Through the 18th and up to the late 19th century, if you were unfortunate enough to contract an infectious disease you had three choices, go to the Pest House, go into the Work House Infirmary or die. Then in1893 an Act was passed which related solely to the provision of Isolation Hospitals. It stated that on application of 25 or more rate payers the local authority had to provide an Isolation Hospital. If you were in receipt of Poor Relief for 14 days prior to admission then your treatment would be paid from the Poor Rate, any other pauper patient would be paid for from the general rates. Anyone else was liable to pay for themselves, expenses to be paid on discharge or out of the estate should they die in hospital. This Act did not cover sufferers of VD or TB. VD patients were still sent to the Work House Infirmary and TB patients went to special Sanatoriums. Holywell Hospital, at this time, was situated on the Work House site.
So the search began for a suitable site for the Watford Isolation Hospital and negotiations began for the purchase of the land. At this point the Earl of Essex stepped in and offered four acres of a nineteen acre arable field called Spring Field free of charge which was one and a half miles from Watford. Some cynics claimed that this was a ploy on his part, as the land he owned around the proposed site would decline in value, but whatever the reason the land was accepted and the building began. It was built by J and W Waters to a design by Mr Charles Ayres, one of three who submitted designs. It was located in Tolpits Lane and took 17 months to complete at a cost of £12,058.
The floors were oak blocks set in concrete. Heat was provided by fireplaces and open stoves in the middle of the wards. Ventilation was vents in the roof and windows and air inlets in the wall below bed height. There were four blocks containing 10 wards accommodating 42 beds. There were two discharge blocks, a mortuary, a laundry, a disinfection station and a Porters Lodge (see photo gallery). The Administrative block contained bedrooms, doctor’s office, dining room and sitting room for the nurses, the dispensary and the kitchen. A telephone was installed. In the grounds there was an orchard, kitchen garden and a poultry run to supply fresh eggs, meat and vegetables for the hospital. There was even a stable for the horse used for ambulance duty.
The opening ceremony was performed with great pomp at 3pm on the 24th March 1896 by Lady Essex. Holywell Hospital (where Watford General Hospital is now) was placed under a caretaker to be used for Small Pox cases as this disease was to be kept separate from the others. Dentons Hospital (site of which is still unknown) was to be dismantled and re-erected on the Isolation Hospital site. Patients began to move in on 4th April transferred from Holywell Hospital. The main diseases treated were Small Pox, Scarlatina (Scarlet Fever), Diphtheria, Enteric Fever (Typhoid and Paratyphoid), Erysipelas (Acute Skin Infection) and any other dangerous infectious disease.
It was soon realised that there was nowhere on the ward to store coal and there was no Waiting Room for Relatives, both of these problems were resolved a couple of years later. Visiting your loved ones in the hospital was discouraged unless they were seriously ill, then no-one was allowed to enter the ward without putting on a special cloak first, including the nurses. Enquiries could be made at the gate about the condition of the patient and addressed postcards could be left at the lodge, which would be filled in and sent out from time to time stating the patients’ progress. Nurses on duty were not allowed to communicate with other nurses on other blocks and all clothing had to be changed before leaving the ward.
A year after opening, private patients from outside the district were admitted.
In 1900 there was a rise in the number of Diphtheria cases and another outbreak in the summer of 1901. The numbers continued to rise and in 1902 the source could be traced to Alexandra School. All Board Schools in the Callow Land Ward were closed. During the next year all the schools had been disinfected and all books burnt. At the end of the year part of the new sewer system was connected and this could account for the decrease in case numbers. Callow Land remained a problem because of the inadequate sewage system with many of the cases over the next years coming from this area. A lot of the cases could be traced to individual schools over the years.
In 1900 there was a mild epidemic of Scarlatina cases which could be traced to the Victoria Schools. During 1902, when the hospital was extremely busy, a lot of Scarlatina cases had to stay at home because there were no beds, which led to more cases within a family and because of this the hospital purchased tents which held 20 beds to help with the admissions, but they lacked the comfort of the ward. This led to the need for the hospital to be enlarged. In 1904 it was proposed to admit Scarlatina cases into an Isolation ward for two weeks before going onto the ward. In 1907 Parkgate School was closed for a fortnight because of a Scarlatina outbreak.
