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Wolverhampton hospital that was built three years too soon

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: August 20, 2014

  • The imposing Royal Wolverhampton Hospital as it appeared in the early 1900s

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WITH the hiatus in work, the opening of a new supermarket at the former Royal Wolverhampton Hospital has been put back until 2016. But thanks to historian Roy Stallard TD, we can take a look at the foundation of the hospital in the 1840s.

Roy has kindly loaned to the Bugle a copy of the General's Despatch, a 1923 newspaper from when the Wolverhampton and Staffordshire General Hospital, as it was then known, relied on charitable donations. The paper tells the story of the hospital's beginnings in an article entitled Story of the General – Anxious Struggle to Keep Pace with Demands:

"Beginnings are always interesting, whether we are considering the beginning of a great work of art, of a great career, of a great business, or of a great institution. And there is in the beginning of the Wolverhampton and Staffordshire Hospital a touch of the accidental – almost the romantic – which makes it, perhaps, more interesting than most origins.

"It arose, appropriately enough, out of an accident to Mr George Briscoe, a well-known benefactor of the town, who, as he lay on his sick-bed, thought of the wretched sufferings of the poor.

"It was in the year 1845, when getting on a chair to examine one of his pictures, that he had a serious fall, breaking his collarbone and dislocating and arm.

"During convalescence he resolved to give form to a movement to found a hospital for the town.

"Before the inauguration of the hospital the needs of Wolverhampton had been served by a dispensary opened on July 10, 1821, in Queen Street, to give gratuitous surgical and medical treatment to the sick poor.

"Discussing the question with the late Mr Henry Rogers, Mr Briscoe decided to start the building fund with the sum of £500, and on April 22, 1845, the subscribers to the dispensary resolved that it was necessary to erect an infirmary.

"1846 saw the laying of the foundation stone of the present hospital buildings in Cleveland Road, and by the end of 1848 a sum of £18,490 had been collected.

"It should be remarked, by the way, that this amount would be equivalent to well over £50,000 in these days, so that it must be admitted that our grandfathers and great-grandfathers, in simpler more thrifty days, answered liberally to the claims of benevolence.

"On January 1, 1849, the South Staffordshire Hospital and Wolverhampton Dispensary was opened, with accommodation for 80 beds and in-patients, at a total cost of £18,898, which included the price of the site.

"In the light of history it was later to be found that the hospital had been built three years too soon, for in 1852 the first hospital built on the 'pavilion system' made its appearance.

"Ensuring ample sunlight and ventilation for each ward, this plan has become generally adopted as the standard. It was not until November 12, 1912, that a wing constructed according to these principles was added to the General by the opening of the King Edward VII Memorial Wing, consisting of two wards containing 36 beds.

"The need for increased accommodation and the means of meeting the demand have presented a succession of difficult problems to the governors year by year. Their formidable task may be estimated by the fact that whereas in the opening year, 1849, no more than 408 in-patients and 2,853 out-patients received treatment, the total of patients in 1922 was 24,629, or an increase of seven-and-a-half times the number. During the same period, however, the accommodation and effective equipment have not been enlarged proportionately.

"In 1901 the kitchen was reconstructed, but still remained in the basement, which can scarcely be considered the ideal position for such an important department. Between 1904 and 1906 the entire drainage scheme of the hospital was re-organised and relaid, and in the following year an electric lift was installed.

"As a result of setting aside in 1906 a legacy of £2,755 from Miss Mary Anne Perry Fisher and adding it to the result of successive appeals, the site of the hospital was extended sufficiently to enable the board to build a home for sisters and nurses. The foundation stone was laid by the late Mr A.C. Twentyman on October 1, 1907, and the house was opened by the Countess of Dartmouth in June, 1908.

"A reconstruction committee had been appointed and in 1909 submitted a long report outlining what was likely to become necessary for the hospital in the succeeding 20 years. It decided that the greater part of the hospital was antiquated and unfitted for its work, and recommended various additional buildings.

"The first of these to be constructed was the Edward VII Memorial Wing, to which reference has already been made. And until the erection of the new laundry and boiler house, which is now completed, it remained the only important contribution towards the carrying out of the reconstruction scheme.

"The board again commented very strongly, in their report for 1912, on the unsuitability of the buildings to their purpose, and an appeal was made in the hope of securing a sum of £54,000, which was then estimated as the cost of various additions. with an apathy which can be described only as astonishing, the town failed to rise to the occasion.

"In August 1914, the General at once released five honorary medical and surgical staff, two resident medical officers, the matron and 11 other members of the nursing staff for war service. Thirty beds were placed at the disposal of the military authorities.

"Later, the number of beds lent to the War Office rose to 80, and from October 27, 1914, until June 17, 1917, the board erected in the grounds, and equipped, temporary wooden wards to accommodate 52 beds for soldiers, at a cost of £2,019.

"1921 was notable as the year of the opening of the X-ray and electrical department. It is now by far the most up-to-date branch of the General, but it is, of course, a very expensive department to equip and maintain. High frequency and radiant heat treatments are now available, and an electrocardiograph for the diagnosis of diseases of the heart has also been installed.

"A preliminary training school for nurses, in charge of a tutor sister, was established last year in a wooden annexe to the nurses' home. It comprises a study, lecture room and accommodation for twenty nurses, and should prove of the greatest value in training probationers for the arduous and increasingly difficult work of their profession.

"Another installment of the reconstruction scheme has been provided with the building of the new boiler house, steam laundry and central heating apparatus, which will be completed during this year. A start was made possible by a contribution of £2,000 from the British Red Cross Society and by other contributions received before the war towards the larger scheme.

"It should be noted, however, that the General is short of a considerable sum to complete even this work, and as it progresses a heavy debt is being incurred.

"In an old report of 1864 we read that the board of governors were then thinking of your needs today. 'It must be satisfactory to contributors,' says this document, 'to feel that they are making a permanent provision for the relief of the afflicted of generations to come.'"

As a charity, funding for the hospital was always a difficult issue and at the same time as the hospital published its General's Despatch in 1923 it began a scheme to award "Good Samaritan" medals to those that raised the most funds.

In May 1923 the hospital received its charter of incorporation, establishing the hospital as a legally constituted body. It was granted royal status by George V in 1929.

The National Health Service Act (1946) saw the Royal Wolverhampton Hospital transferred to the Ministry of Health on July 5, 1948, and the old board of management was dissolved. Under the NHS the deficiencies of the old hospital buildings became more and more apparent, hardly surprising given that it was considered out of date just three years after it was built. Special services were transferred to New Cross Hospital and sections of the Royal were closed until the entire hospital was finally closed down in June 1997.

In 2008 the supermarket chain Tesco purchased the site for redevelopment but these plans have been delayed.

What are your memories of the old hospital in Cleveland Road, Wolverhampton? Have you any photographs or mementoes of the place? Contact dshaw@blackcountrybugle.co.uk or write in to 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.

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