Brechin Infirmary and St Drostan’s House

Prospect of Brechin (detail), by John Slezer from Theatrum Scotiae, 1693. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland

On a gloriously sunny day in April I visited Brechin, primarily to see the cathedral with its extraordinary round tower, but while there walked over to Infirmary Street to see what remains of a group of buildings that for so many years took care of the health and welfare of the city: the now-closed Brechin Infirmary, largely of the 1860s, a 1970s Health Centre, the former poorhouse (built in the 1870s) and the remnants of the former infectious diseases hospital (late 1890s). Tucked in behind is a post-war hospital block, added to the site in the early 1960s, and sheltered housing built in the 2000s. This group also lies conveniently between the railway station to the south, and the cemetery to the north.

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Extract from the second edition OS map, revised in 1901, reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland

Brechin Infirmary opened as a general voluntary hospital in 1869, but the sick poor in the city had earlier been served by a dispensary, established in about 1824 following a bequest of £50 from a Mrs Speid of Ardovie. The dispensary supplied medicine and medical attendance to the poor for free, and by the mid-1840s was said to be in a prosperous state. But the new Poor Law had placed all sick paupers under superintendence of the local Parochial Board, which had appointed a surgeon to carry out that task. As a result, ‘only some six or eight patients remain upon the dispensary lists’.[1] Over the years the dispensary’s work diminished, until it closed altogether.

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Extract from the OS Town Plan of Brechin, 1852. The Poorhouse is on City Road near the corner with Damacre Road. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland

The first poor law institution in Brechin was opened in 1853 in City Road, locally usually known either as the almshouse, poor’s house, or parochial lodging house. It was in a large converted tenement which the Board purchased for £300 in 1852 from a Mr Thomson, writer, of Montrose. A later report suggested that the building had originally been built as a cotton factory, but that when this business failed it was sold to Mr Thomas who converted it into a dwelling house. [2]

In July 1864 plans for a hospital were first made public, after the late James Don, Esquire, of Bearhill, bequeathed £1,000 for the purpose of establishing a hospital or infirmary and dispensary in Brechin on condition that a further £1,000 was raised within 18 months by the local community. Subscriptions to the cause quickly mounted to more than £3,000, including £100 from Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, 2nd Baronet, and his brother, the Hon. R. J. Jejeebhoy. (Perhaps they were approached by someone local, the Jejeebhoys wealth and generous philanthropy, and associations with Britain, were well known.)  The Earl of Dalhousie (Fox Maule-Ramsay, the 11th Earl) offered the site – considered open healthy and with convenient access by three different roads –  at an annual feu-duty of £4 per acre.

Main front of Brechin Infirmary, photographed in April 2019 © H. Richardson

The hospital was designed by William Fettis or Fetties, and construction was carried out by local builders and craftsmen: Mr Alexander Crabb, mason; Messrs W. Black & Sons, carpenter work; John Lindsay & Son, slaters; J. & J. Thomson, plasterers; and C. Middleton & Sons, plumbers. Their tenders for the work amounted to just over £1,500. [3]

The foundation stone was laid with full Masonic honours in May 1867 when building work was already well underway, and the first storey all but completed. The infirmary building was described at the time as ‘of the plainest description, being wholly formed of rubble work’ apart from the front wall which was ashlar. The plainness of the building was to be alleviated by the garden in front, which was to be finely laid out as pleasure grounds studded with shrubs. A kitchen garden was destined for the rear half of the garden. [4]

West elevation of the infirmary, with later day room in the foreground, photographed in April 2019 © H. Richardson

In May 1869 the new infirmary was formally opened by the Earl of Dalhousie. The 1901 map shows the infirmary before it was enlarged in the 1920s, with its principal front facing west, and indicating that the garden had been laid out on that side. (The garden was later built over for the present health centre.) Four wards occupied the long north-south wing, two on each floor on either side of the central entrance and with up-to-date cross-ventilated W.C.s, suggesting an awareness of the relatively recent developments in pavilion-plan hospitals on the lines recommended by Florence Nightingale. Two wards were for accidents and two for fever patients.

