A History of the Isle Of Wight Hospitals by E. F. Laidlaw

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The Royal National Hospital Ventnor

The story of the R.N.H. Ventnor has already been told, and I include here a short chapter about it in order that this book may cover the whole ground indicated in its title.

The hospital was founded in 1868 and opened in 1869, - at which time the Royal Isle of Wight Infirmary at Ryde had been in action for 20 years and the House of Industry and its satellite infirmary for nearly a century; but none of the other hospitals except the military hospitals and Parkhurst Prison Hospital had as yet been built.

The founder was Arthur Hill Hassall, - a physician and naturalist of distinction, whose earlier works had included the first book on Human Histology (in which the structures known as Hassall's Corpuscles in the Thymus gland were first described), a book on the examination of urine; a long series of important papers in theLancet on the contamination of water supplies in London and the adulteration of food, for which he received public recognition and accord; a very large number of papers on fresh water and salt water micro-organisms; and a two volume work on British Fresh Water Algae; he was a member of the Royal College of Physicians and a fellow of the Linnean Society. Illness brought him to Ventnor in 1866 and the next year lie conceived the idea of founding a hospital for diseases of the chest.

Picture of The Royal National Hospital. A panoramic view
The Royal National Hospital. A panoramic view. Closed in 1964 and later demolished the hospital and its grounds are now replaced by the Ventnor Botanic Gardens.
Courtesy: R. G. McInnes

The hospital was built between 1869 and 1878, Thomas Hellyer of Ryde being the Architect; there were eight separate blocks in a line east to west, each of which originally held 12 patients; they were in two groups of four with the hospital chapel of St. Luke dividing the two groups; later between 1885 and 1897 three additional and rather larger blocks were built to the west of the original eight; the first of these contained the large dining hall, the hospital kitchens on the top floor, offices and staff quarters. Later again there was in-filling between the original blocks, with the spaces filled in providing an operating theatre, an X-ray room and dark room and a number of single rooms, and forming two long buildings with sitting rooms and offices and other rooms on the ground floor and wards on the two upper floors; the total number of beds was raised to about 140. The kitchen garden and grounds and farm occupied in all about 26 acres; pigs and poultry were kept right up to 1948 and after, and a good proportion of the hospital's needs in vegetables and soft fruit was grown in the grounds. In 1926 a nurses' home, the Lampard Green Home, was opened by the Prince of Wales, with accommodation for about 35 nurses, and after the war, but before 1948, a small house, Tanglewood, was bought and provided a few quiet rooms for night staff and a Matron's flat. Two houses were taken, one of them already built, for the Medical Superintendent, and one built for his Assistant within the grounds.

The Board of Management was composed mainly of professional and business men in London, and it met in the London office; there was a local or visiting committee which was authorised to deal with day to day matters; the first President was Lord Eversley - 1868 to 1882, followed by HRH Prince Leopold Duke of Albany - 1882 to 1884; the Earl of Rosebery - 1884 to 1929, and Lord Ebbisham - 1929 to 1948. The first Chairman was Sir Lawrence Peel, a retired Indian judge who lived in Bonchurch and who gave, over the years, much time and consideration to the grounds and gardens. Admission was by letterof recommendation which could be obtained from a Governor, commonly through the hospital Secretary; and by a medical certificate obtained from one of a group of doctors appointed at first chiefly in London, but within a few years widespread throughout the country.

Patients came from all regions of the country; records show that by 1938 there had been something over 38,000 patients; nearly half had come from London and Middlesex, and 14 other counties had sent more than 500; a few hundred came from Wales, Scotland and Ireland, and a number from the Channel Islands and the Continent and Dominions.

Almost all the patients were suffering from Tuberculosis, although Hassall had always intended that patients with other chest diseases should also be treated; in the early years the diagnosis was less exact and before the causative organism of Tuberculosis was known, a number of other chest complaints such as Bronchitis were treated; but it was not until after the Second World War when surgical treatment was introduced that other chest complaints were intentionally admitted for treatment.

