Heritage: Pre-NHS hospitals served gruel and rarely changed the sheets

King George V, Queen Mary and Princess Mary visit a hospital in 1914. Photo: PA

King George V, Queen Mary and Princess Mary visit a hospital in 1914. Photo: PA - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

As the NHS celebrates its 70th birthday, Prof Ged Martin looks at health care pre-NHS

Our dedicated NHS medical staff provide professional service, but it’s no fun being in hospital.

It was infinitely worse 200 years ago.

There were no medical facilities locally.

Around 1200, a leper hospital opened at Brook Street, near Brentwood, on the corner of Spittal Lane. Probably just a wayside chapel, it closed in 1553.

In 1588, residents of Havering Liberty secured royal permission to establish a hospital – probably, in our terms, a hospice – but nothing came of the project.

During an outbreak of plague in 1666, Romford opened a “pest house” (isolation ward) in Collier Row Lane. It was used for over a century, but no medical care was provided.

Most Read

Serious cases were sent to London. Each parish was responsible for its own poor people. Sending a pauper patient to hospital was complicated and expensive.

In 1811, Upminster officials humbly petitioned St Bartholomew’s Hospital (Barts) to admit Eleanor Hummerson because she was “afflicted with sickness and lameness”.

Hospitals didn’t ask: is this patient sick enough to need a bed? They wanted to know: who will pay?

Upminster promised to take Eleanor back when she left hospital, “and to bury her if she dies there”.

Conditions were terrible. Nurses were untrained, often illiterate and usually forced to work 16-hour shifts.

Everybody stank of tobacco, the only defence against the stench.

There were no anaesthetics. Patients were tied down for surgery.

Hardened medical students smoked and joked as they watched operations.

If you think NHS food is dull, listen to Francis Freeman, a patient in the Middlesex Hospital in 1813.

He apologised to Upminster officials for his “rud[e]ness in writen to you”, but asked for money: “wee have so litel in the hospitel to live on”.

The Middlesex supplied meat three times a week, with broth and gruel on other days. The daily allowance of bread was inadequate, and “wee have no tee no sugar no buter no chis [cheese]”.

“Wee ar all most starved for wont I thank god I am geten beter”.

I’d get “beter” too to escape from such conditions.

A shattered leg put Thomas Briggs in the London Hospital (now the Royal London) in 1806. He begged Rainham officials for “a triffel of Money to pay for my washing and to Gett me Some Little nourishment”.

Hospitals rarely changed bedsheets: you paid for your own laundry.

Thomas also thought he was “a Getting a Littell Better”, but he was still in hospital two months later.

“I have no Prospect of coming out soon I expected my leg comeing off a Fortnights ago but, Sir Wm Blizards alterd his mind and would not take it off.”

Sir William Blizard was a prominent surgeon who treated his patients as human beings, actually visiting them on ward rounds.

Unfortunately, he refused to retire. By the time he performed his last amputation, at the age of 84, he was nicknamed Sir Billy Fretful. Medical students jeered in his operating theatre.

We don’t know if Francis and Eleanor returned to Upminster, or Thomas had his leg removed.

Romford’s Victoria Cottage Hospital opened in 1888, celebrating the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.

It’s now Pettits Lane’s medical centre. Oldchurch Hospital was added to Romford’s workhouse in 1893, based on an earlier infirmary.

Rush Green Hospital was built in 1900. West Ham Council started a convalescent home at Harold Wood in 1909.

It became a major hospital, but is now the Kings Park housing development. St George’s in Hornchurch cared for elderly patients from 1939 to 2012. It was sold for housing in 2018. Now apartments, the Shepherds Hill mansion Harold Court was a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients from 1919 to 1958.

In 2006, the Queen’s Hospital brought centralised modern healthcare facilities to Havering.

We rightly demand high standards of medical care. But at least there’s been progress over 200 years.