Watergate II

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

15. The Chester Royal Infirmary

The Watertower

new!Gallery of old photographs of the Infirmary

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Ccester royal infirmary in 2009
ontinuing our stroll along City Walls Road
, we soon come to the distinctive buildings of the former Chester Royal Infirmary.

The hospital finally closed in 1993 after 230 years of medical care on the site, services were transferred to the Countess of Chester Hospital on Liverpool Road and the site was sold for new housing. The City Walls Medical Centre remains, however, situated just behind the old Infirmary on St. Martin's Way.

The Infirmary was founded as a charitable institution in 1755 when it was housed in the upper part of the Bluecoat School, outside the Northgate and the first patient was one William Thompson of St. Mary's Parish, who was admitted with a wounded hand on November 11th, 1755. Among Chester's archives are a complete record of the names and ailments- including asthma, consumption, jaundice, dropsy, scrofula, scurvy, worms and leprosy- of every patient treated here, amongst which were several cases of women treated for hysterics.

The Bluecoat soon became hopelessly overcrowded, and so, in 1761 a purpose-built hospital, designed to accomodate 100 patients, was erected upon open ground within the city walls, a location known as St. Martin in the Fields- also, until the coming of the Inner Ring Road, the name of the old road which ran along the farther side of the site. You can still see the date inscribed above the main door.
infirmary wardThe original medical staff comprised three physicians and three surgeons. A board of governors was responsible for the admission and discharge of patients, and they were also responsible for administration. The medical staff themselves also served as governors.

To be admitted a patient had to have a letter from a subscriber: a two guineas per year subscriber was entitled to recommend one in-patient and two out-patients.

Frequent, and often justified, may be modern complaints about health service funding, but, in the middle of the eighteenth century, no public money at all was provided for medical and other social services (and would not be for the best part of the next two centuries). It was all left to the charity and benevolence of the well-to-do and the Infirmary itself was supported entirely by subscriptions and donations, and there were occasions when it was actually threatened with closure due to lack of money. When, in September 1780, the Infirmary published its accounts, it became clear that the sums contributed were woefully inadequate to maintain the standard of service to which they aspired.

infirmary in snowIn Chester itself, 167 subscribers annually contributed £288 17s and in the countryside 43 contributed £15 4s. In North Wales, 28 people gave £73 and four subscribers from other surrounding areas gave twelve guineas (£12 12s).

Interestingly, in the same year, Thomas Grosvenor and William Bootle were re-elected without contest as Chester's Members of Parliament after regaling all comers with extravagant 'entertainment' at the principal inns. The money so lavished on political ambition would doubtlessly have proved a godsend to the cash-strapped Infirmary.

Nevertheless, it was here that Dr John Haygarth, a physician much in advance of his time, who served from 1767-1798, separated victims of infectious diseases such as small-pox, typhus and cholera from non-infectious cases. Amazingly, this met with opposition by some in the medical profession, who saw it as an 'unnecessary' precaution. However, segregation in spacious, airy wards and a regime of scrupulous cleanliness resulted in an immediate reduction in the death rate, and Dr. Haygarth's practices were soon adopted elsewhere. In his pioneering experiments he was assisted by two heroic women, Lowry Thomas and Jane Bird, the first fever nurses on record. Using their improved methods, the dedicated staff also made great progress in cutting the extremely high levels of mortality among new-born babies.

You can read the whole of Dr Haygarth's fascinating work, How to Prevent the Small-Pox, written in 1785 at the Hathi Trust's website here.

The anonymous author of A Walk Round the Walls and City of Chester, published in the first years of the nineteenth century, described the Infirmary so:

"The large field on the city side and the open country opposite, render this a fit situation for THE INFIRMARY, which is a handsome pile of building, situate on a pleasant airy spot, on the west side of the city; it was opened on the 17th day of March, 1761, and has been supported by a subscription, and benefactions, that do honour to the city and its environs. The humane attention and care, which the patients receive from the Gentlemen of the faculty, justly entitles them to public thanks. The portrait of Doctor William Stratford, Commissory of the Archdeaconry of Richmond, who was the founder, and left three hundred pounds to the charity, is placed in the council room".

Left: the large area of open ground known anciently as 'Lady Barrow's Hey' and the Infirmary as they appeared on the Chester OS map of 1898. The field may also be seen in the fuzzy photograph below.

