Dundee Women’s Hospital

South Front of the former hospital, photographed in 2018 © H. Richardson

On the slopes of Balgay Hill to the west of Dundee sits the former Dundee Women’s Hospital. Since it closed in the 1970s it has been converted into private flats. One was for sale when I visited the site in February this year. On a sunny day it is a pleasing building, in a quiet, understated Scottish Arts & Crafts style, with cream-painted harling and twin gables enclosing a balcony and verandah. It was designed by a local architect, James Findlay, and was opened on 24 February 1915.

Detail view of the central balcony and verandah, photographed in 2018 © H. Richardson

The hospital began as a dispensary for women, established in Dundee in about 1891. In October 1895 a committee was formed to consider establishing a small cottage hospital. In the following year the hospital was opened at 19 Seafield Road, near the Tayfield jute works. It claimed to be the first private hospital in Scotland for the treatment of women by women medical practitioners. Three women were the chief promoters of the scheme: the social reformer Mary Lily Walker, Dr Alice Moorhead and Dr Emily Thomson. The aim was not only to provide hospital treatment for women who wished to be treated by women, but also a private home for women with limited means.

By 1911 it had been decided to build a new hospital. Fund-raising events were held, at first with the idea of enlarging the existing building, but Beatrice Sharp offered £4,000 to build a new hospital. A memorial recording her gift can still be seen set into the boundary wall. Beatrice Sharp was the wife of a wealthy industrialist and together they had commissioned Sir Robert Lorimer to rebuild Wemysshall in Fife, creating Hill of Tarvit House in 1907.

Memorial plaque on boundary wall, photographed in 2018 © H. Richardson

Plans for the new hospital were approved by the Town Council in 1912 and two years later the building was completed. However, on the eve of the hospital’s opening a fire broke out causing major damage and destroying all the woodwork. It took another year or so to restore and rebuild the hospital.

The fire was not accidental. It was reputedly an arson attack by suffragettes – a rather surprising target perhaps. The artist and suffragette, Ethel Moorhead was the sister of Alice Moorhead, one of the founders of the hospital. Ethel Moorhead was connected with a number of arson attacks and other militant acts – from smashing windows in London to throwing an egg at Winston Churchill. But she was also the first suffragette in Scotland to be force fed while in prison in Edinburgh in February 1914. Although she was seriously ill after this, she recovered and continued campaigning. It was suggested that she was with her friend and collaborator Fanny Parker in a failed attempt to blow up Burns Cottage in Alloway in July 1914.

Former Dundee Women’s Hospital,  photographed in 2018 © H. Richardson

Whether or not she was behind the attack on the Dundee Women’s Hospital does not seem to be recorded. Suffragette literature was found in the neighbourhood and a message was left at the scene that read: ‘no peace till we get the vote. Blame the King and the Government’, the same message left at similar incidents all over the country. [1] The fire was spotted by a nurse at the nearby Victoria Hospital who raised the alarm. It was reported that late the previous night and early on the morning of the fire, a grey, or slate-coloured motor car was seen in the district containing several women. The night watchman on duty at the hospital also reported seeing three women having a look at the place early one morning after the fire. He thought that they might be ‘of a mind to return to complete their work’ . It was early dawn and the light uncertain. On seeing the watchman the women quickly disappeared. They appeared to be ‘young and well dressed’. [2] The timing was unfortunate for the hospital-  the attack was made in early June, not long before the outbreak of the First World War, after which the suffragettes suspended their campaign.

Extract from the 2nd-edition OS map, revised in 1921. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland

While the rebuilding work was carried out, the hospital moved into temporary accommodation at 19 Windsor Street. At the end of February 1915 the new hospital was officially opened. The two storey building set on high ground with commanding views south over the Tay provided twenty beds. On the ground floor at the east end was a sun room: ‘an ideal little nook … where the convalescents can have a sun-bath at their leisure’. [3] The covered verandah and balcony above were deep enough to allow beds to be pushed out onto them. Inside cream distempering set off brown woodwork, while palms and flowering bulbs adorned the corridors.