View of the infirmary looking west to the rear of the earliest part of the building. Photographed in April 2019 © H. Richardson

A major renovation, alterations and additions were carried out in 1928-9, for which the architect was David Wishart Galloway. During the work the patients were moved out to Maulesden House. The cost was largely met by a donation of £10,650 from the trustees of the late Sir James Duncan of Kinnettles. Plans were submitted to the Dean of Guild Court in September 1928. It was at this time that the new main entrance was formed, set in the gabled bay, treated as a pediment with oculus and framed by giant pilasters. The new accommodation included four private wards. The contractors were: joiners, Messrs W. Black & Son, Ltd, Brechin; plumbers, Mr J. Davidson; plasterwork, Messrs Burness Montrose; mason, Mr Rennie Brechin; slater, Mr D. Scott, Brechin. In December 1929, following the death of the architect David Galloway in a motorcycle accident, the infirmary directors appointed Maclaren, Soutar & Salmond, who had taken over Galloway’s practice, to see through the reconstruction. [5]

On the vacant land to the east of the infirmary a new poorhouse was built in 1879-80 to designs by James Baxter, architect, Brechin, to accommodate about 80 paupers, 51 being transferred from the old building but the Parochial Board intended also to move most of those receiving outdoor relief into the poorhouse.

South elevation of St Drostan’s House, the former Brechin poorhouse. Photographed in April 2019 © H. Richardson

It is in a similarly plain style to the infirmary, although the Brechin Advertiser was curiously impressed with its appearance, describing it as a ‘magnificent building’ that was an ornament and a credit to the town. The article continued:

Poor-houses have too frequently been poor in every sense of the term – poor in architecture, poor in conveniences, poor in comfort. It will be seen, however, … that the new Poor-house of Brechin possesses not only the external appearance, but all the internal appliances of a modern mansion-house. [6]

According to the same article, the architect’s plan for the poorhouse had been commended for its simplicity of design and conveniences and comfort in its internal arrangements. These comprised a room on either side of the entrance door for the Matron, and beyond these separate stairs to the upper floor.  A corridor ran the length of the building on both floors. On the ground floor, on the north side of the central corridor, were two large sick rooms and two sitting rooms, and on the south side a spacious dining hall. Store rooms and bathrooms were placed at either end, a large kitchens was at the east end of the dining room. On the upper floor were the sleeping wards, and here the corridor had a glazed partition half way along separating the males from the females.

Rear view of St Drostan’s House, looking west, behind is the eastern end of Brechin Infirmary. Photographed in April 2019 © H. Richardson

The out buildings included a probationary ward, washing-houses, ash pits, and coal cellars. Once the new poorhouse had been completed and the inmates moved from the old building in City Road, the latter was put up for sale. It was bought by Mr J. L. Gordon, the Town Clerk, for £541, on behalf of the Town Council, with the intention of converting it into a model lodging house. [7]

Block to the rear of St Drostan’s House, one of the original out-buildings. Photographed in April 2019 © H. Richardson

A further report in the Brechin Advertiser following the opening of the new poorhouse, continued the enthusiastic spirit of the previous account, noting the ‘tasteful and imposing appearance’ of the main frontage, and approving of the introduction of mullioned windows  to relieve the ‘baldness that might otherwise have characterise the house’. The garden had been laid out under the superintendence of Mr Annandale of the nearby Den Nursery, and the contractors were listed as: Mr J. Cribb, mason; Messrs Black & Son, joiners; Mr Masson, plasterer; Messrs Kinnear & Son, plumbers; Mr W. Bruce, painter; and Mr J. Davidson, slater – all of Brechin. [8]

South front of the former poorhouse or Parochial Lodging House, with the mullioned windows on the upper floor in the gabled bays. The bay windows on the ground floor are post-war additions. When new sheltered housing was built to the rear in the early 2000s the  former poorhouse was converted to offices, but is currently empty. Photographed in April 2019 © H. Richardson

The next development of the medical services in Brechin was the establishment of an isolation hospital in the 1890s. Infectious cases, or ‘fever patients’ had up until then been cared for in the infirmary, but in times of epidemic there was insufficient accommodation there. In February 1893 an outbreak of smallpox at the Forfar and Brechin Railway huts at a time when the fever ward in the infirmary was already full prompted the Police Commission in Brechin – responsible for public health – to meet with the directors of the Infirmary to consider providing either a permanent or temporary hospital for infectious diseases. In 1895 the Brechin Police Commissioners joined forces with the District Committee and were on the search for a site. They discussed commissioning plans and estimates for a new hospital. The site must have been acquired by the end of August 1897 when an advertisement was placed in the Dundee Evening Telegraph for ‘Bricklayers (a Few Good) wanted. Apply New Hospital, Brechin’. [9]

Detail from the 25-inch OS map revised in 1922, showing the infectious diseases hospital to the north-west of the Infirmary. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland

The plans were drawn up by T. Martin Cappon, architect, Dundee. A caretaker was appointed in 1898, the building work probably completed by then. The hospital comprised three detached blocks, probably the administrative building, which would also have contained some staff accommodation, and two ward blocks.