Chester guide and author Joseph Hemingway, writing in 1836, described the Infirmary as "a most efficient establishment for the benevolent object for which it was erected... it has been the asylum and Bethesda of thousands".

The records of the years 1755-63 list the most common ailments dealt with as: ague, rheumatism, fever, venereal disease, abcesses and ulcerated skin, scurvy, swollen, sore or painful limbs, asthma, dropsy, injuries from accidents, consumption and tumours. Also mentioned are hysterical flatulency, melancholy, bloody flux, leprosy and paronchia- inflammation of the fingernails.

The encouragement of cleanliness was considered a priority. Paying members of the public were allowed to use the warm slipper bath which was installed at the Infirmary in 1773. The building's enlargement in the 1820s included the provision of two public baths, a free one for dispensary and in-patients and another for paying members of the public- rather wealthy ones, it seems, as admission charges (one shilling in 1811 and two shillings in 1852) excluded all but the wealthiest Cestrians. Both of these offered hot and cold baths, showers and vapour baths.

In 1849, a new complex of washhouses and public baths opened not far away, close to the Water Tower.

In 1790, a sedan chair was purchased in order to transport infirm patients to the Infirmary.

infirmary from the airDespite the best efforts and high standards of the Infirmary staff, and Dr. Haygarth's pioneering work, 18th century medicine was far from an exact science and 'private practitioners'- often little better than quacks- were common. The medicines themselves were of variable quality and the local press was full of advertisments for dubious remedies, including Balsam of Licorice- "endued with the most powerful pectoral, healing and deterging qualities"- Hill's Genuine Ormskirk Medicine which "infallably cures the bite of a mad dog", and Dr. Greenough's Tincture for the Preservation of Teeth.

Nontheless, Chester was also one of the first cities in the country to persuade its citizens- initially much against their will- to adopt the practise of general inoculation, as lately evolved by Edward Jenner.

A public meeting at the Pentice (forerunner of today's Town Hall, formerly situated next to St. Peter's Church) in March 1778 led to the formation of the Smallpox Society to promote inoculation of the entire population at fixed periods. Families where the disease struck were encouraged to inform the Society's inspector, Mr Owen, at once so by isolation neighbours would have a better chance of escaping infection. Small monetary rewards were given to those who co-operated, and the first, a sum of ten shillings, went to one Elizabeth Brierley, a poor woman of Sty Lane, across the river in Handbridge. This Sty Lane was at the time a "pestifirous slum warren", typical of the places were smallpox was most likely to take hold. The disease killed over sixty people on average each year in Chester. "Of these", declared the Society, "58 might be saved if all the rising generation were inoculated at the same time. As things are, smallpox is spread by sufferers walking the streets. General inoculation would cost 100 guineas per year; lager sums have been collected for the relief of one family, or even one person, at our charitable assemblies".

stones at hospitalDuring the Second World War, Chester itself was not badly bombed but was extensively used as a reception centre for wounded and convalescent servicemen. Large houses in the surrounding countryside such as Saighton Grange and Eaton Hall were transformed into military hospitals or convalescent homes. The Infirmary retained its former role as a general hospital and certainly treated some of the wounded from Dunkirk, and procedures were put into place for the treatment of patients during air raids-

• Stretcher cases were to be admitted to the City Walls entrance, the Ministry of Health to provide stretcher-bearers to supplement the porters.

• An open shed was to be erected in the drive opposite the City Walls entrance for decontamination purposes.

• Walking cases were to be admitted to the Bedward Row entrance and treated in 'outpatients'.

• Cases of hysteria were the responsibility of the police and ARP staff and were not to be admitted.

In front of the Infirmary entrance there long stood a curious column on a worn sandstone base. Dr Haygarth, the Infirmary's senior surgeon, visited Ireland around 1893 and brought this piece of the famous Giant's Causeway- an area of volcanic basalt formed by heat into six and eight-sided columns- back with him as a souvenir- seemingly a 'stick of rock' with a difference! The base upon which it was mounted was of rather greater local significance, being part of the original base of the ancient Rood Cross which stood for centuries on the Roodee where another section of the base continues to stand.