The medical staff at the start included one resident who, like his opposite number in Ryde, also did some secretarial duties; by the turn of the century there were two or three residents, the number of patients having by now risen to 140. Hassall was from the start what we would now call the consultant physician and he attended regularly for the first few years and wrote the annual reports.

Among the early residents were Dr J.M. Williamson, who after three years at the hospital went into general practice in Ventnor, where lie was followed by son; and Dr Robertson, who also practised in Ventnor for many years and who became a member of the Hospital Board and visiting physician. He was also Chairman of Longford Hospital Committee when it was first founded.

Hassall retired in 1876 and was followed by Dr J.G. Sinclair Coghill who remained as consultant and senior member of the medical staff for rather over 20 years until he died suddenly in 1899. After that no one took that position as Superintendent for the time being; the senior resident wrote the annual reports and there were local visiting physicians, in particular Dr Robertson and Dr Whitehead, the Historian of the Undercliff and one of the leading doctors on the Island; and later Dr Armstrong from Niton who with Dr Whitehead served especially through the long years of the First World War.

Meanwhile, the administration of the hospital as a whole was in the hands of a general superintendent, at first Col. Lyon Campbell, then Major Khyber Paine, and finally Mr. J.M. de Vine who retired, a sick man in 1922. After that a Medical Superintendent became the overall manager of the hospital, Dr Hutchinson; Dr Hempson in 1927; and Dr A.K. Miller in 1942.

Besides these, there were consultant physicians on the Hospital Board in London who visited the hospital professionally; therewere five or six consultants and they used each to visit twice yearly so that there was a regular consultant service; many of them were on the staff at the Brompton Chest Hospital with which the R.N.H. was always glad to be loosely associated.

The National Insurance Act of 1912 led to some modification in the system of admission; patients requiring treatment for Tuberculosis now had the right to institutional treatment and every county and county borough had to provide it; arrangements for payment were reached with County Councils who thereafter paid an agreed sum for most of the patients; a small number of private patients was still admitted according to the old system, but they, if they had difficulties in paying, were provided for after a few weeks by a fund established early in the 1870s, the Hamilton Fund.

After the First World War, treatment and management evolved more rapidly than in the first 50 years of the hospital's life. Routine X-rays began in the 1920s; until the introduction of the N.H.S., all radiographic work was done by the doctors. The development of the various techniques described collectively as Collapse Therapy led to the introduction of major thoracic surgery, and visiting surgeons attended at monthly and later at fortnightly intervals for several years, until in 1940 the war brought this to a close for the time being.

Early in the Second World War, the number of beds was substantially increased by converting all but few of the rooms which up to then had all been single, to hold two patients instead of one; thereafter the hospital was able to take about 250 patients.

At the start of the war, as had been previously arranged, most of the patients were sent home, and a number of the remainder were taken to two converted holiday camps near Bembridge; this venture was not a great success, the first winter of the war was a bitterly cold one; within a few months the demand for large numbers of beds for casualties had gone into abeyance, and the hospital was soon filled again and the camps closed.

After the war, surgery was resumed in 1947, Mr. N.F. Adeney coming from Boscombe once a fortnight with his anaesthetist; Dr Miller did minor surgical operations as required. There were now three resident doctors, as well as the Superintendent and his assistant. The Management Board continued to meet in London, visiting the hospital once yearly for an annual inspection; but now members of the Local Committee were mostly elected onto the Management Board. During the short interval between the resumption of surgery and the start of the N.H.S., a beginning was made in operating upon respiratory diseases other than Tuberculosis; but at that time Tuberculosis was still by far the most important problem for anyone working in chest diseases; and it still dominated the scene; there was a painfully long waiting list; the LCC had by arrangement about 80 beds in the hospital and Middlesex County Council had 36; the other home counties usually sent a number of patients, but a few came from far and wide, including two from Spain and one from the Falkland Isles.

