Thurrock History Society: Changes in local hospitals

AT their May meeting Malcolm Harvey, who had worked in hospitals for several years, showed us the changes that have taken place in them, depicted in his many photographs. He looked at how the buildings had altered and what clues there were as to their histories.

He covered a wide area, also mentioning our local hospitals: Orsett was opened in 1969 by the Duchess of Kent, the previous site being the old workhouse. There was also the Seamen’s Hospital at Tilbury and one at South Ockendon. He showed us old and new buildings in London, including University College Hospital, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and the Royal Free before being moved to Hampstead. There is a wonderful view of the area from the BT Tower, where hospital chimneys abounded.

Hospitals originated with the religious orders, the Poor Laws in the 18th century providing workhouses and infirmaries. Some hospitals were built with subscriptions for philanthropic and social reasons, with some displaying plaques or a list of benefactors. Modern ones include those provided by Bill Gates and Ronald McDonald.

There has been significant change in hospitals over the years. Theatres in the 1920s had poor lighting, chipped paint and were cluttered – they are now light and clean. Sanitoriums are no longer used for fresh air therapies. There are no matrons and gone are the days when nurses wore uniforms with belt and ornate buckle, together with a cape; nowadays they wear scrubs. Today, doctors do not wear ties or white coats with long sleeves. Hospital corners for beds have also long gone, together with polished concrete floors and the smell of disinfectant everywhere. Patients used to be given spirits before an operation and at King’s College they even had their own brewery. This heralded the start of the Temperance Hospitals.

The National Health Service began in 1948 but the Lindo Wing at St Mary’s where royalty give birth, is for private patients only. There were several private hospitals in London, including The German Hospital at Dalston and the Italian Hospital – this closed in WW2 and is now part of Great Ormond Street. There were specialist hospitals such as the Jewish, Catholic or Seamen’s Hospitals. Old hospitals have been demolished or turned into Town Halls, schools, accommodation or hotels.

Ward names were basic at first, such as Men’s Square Ward 1 and 2, with Nightingale wards coming later. In the 1990s many were named after historical figures, e.g. John Bridgeman (diabetes) and Frank Ahrens (cardiac). They are now named after Royalty, public figures etc. This year a new national proton beam therapy was introduced at University College Hospital for the treatment of cancer. This was where George Orwell died, soon after his marriage there.

History is being made all the time, including a new building named after Captain Sir Tom Moore, a Covid-19 hero, at Runcorn. Malcolm was an enthusiastic speaker, advising us of various sources of information on hospitals – listed buildings, blogs, short histories, websites, archives, books and museums, and of course the many plaques that tell a story.

This was our last meeting until our season begins again in September at St John’s church hall, Victoria Avenue, Grays.

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