03. The Hospital

In 1900, the Witham Urban District Council owned  ‘Hospital field’ in Dengie Lane, somewhere near Dengie farm, south of Witham (the photo shows the farmhouse). However, it was just that, a field. It was remote from the town so thatDengie farmhouse, south of Witham. Near here was Dengie Lane, where the Dengie farmhouse, on the southern edge of Witham. Near here was Dengie Lane, where the “Hospital Field” was in 1900.

it could safely accommodate patients with serious infectious diseases. And they stayed in tents. For instance, in May 1912 there was an increasingly serious epidemic of diphtheria, and the Council asked Messrs Godfrey of Chelmsford to “despatch 10 tents at once”. At other times, scarlet fever and typhoid patients were cared for, by two nurses. Scarlet fever was said to require six weeks isolation. This was many years before the discovery and use of antibiotics, which eventually controlled such dangerous infections.

Some patients were just told to stay at home and not come out. Or, where there was only one person, they might be sent to a neighbouring hospital, which was more expensive. For instance, a typhoid patient from Newland Street was sent to Braintree Isolation Hospital. Braintree’s horse ambulance was borrowed for the purpose. A driver and a horse had to be hired, the latter usually being rather elderly. And an attendant from the hospital, usually Sam Ager, looked after the patient (thank you to Mike Bardell for this information). No pictures survive of this Braintree ambulance, and in fact there seem to be very few such pictures in the country as a whole.A Durham ambulance, A horse ambulance fro Durham, reproduced by consent of the Friends of Beamish. Rather antiquated in appearance, as I imagine Witham's must have been.A horse ambulance from County Durham, reproduced by consent of the Friends of Beamish. Rather rough-looking, as I imagine Witham’s would have been. Elsewhere they could be quite grand.

Meanwhile the County Council was pressing Witham to build its own Isolation hospital, or to combine with its neighbours. At first, Witham said it couldn’t afford either, due to recent expensive waterworks. But in 1912 it was agreed to find someone to build a “wood and iron hospital, 4 wards of 4 beds each, with an administration block”. It would be paid for from the patients’ fees. At least six sites were looked at, especially in Maldon Road, but they were all rejected for various reasons.

So in 1913 a permanent arrangement was made that Maldon would take Witham’s infectious cases, at Witham’s expense, and the old Hospital field was let to a farmer. This is the origin of the situation in which we find ourselves today, whereby Witham still does not have hospital facilities like those of neighbouring towns.

A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in October 2010

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