Correspondant Richard Edkins tells us that "Braun's map of Chester shows an enclosure around the Roodeye Cross. I recalled from a visit to the Infirmary in 1979 that the base had the marks of four iron railings set in lead. Were these the marks of the enclosure? The Infirmary staff knew nothing about "that pile of bricks out front" and were surprised by what I had to say. I was disappointed at being unable to locate the references in the archives that year".

infirmary early 20th cChester guide Joseph Hemingway however, writing in 1835, stated that, in 1811, the spire of Holy Trinity Church in Watergate Street, having become unsafe, was taken down and "the stones which formed the summit of the spire, called the Rose were placed by Dr. Thackeray in the Infirmary garden, as a pedestal for a basaltic column from the Giant's Causeway".

Upon visiting the site to photograph this enigmatic object, all this writer found was an indent in the ground where it had once stood. The staff at the Grosvenor Museum and the City Council conservation department were quite unable to say what has become of it, and there the matter rested until early May 1998, when emiment local historian, Len Morgan, accidentally discovered it- standing in the grounds of the Countess of Chester Hospital! "I was just walking down the hospital corridor, saw it there and could not believe it". Just who was responsible for the thoughtful transfer of the relic to its new home remains a mystery. Mr. Morgan offered to pay for a replacement sundial, and suggested the provision of an information plaque. Above, we see a photograph of the 'rediscovered' sundial in its new location.

The original donor, Dr. Makepiece Thackeray, is buried in the grounds of Chester Cathedral, and a memorial plaque in his honour may be seen there.

Notice that the narrow road on your right between the Queen's School and the hospital grounds bears the interesting- and seemingly relevant- name of Bedward Row, which actually derives from Bereward- a trainer of bears.

queen at infirmaryBelow is a fascinating view of the infirmary and the Walls near it as they appeared around the middle of the 19th century. Just beyond it you can see the County Gaol- built to a design by Thomas Harrison to replace the medieval Northgate Gaol, and which stood here from 1807-1879 (we learned a little of in our last chapter). Public executions were occasionally carried out on the balcony above the main entrance and attracted large and noisy crowds, who gathered on the walls to witness these events, often doubtless resulting in disagreements with the hospital authorities.

Left: the young Queen Elizabeth II visits the Infirmary in 1957.

The land upon which the infirmary stands was anciently known as Lady Barrow's Hey, Hey being a Saxon name for a field enclosed with hedges. Earlier still, the land was used by the Romans as a cemetery and many graves were uncovered when the hospital was being built and enlarged. Chester historian Frank Simpson recorded that, in June 1858, while constructing a railway siding in this field to accomodate exhibitors at the Royal Agricultural Show, the workmen discovered several Roman tombs, which contained such articles as terra-cotta lamps, clay vessels, coins of the period of Domitian, etc.

The City Wall upon which we now stand, to the surprise of many, did not actually exist on this side of the city until the early 12th century- when it was extended by the Normans to enclose this area within the defended circuit. This did not apparently result in any great immediate outburst of urbanisation, however, and most of the great area between the Castle and the North Wall long remained open land- known as The Crofts- and was utilised as smallholdings, gardens and orchards.

In Roman times, the ground on this side of the city west of the present day Inner Ring Road sloped sharply westwards down to the river bank and this slope was eventually cut into three terraces to produce level platforms for buildings and agriculture. The lowest of these terraces was fronted by the massive stone retaining wall which formed the Roman quayside, parts of which may still be seen on the Roodee today. The City Wall was eventually built on top of this lower terrace. The erection of this great wall produced a barrier at the foot of the hillside against which deposits washed down from the slopes above could accumulate, a process that continued from the 12th century right through to fairly recent times. The result is that the entire sloping hillside has disappeared beneath around five metres of accumulated deposits and the ground level we walk on today is now more or less level with the top of the wall. Looking over the parapet opposite the Infirmary at the drop below and the City Wall's great supporting buttresses (clearly visible in the illustration) makes the situation dramatically clear and explains why the walls are so different on this side of the city to those elsewhere in the circuit.

old infirmaryCommencing in the 1150s most of the Crofts came to be occupied by the houses of the religious communities we encountered earlier in our wanderings. Nontheless, much of the land remained unbuilt-upon, serving in its ancient role as the fields and vegetable gardens of the monks and nuns. After the Dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, their estates were gradually split up and developed- the final section, Lady Barrow's Hey, as late as 1963, when it was occupied by the modern extension to the Infirmary.

