects of Holidaymaking and Resort Development within the Isle of Thanet, with particular reference to Margate, circa 1736 to circa 1840 (vol.2)