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The Development of Hospitals in Herefordshire

[For further information concerning Herefordshire hospitals, see Charles Renton, The Story of Herefordshire's Hospitals, Logaston Press, 1999]

With the rapid growth of the population during the 18th and 19th centuries (the population of Herefordshire in 1664 was 65,505 and in 1801 87,927), it was obvious that local charities and the workhouse system could not provide sufficient medical care for the poor. Many people managed to find enough work to just get by, but they would not have been able to build up any savings for a rainy day and medical care was expensive. It had become apparent that there was a great need not only for institutional care, but also for places where doctors, surgeons and nurses could gain experience and be trained, and where medical and surgical discoveries could be made and shared.

Westminster Hospital in London, constructed in 1720, was the first public hospital in England. Herefordshire did not get a hospital until 1779, after a 16 year fund-raising campaign kicked off by the Rev. Dr. Thomas Talbot, who was desperate to find a solution to the plight of the poor and sick in his rural parish, just north of Hereford. According to Charles Renton, the Hereford General Infirmary (as it was called) was only the twenty-second provincial voluntary hospital, preceding any hospital in Birmingham or Wales (Charles Renton, The Story of Herefordshire's Hospitals, Logaston Press, 1999, p. 6). 

How were hospitals funded?

Until the turn of the 20th century hospitals were funded by charitable donations. This took several forms: annual subscriptions, small donations, and church collections might be used for the daily running of the hospital. Large donations and legacies, more often than not, would be invested to achieve a regular income. Wealthy people were treated at home or in private hospitals. Cottage hospitals could charge the patients small sums and sometimes companies established contributory schemes so that employees could pay toward treatment in a hospital if required, as a form of insurance.

The Hereford General Infirmary (HER reference number 35705) and Hereford General Hospital (HER 26936)

Many hospitals in 19th century England had a terrible reputation. They were dirty places where more often than not you went to die rather than to be cured. The quality of nursing was often shockingly bad and because the transmission of infectious diseases was not understood, many patients became infected in hospitals. Florence Nightingale called them "gateways to death" and calculated that 90% of patients in London hospitals died (Ben Walsh, British Social and Economic History, 1997, p. 320).

Hereford General Infirmary managed to avoid some of the pitfalls encountered in London hospitals by introducing strict measures governing the management and admission of patients.

The rules governing the hospital were unlike any we are familiar with today. Only poor patients who could not afford to pay for medical care and were over the age of seven were admitted, and then only if they had a medical condition which fell into a specific category: the chronic sick, the dying and those with incurable diseases were excluded, as were cases of childbirth and mental illness. Patients with infectious diseases, such as smallpox, were also refused admission (Renton, p. 8).

Access to the hospital was governed by a complex rule which involved donations (Renton, pp. 7-8). If you gave money to the hospital, you would receive a certain number of tickets to sponsor both in-patients and out-patients; the number of tickets depended on your generosity. Sometimes workhouse inmates were sent to the hospital, in which case the workhouse had to pay for their treatment.

For a person to be admitted to the hospital, they had to turn up punctually at 10am on a day specified for admissions, bring a ticket from a sponsor, be clean and free from vermin, and bring two shirts and other pieces of necessary clothing (Renton, p. 8).

The General Infirmary (HER 35705), which had opened its doors to patients in 1776 at 162 Eign Street, was replaced in 1783 by the purpose-built General Hospital on the north-west bank of the river Wye (HER 26936).

Tupsley Isolation Hospital (HER 35710)

This hospital was first erected after the 1875 Public Health Act made the City Council responsible for controlling infectious diseases. At first tents were used to house patients, however in 1893 these were replaced by a prefabricated iron hospital with twelve beds. The Isolation Hospital, as the name suggests, was used for patients with contagious illnesses and was administered by the medical officer of health for the City of Hereford. Needs dictated that another wing with a further twelve beds was opened in 1898. During outbreaks of scarlet fever or diphtheria additional staff were hired, such as in 1896 when seven extra nurses and three domestics were temporarily employed (Renton, pp. 200-202).