Time and again, during the middle ages and in the Tudor and Stuart periods- when the port was at its busiest- Chester was scourged by the Bubonic Plague and many of its victims were interred here, as were the many casualties of the Civil War Siege of Chester.

In October 1645, towards the end of the siege, the desperate citizens, labouring under heavy fire, threw up a great earthwork here to defend breaches in the rapidly-crumbling city wall. All available citzens, half-starved though they were, were put to the work, including many women, who helped to carry earth in baskets, even though- as a contemporary account states, "The women, like so many valiant Amazons, do out-face death and dare danger, though it lurk in every basket; seven are shot, three slaine, yet they scorn to leave their matchless undertaking, and thus they continue for ten days' space; possessing the beholders that they are immortal".

The attackers stormed into the breaches but the defences held and they were repulsed with heavy losses. The defenders lost 8 or 10 killed including their leader, Sir William Mainwaring, to whom there is a monument in the Cathedral.

Above we can see the area as it appeared on the 1898 OS map and this remarkable aerial view- a detail from John McGahey's famous View of Chester from a Balloon- shows the Infirmary and its surroundings as they appeared around the year 1855.

In July 1998, the ugly modern buildings (photographed below) that had been erected in 1963 to enlarge the 18th century Infirmary were removed, and, amidst the demolition, a team of Chester's archaeologists under the direction of Mike Emery undertook an investigation of the site. The remains of some interesting- and previously unknown- Roman and Saxon buildings, a well-preserved medieval road and a 17th century pipe kiln- the oldest yet found in Britain- were uncovered. Notice how these modern structures are set into a 'well' in the ground. This method of construction unfortunately ensured the efficient destruction of all traces of ancient remains.

Right: the Infirmary as it appeared in the mid-1960s; the 1761 building is on the far right and the extensions dating from 1913 closest to the camera. These have now entirely vanished and new housing stands on their site.

(This writer made a detailed photographic record of the project- including interior studies of the hospital buildings, their demolition, the archaeologist's work and the construction of the new houses- which is available for inspection to interested readers).

But at least the original 1761 Infirmary- a grade II listed building- has been fully restored to form an integral part of the new housing development, and its interior sub-divided into 18 'executive apartments'. We first saw the restored building floodlit at night in October 2001, just after the scaffolding had come down, and must say it looked magnificent.

You can read more about this site and see an 'artist's impression' of the new houses which have been built there- when we reach St. Martin's Gate. In addition, here is an illustrated history of the hospitals in and around Chester and here is a fascinating short British Pathé newsreel from 1939 of the Bishop of Chester, Doctor Fisher, helping to carry a barrel organ through the streets, aided by others and playing the instrument to raise money for the infirmary. This film records the visit to Chester of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1957 and, as well as scenes such as the opening of County Hall, includes a short sequence of them touring the Infirmary.

infirmary extension• Reader Wilf Burgess wrote to tell us, "I am a retired nurse teacher attempting to find personal recollections of nurses who trained and worked in Chester, particularly at the Chester Royal Infirmary from 1920 onward. My current interest is because I am developing a website about the history of our Schools of Nursing- Chester will be a center piece.  But of course the real history can only come from the personal experience of people who were there in some role- nurses or patients. I just hope that some will assist. Any contributions will be gratefully received".

If you can assist Wilf, email him.

Moving on, we see the roadway curving round sharply to the right. Before the coming of the Inner Ringroad in the 1960s, this was the commencement of Water Tower Street, which ran the full length of the North Wall as far as the Northgate. Since being cut in two by St. Martin's Way, this section has been counted as forming part of City Walls Road.
The footpath at this point temporarily parts company with the road and continues straight on up a slight incline- the course we will now be taking.

The Railway
railway and towerAs we proceeded along the side of the Roodee, you may have heard the sound of passing trains and saw the long line of arches forming the railway viaduct approaching closer and closer until, as we enter this slight incline in the wall, we see to our surprise the railway line passing right beneath us! As we look to our right, we see it cut through the facing corner of the walls before making its way between North Wales and Chester Station and beyond.