Extract from the 25-inch OS map surveyed in 1951-2. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland. This shows extensions to the original building to the north west. 

James Findlay, the architect of the hospital, was born in Alyth, Perthshire, the son of a successful grocer and baker. He was married to Margaret Ann Donaldson, who died in October 1916. Findlay had been articled to John Murray Robertson in Dundee and took over the practice when Robertson died in 1901. Findlay’s chief assistant was David Smith who had worked in the London County Council’s Architect’s Department in 1902-3. While in London, Smith studied at the influential Regent Street Polytechnic and later joined the office of Leonard Stokes before returning to Dundee. He was responsible for much of the design work in Findlay’s practice. Findlay himself was one of the first people in Dundee to own a motor car. He appears in the local press on several occasions for minor traffic offences – he was fined a guinea for exceeding a 10-mile-per-hour speed limit in 1912.

The contractors, like the architects, were almost all local: building work was carried out by James R Anderson, bricklayer, builder and contractor,  E Esplanade, (whose home address in a 1912 directory was given as 4 Morgan Street); the joiners were Alexander Bruce & Son, Victoria Joinery Works, 129 Clepington Road; the plumbers John Orr & Son, registered plumbers and sanitary engineers, 272 Hawkhill; workshop, 31A Ryehill Lane (home 290 Balckness road): slater and harl work, William Brand & Son, slaters and cement workers, St Vincent Street, Broughty Ferry: glazier work, Lindsay & Scott, glass merchants, glaziers, and zinc and lead window makers, 24 to 28 Bank Street, branch 86 Victoria road: painter work, Allan Boath, painter and decorator, 141 and 143 Nethrgate, home – 171 Perth Road: grates, G. H. Nicoll & Co., furnishing and general ironmongers, 18 and 20 Bank Street: heating, Henry Walker & Son, Newcastle: Verandah ironwork, Thomas Russell, smith and engineer, St Andrew’s Iron works, 50 and 52 St Andrew’s street, home – 8 Nelson Terrace: gates and railings, George Mann, blacksmith, 40 Seafield Road: walls, William Bennet, builder and contractor, 41 Reform street, yard , 11 Parker street, home – 93 Arbroath road: roads, David Horsburgh, carting contractor, 65 Trades lane home – Eden villa, 83 Clepington Rd: grounds, James Laurie & Son, landscape gardeners & valuators, Blackness Nursery.

 

This advertisement for James Laurie & Son, who laid out the grounds of the hospital, appeared in the Dundee Directory for 1911-12, reproduced from the National Library of Scotland

The hospital was transferred to the National Health Service in 1948 and latterly became an annexe of the Royal Infirmary. It closed in 1975 but was retained by Tayside Health Board until the 1980s when it was sold with outline planning permission for redevelopment. Full permission to convert the hospital into flats was granted to the new owners, Hilltown Property Company, in 1988.

Notes: 1. The Suffragette, 5 June 1914: 2. Dundee People’s Journal, 6 June 1914 p.9: 3. Dundee Courier, 25 Feb 1915, p.4.

Sources: Dundee University Archives, plans: Dundee Courier, 9 Dec 1911, p.624 Feb 1915, p.6, 4 Oct 1916, p.6: Wikipedia: Dundee online planning portal: Aberdeen Press & Journal, 23 May 1914, p.7;  Dundee Evening Telegraph, 9 Nov 1904, p.5; 21 Oct 1907, p.3; 13 Sept 1912, 15 Oct 1913, p.2; Dundee People’s Journal, 30 May 1914, p.9; 7 Oct 1916, p.11; Perthshire Advertiser, 10 March 1943, p.8

 

About Harriet Richardson

I am an architectural historian. I worked on the Survey of London from 1991-2018, and am an honorary senior research associate at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, and an honorary fellow of the University of Edinburgh. I have worked on surveys of hospital architecture in Scotland and England.
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