In 1901 there was an outbreak of Small Pox in London and the hospital was put on alert to receive patients if necessary. In 1905 they considered admitting children with measles and whooping cough as there was such a high mortality rate and a few years later both broke out on the children’s ward and weren’t eradicated for a year.
The outbreak of World War One bought with it more problems. Troops were being billeted in Watford and the surrounding areas and they accounted for the rise in the number of cases admitted, especially from measles and German measles. There seemed to be fewer troops in Watford in 1916 and this allowed the places in which they were billeted to be properly disinfected. Then in 1918 there was the Influenza epidemic (Spanish Flu). A poster was produced and displayed around the town giving the do’s and don’ts during the epidemic. 35 cases were admitted to the hospital, of which 11 died.
During the Second World War in 1944 it was used by Canadian soldiers with Diphtheria, a result of wound infection received at the Battle for Anzio in Italy.
In 1901 it was suggested that they build a Playroom for the children, as during the winter the boys tended to play in the coal bunkers on the ward. It was also put forward that electric lighting be installed and the dining room be enlarged. When the tents were bought it was proposed to buy or rent the land on the north side of the hospital as somewhere to erect them. There was also a problem with the heating on the wards, it being claimed that the tents were warmer than the wards. An overhaul of the telephone system was also proposed. This enlargement was completed in 1904. Now every bed had a light and plug socket and the heating had been improved. All the blocks were now connected to a main sewer. There was even a tennis court for the staff. In 1905 with Phthisis (TB) cases on the rise it was suggested that Holywell Hospital be turned into a Phthisis Sanatorium. In 1932 The General Nursing Council for England and Wales approved the Watford Isolation Hospital as a training school for fever nurses. When the NHS was created in 1948 the Isolation Hospital was shut, renamed the Holywell Hospital and joined the NHS. During the 1950’s it was used as a TB hospital. In 1968 it merged with Watford General Hospital and became the Holywell Wing and in 1972 it became the Geriatric wing where my nan sadly died also in that year. It finally closed in 1982 when all services were transferred to Watford General Hospital. It was demolished in 1985. The 70ft boiler house chimney was demolished in 1986 and the site was the subject of a land swap between the Council and the Health Authority. The hospital acquired ground to build a car park and the council said there were no plans for the Isolation site.
In 1988 it was announced that the site would be used for housing, half to be sold on a leasehold basis, the other half to be rented to council tenants. There is no trace of the former hospital on the site today.
Written by Sue Shrimpton (A work in progress)
Isolation Hospital Annual Reports 1896-1902
Annual Reports of the Sanitary Conditions of Watford 1900-1919
ISOLATION HOSPITAL MEMORIESThe following are all memories related to the group from people who worked in the Isolation Hospital or who were patients there. We thank them for allowing us to share them.
Mrs Clare Varhman kindly gave an interview two days after her 88th birthday in April 2011. She was a Probationer Nurse at the Isolation Hospital in 1942/43, mainly looking after children. Her sister had worked there previously and she got to know the Staff when visiting. She can remember sleeping under the beds with the children when the air raids were on. Many of the children had mumps and chicken pox, as she recalls many of the other more infectious diseases, such as diptheria and scarlet fever were beginning to die out, because of the introduction of new drug therapies, including Streptomycin and Penicillin. Streptomycin was also used for whooping cough, which was most prevalent at that time, especially in the very young children, which could lead to complications such as chest infections and pneumonia. They had to stay in hospital for weeks. Many of these children were evacuees, who had been staying in B & B's and were admitted because they could not stay where they were.
There were very strict regulations for visitors; 2 - 4 pm only, unless the patient was very ill and then they were allowed to visit in the evening, otherwise visiting was not encouraged. The Staff worked shifts and weekends and Mrs Varhman remembers the night sister as 'being wonderful'. She was affectionately known as "flat foot" because of her very flat feet. During the day there was the Matron and the ward sisters and there were quite a large number of Irish student nurses, who were often homesick, but the other nurses tried to make life as homely as possible and treated them well. As it was hard to get fever nurses, because of the nature of the illnesses, the Irish nurses were invaluable. Mrs Varhman was not worried about the fevers, as she had two brothers who had had diphtheria and sisters who had had scarlet fever.