Thomas Hughes, in his Stranger's Handbook to Chester, published in 1856, wrote, "We are now upon a flat iron bridge, and whew! with a rush like that of a tiger from his den, the giant of the nineteenth century- a steam engine and train- emerge from the dark tunnel which passes under the city, and dash away beneath us, full fourty miles an hour, en route to Ireland, by way of Holyhead. The Roman walls, that resisted so successfully the Roundhead batteries, have in our own time succumbed to the engines of peace, and the railway trains, with their living freight, now career it merrily through two neighbouring apertures in these ancient fortifications".

The line had been constructed just ten years earlier, in 1846, originally to run between Chester and Ruabon, and to this day is the main line into North Wales. We will learn a little more of Chester's railways in our next chapter. Our photograph clearly shows the right-angle of the wall, the further section a slender elevated walkway- though it seemed very solid and wall-like when we passed over it- with the railway lines passing beneath...

Here is our growing gallery of old photographs of the Chester Royal Infirmary.

We have now arrived at the north west corner of the City Walls and here encounter a couple of very remarkable old towers...

Curiosities from Chester's History no. 24

  • chester guided walks1732 The River Dee Company formed by Mr Nathaniel Kinderley and others. A new channel was cut which reclaimed land on the eastern margin of the river.
  • 1736 By an Act of Parliament, the New River was cut through a large area of white sand- the old course of the Dee by now being so choked up that no vessels could approach within four miles of the city.
  • 1741 George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) stayed at the Golden Falcon in Northgate Street on his way to Ireland, and conducted rehersals of his new (and now best-known) work, Messiah.
  • 1745 Charles Edward Stuart, the 'Young Pretender' lands in Scotland and defeats English army at Prestonpans; marches south but is forced to retreat at Derby. Fears that the Stuart rebels marching under 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' might attack Chester led to many precautions being taken: the Watergate, Northgate and Sally-Ports walled up, several buildings ajoining the walls were pulled down, and householders were ordered to buy in 2 week's provisions, in case of siege. Great panic ensued, but the city was by-passed by the rebels, who marched on into Staffordshire. When Charles retreated with his army, a large number of these rebels were "brought in 16 carts prisoners to the Castle, which being thus filled, the Spring Assizes were held at Flookersbrook (close to where these words are being written), and "the whole of the court's time was devoted to their trial".
  • 1746 The 'Young Pretender' wins a victory at Falkirk but is finally defeated at Culloden; with the help of Flora MacDonald he escapes to France. The wearing of tartan is forbidden throughout Great Britain.
  • 1750 Two Irishmen, Garrat Delaney and Edward Johnson, were, upon the evidence of their accomplice, John Caffery, executed at Boughton and gibbetted (hung in chains) on the Parkgate Road for the murder and robbery of their companion, Brian Molloy, "which, it is to be hoped, will be a terror and warning to their countrymen, who have of late committed many villianies in that part of the County". Also at the Assizes, John Ketle, for feloniously driving away three sheep, the property of Sir Henry Mainwaring Bart., received the sentence of death but was reprieved before the Judge left the city, in order for transportation. Also John Looker and Richard Looker, two brothers, for stealing several silver spoons, were ordered for transportation.
  • 1752 Great Britain adopts the Gregorian calendar on Sept 14th (Sept 3-13th were omitted, leading to riots by people believing they had been robbed of ten days)
  • 1754 The Mayor of Chester, Dr Cowper, refused to take part in the Bull Bait at the High Cross, and ordered the Corporation to do likewise. He also cancelled the Venison Feasts- at which up to 40 haunches may be consumed- previously enjoyed by them. The 'New Cut' of the River Dee from Parkgate to Chester completed. Building of nos 3-11 Abbey Square commenced.
  • 1755 The Infirmary (see above) was founded this year, initially housed in the Bluecoat School. The Lisbon earthquake kills 30,000 people
  • 1760 King George II dies; succeeded by his grandson George III (1738-1820). Kew Gardens in London opened.
  • 1761 The Infirmary (see above) in City Walls Road was built. The Bridgewater Canal, between Liverpool and Leeds, was opened.
  • 1762 This year, a "new machine" with "six able horses" would depart from the Golden Talbot (now the Grosvenor Hotel in Eastgate Street) for the Woodside boat house (Birkenhead) on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 8am, returning the same day at 4pm.

A History of Hospitals In and Around the Chester Area
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