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West Watford History Group

History of West Watford and environs

Watford and District Isolation Hospital


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.


 Sue Shrimpton  (A work in progress)



Watford Observer

Isolation Hospital Annual Reports 1896-1902

Annual Reports of the Sanitary Conditions of Watford 1900-1919