Victoria Eye Hospital (HER 35709)

The Victoria Eye Hospital was initially established in 1882 by an eye surgeon in a leased building in Commercial Road; at this time it was known as the "Herefordshire and South Wales Eye and Ear Institution". The surgeon, Mr. Francis Woodley Lindsay, was supported by private subscribers and by John Venn, the well-known local philanthropist. In 1884 this specialist hospital became a charitable institution treating the needy poor through a system of referral tickets. A wealthy benefactor helped to purchase a site in Eign Road, where in 1888 a new hospital was built. This impressive building, which was extended during the 20th century, has now been converted into flats after the medical activities were moved to the County Hospital site in 2002 (Renton, pp. 169-182).

Cottage Hospitals

The General Infirmary was quite successful in treating accidents and emergencies, however the journey to Hereford from the outlying parts of the county was too long and uncomfortable for many patients. The railways made travel easier, but poor people were more likely to travel by cart and some people were reluctant to be treated in a place where their relatives might not be able to visit regularly. (Keep in mind that some people in the county considered Hereford to be a faraway place.) Five of Herefordshire's market towns therefore built cottage hospitals and dispensaries during the second half of the 19th century.

For more information on each of the listed cottage hospitals, please consult the HER database by typing the appropriate HER number into the HER Number box and clicking on the Start Search button.

Bromyard Cottage Hospital (SMR 35706)

Bromyard's cottage hospital opened in 1869, many years before a rail link to Hereford was completed in 1897. It was established by public subscription and was situated in Toll House, adjacent to the graveyard of St Peter's church. When first opened the hospital could accommodate five patients. In 1885 a new wing was built which included an operating theatre. The hospital closed in 1917, due to financial difficulties.

Ross Cottage Hospital (SMR 19927)

Ross Cottage Hospital and Dispensary opened in 1872 in New Street, with a female ward, a male ward, an operating theatre and a room for emergencies. Facilities were soon inadequate, and in September 1879 it moved to a new building in Gloucester Road. Extensions were added in 1887 and 1897. Its name was changed to Ross Cottage Hospital in 1940, as the dispensary had gone out of use. The hospital closed in 1997, as a new hospital had been built on the site of the old one (see SMR 19841).

Ledbury Cottage Hospital (SMR 35707)

The former Cottage Hospital, Homend, Ledbury Ledbury Cottage Hospital originally opened in 1873, in an existing three-storey house. A new purpose-built hospital was opened on 29th December 1891, although it did not accept patients until June 1892. This hospital was funded by Mr Biddulph of Ledbury Park, to mark his eldest son's 21st birthday. It was built opposite the earlier hospital. The new hospital had three wards, rooms for the matron, an operating theatre, bedrooms, a mortuary, laundry and a separate apartment for a parish nurse. In the 1920s and 1930s the hospital complex was extended, and in 2002 it was replaced by a new NHS facility elsewhere in the town.

Victoria Cottage Hospital, Kington (SMR 35562)

This cottage hospital on Victoria Road opened in 1888 to commemorate Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee of 1887. It was built to serve the "hard working poor", and was built by Benjamin Wishlade. A commemorative brick indicates that the bricks came from the Hampton Park Brickworks in Hereford. Originally there were three small wards, an operating theatre and a mortuary. By 1900 the average stay of a patient at the hospital was 32 days. It closed in 1917 due to lack of patients and funds but was reopened in 1919.

Leominster Cottage Hospital (SMR 35708)

Cottage Hospital, South Street, Leominster Leominster was the last market town in the county to get a cottage hospital, in 1899. It was built using funds raised by local Friendly Societies, and cost £1,500 to build. It was designed by E.G. Davies of Hereford and built by John Watkins. The building at the front that you see today was actually the nurses' home. The hospital once included a mortuary, operating theatre and x-ray facilities. In 1904 50 patients were treated at the hospital.

[Original author: Toria Forsyth-Moser, 2004]

Last Updated: 08/01/2013 17:25:39