Probably a block from the former isolation hospital, to the rear of Brechin Infirmary, photographed in April 2019 © H. Richardson

Another building on its own to the north (pictured above and below), may have been the service block containing disinfecting chambers, with boilers and disinfectors, wash-house, mortuary and stores. Thomas Martin Cappon went on to design the Forfar County Hospital in 1899. [10] 

Surviving building from the former infectious diseases hospital. Photographed in April 2019 © H. Richardson

Post-War Changes

By 1940 the infectious diseases hospital had been converted into accommodation for the aged and infirm, but by 1950 it had been closed. The Eastern Regional Hospital Board recommended retaining the buildings for accommodation for nurses and for storage, releasing a hut at the infirmary which might be used for 30 chronic sick patients. [11]

Extract from the 1:1,250 OS map revised in 1965. This shows the 1920s extension to the infirmary, and the large post-war addition pictured below. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland

At the infirmary itself the largest addition since the 1920s was made in 1958-60, when the large wing to the north was added. A bequest of nearly £14,000 from Mrs Agnes Pederson, a Brechin woman in America, was used to provide new kitchen premises, out-patients’ and physiotherapy departments, alterations to staff quarters and a day room for geriatric patients between the new accommodation blocks. [12]

A spliced photo showing the south-east front of the post-war hospital extension. Photographed in April 2019 © H. Richardson

The health centre was built in about 1971, and was the first to be built in Angus.[13]

See also RCAHMS, National Monuments Record of Scotland, drawings collection, for the infectious diseases hospital and  www.workhouses.org for St Drostan’s House.

  1. Montrose, Arbroath and Brechin Review; and Forfar and Kincardineshire advertiser, 13 Feb 1846, p.5
  2. Brechin Advertiser, 14 Sept 1852, p.2: 2 March 1880, p.2
  3. Dundee Courier, 23 Aug 1864, p.4; 12 Dec 1865, p.4; 19 Dec 1866, p.4: Dundee Advertiser, 29 Dec 1864, p.3
  4. Montrose, Arbroath and Brechin review; and Forfar and Kincardineshire advertiser, 19 April 1867, p.4: Dundee Courier, 6 May 1867, p.4
  5. Brechin Advertiser, 5 June 1928, p.5: Aberdeen Press & Journal, 20 Sept 1928, p.5: Dundee Courier, 10 Oct 1928, p.5; 11 Dec 1929, p.6Dundee Evening Telegraph, 11 Dec 1929, p.10
  6. Brechin Advertiser, 2 March 1880, p.2
  7. Brechin Advertiser,  16 March 1880, p.2
  8. Brechin Advertiser, 16 March 1880, p.3
  9. Dundee Courier, 1 Feb 1893, p.3: Aberdeen Press & Journal, 12 April 1893, p.5; 19 Aug 1896, p.6Dundee Advertiser, 10 April 1895, p.2; 23 Oct 1896, p.2Dundee Evening Telegraph, 25 Aug 1897, p.3
  10. Dundee Courier, 6 July 1897, p.3; 4 Oct 1899, p.4: Peterhead Sentinel and General Advertiser for Buchan District, 28 Aug 1898, p.4
  11. Dundee Courier, 26 Jan 1950, p.4
  12. Brechin Advertiser, 2 Dec 1958, p.5
  13. Aberdeen P&J, 16 Feb 1971, p.31

 

About Harriet Richardson

I am an architectural historian, currently a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, researching post-war hospital buildings in Scotland. From 1991 to 2018 I worked on the Survey of London. During the late 1980s and early 1990s I worked on surveys of hospital architecture in Scotland and England.
This entry was posted in General Hospitals, infectious diseases hospital, Poorhouse, Scottish Hospitals and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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