When the shift was over, the Staff had to go to their room, bathe and change before going out. Uniforms were not allowed to be worn outside the hospital. There was a Fire Station in Tolpits Lane and if the nurses were out late, one of the men would walk them back to the hospital to make sure they got there safely.
The building is remembered as being very old and primitive, draughty and hard to keep clean. There were wards with isolation units and open wards, but the atmosphere was good. Christmas in a fever unit was different to a normal hospital. Each unit was decorated and stockings hung up for the children and pillow cases for the adults, but the children were not allowed to take presents home. Father Christmas was out of the question, because he couldn't go from ward to ward, but at the Staff party, the night sister dressed up as Santa, but gave herself away because of her flat feet!
Mrs Varhman thought of her time at the Isolation Hospital as a very interesting and transitional time and went on from there to do her training and eventually became a qualified fever nurse.
Mary from Watford remembers being a patient in the Isolation Hospital from May 1963 to April 1964 when she was in her late teens. She was admitted to the TB ward with TB of the lungs and kidneys. She eventually had to have a kidney removed at the Peace Memorial Hospital as the theatre at the Isolation Hospital was not equipped for this, but she returned to the Isolation Hospital to be discharged. She remembers that it was a large ward with 10 beds for women on one side and the same for men on the other, but there was hardly anyone there. She had to stay in bed on the ward and was not allowed to mix with the other patients. The only time she was allowed up was to go to the toilet or bathroom, where she would put her head out of the window to get some fresh air. The hospital library used to go round and Occupational Therapists used to give them something to do, e.g. knitting. She said it was very boring. Relatives could visit and Mary remembers Wednesdays and Sundays were afternoon only. On the rare occasion that she was allowed out into the grounds, she recalls there was not a lot there. She said there was a TB ward, Ward 5 which was for the chest cases and the Isolation Wing. She was moved to the Isolation Wing when the TB ward was decorated. There were not many nurses and they had to stay on the ward all the time and never rotated round. It seems hospital food has not changed a lot as she remembers it being awful; the only good thing was breakfast.
Maeve from Watford worked in the Isolation Hospital in the 1970's in the Isolation Wing. The infections included TB, measles and mumps. The staff wore gowns and masks and in the 70's staff were allowed to mix as long they removed their gowns and masks. The staff on the ward consisted of a sister, two staff nurses, two SEN's and three to four auxiliaries. There were 12 to 14 single unit wards and the staff had to change out of uniform before they left. The hospital consisted of a TB ward, two OAP wards and psychiatric ward. Maeve can remember that the staff were all happy and had a lot of fun. She can remember working at Christmas when they put up decorations in each of the units, but after Christmas they all had to be taken down and destroyed.
Sue from Watford was in the Isolation Hospital in 1980, along with her daughter and two sons. They all had Hepatitis A. They had to walk to the hospital, as they were told they lived near enough and that an ambulance would not be sent for them. In the Isolation Hospital, they were all separate units off one long corridor with the Nurses' station in the middle. The family were not allowed to mix, but the boys recovered quickly and were allowed out into the corridor. Sue had to have a lumbar puncture as they originally thought she had meningitis. She was not allowed out of her room at that time. Eventually she was allowed to stand in the corridor to see her children in their rooms. Her brother Kevin was also in the hospital, when he was six, with impetigo.
Chas from Watford in the booklet 'Wartime Memories of West Watford' says: I can remember the Isolation Hospital. I used to deliver papers there. After dad died, mum made me get a paper round. There was somebody in Pretoria Road who had typhoid and even the parents weren't allowed to see him. He was in a blacked-out isolation room. I remember him being taken off in an ambulance with dark rings round his eyes. He pulled through though. We were a bit scared of that hospital. You didn't like to go past it even, but they wouldn't have allowed you in anyway.
Sylvia Matthews (also in the booklet Wartime Memories of West Watford) says: The isolation hospital used to be on Tolpits Lane near where Scammells used to be. I had scarlet fever so I had to be isolated there. I was isolated before I even went into hospital. My parents weren't allowed in the bedroom. Even my mother wasn't allowed in to hospital to see me. I had to look at her through a window. When I got over it and came home I was still so poorly. I only had soft things to eat, milky things, like blancmanges. I was the only member of my family who got it. They took the wallpaper off the wall in my bedroom when I went into hospital in case I had touched it and put newspaper on the wall. All the books I had at home had to be sprayed.