Physiotherapy had necessarily accompanied surgical treatment and occupational therapy which had been started during the war by voluntary workers became a regular activity. The farm and vegetable and fruit garden continue in use. The names given to the wards in the last few decades of the hospital's life commemorated the founder, Hassan, two of the Presidents, Eversley and Ebbisham, and other donors, Leaf, Hargrove, Nunn, Burgoyne and Hamilton.

The Leaf family, one or other of them, was associated with the hospital from its foundation to the day when it was taken over into the Isle of Wight Hospital Management Committee in 1958; Mrs. Hamilton gave much of the money for the building and the furnishing of the chapel and endowed the funds available to support private patients; the Hargroves were solicitors to the hospital for most of its life; Mr. F. Crompton-Nunn who followed his father as a member of the Board gave money for the building of the chapel tower and for the in-filling which joined the blocks and which provided the operating theatre and X-ray department; and the Burgoyne family were members of the Board from the start up to 1948, Treasurer and Chairman for many years, and gave the patients' library building, one of the few parts of the hospital still now in use (as a tourist shop).

(Since the hospital's life did not extend very far into the years of the N.H.S., it seems best to deal with its remaining time in this single chapter.)

When July 1948 came, the Management Board was of course replaced by the Hospital Management Committee subordinate to its regional board, at that time the South West Metropolitan Region. Little changed in the staff; the hospital constituted a group all on its own and remained for a decade separate from the other Island hospitals which were united as the I.o.W. Hospital Group; the hospital Secretary became the group secretary and the Medical Superintendent the Physician Superintendent who continued in his work, but also became Consultant Chest Physician to the Island, visiting Longford Hospital to confer with the Island Chest Physician regularly, and available to see patients in consultation with general practitioners and with other consultants when required.

The big developments which took place at the R.N.H. in the next 10 years were a result of the discovery and use of effective drugs in the treatment of Tuberculosis; they happened to take place in the first few years of the NHS, but were really entirely independent of this. The use of Streptomycin and Paramino Salicylic acid and later of Isoniazid, by means of which tuberculous infection could be controlled and eliminated led at first to a great increase in surgical treatment; cardio-thoracic surgery was in any case developing rapidly in the early 1950s and a new thoracic surgical centre was planned at Southampton; while this was being built and the Director of Thoracic Surgery there, Mr. E.F. Chin was supervising it, he or his senior registrar worked for a time at Ventnor; and the years from 1952 to 1955 were the busiest and most active years of the whole of the hospital's life.

As the regional centre at Southampton developed, Mr. H.M. Bradmore, a member of the Regional Team who led a branch of the Thoracic Surgical Service centred at Portsmouth, took over the work at Ventnor. After a few years during which the proper management of the anti-tuberculous drugs was learned it became apparent that surgical treatment would only very seldom be needed for Tuberculosis. Meanwhile, however, other respiratory disorders were being treated at the R.N.H. to an increasing extent, although work was mainly confined to Island patients, the hospital tending towards a local function rather than a national one; a few cases from Portsmouth were brought over for surgical treatment at the R.N.H.; and a number of beds were regularly occupied by non-tuberculous patients.

By 1958 the hospital had about 100 empty beds; the demand for beds for patients with Tuberculosis having fallen very rapidly. In 1955 Longford Hospital was no longer required as a Tuberculosis sanatorium and was taken out of action and the few remaining patients there were transferred to Ventnor; and soon after that Dr Miller and his assistant at the R.N.H. took over the clinic work now carried on at St. Mary's which hitherto had been done by the Chest Physician, who was also resident and superintendent at Longford, Dr Easton; he left to take up an appointment in Glasgow and for a short time a small accessory out-patient clinic was managed as well at Ventnor.

In 1958 the Physician Superintendent was directed to leave the hospital and to work as Consultant Physician in the Island group with beds at St. Mary's and the County Hospital; his assistant was asked to carry on and manage the hospital which it was intended to close in about a year. Things did not turn out quite like that, for although the demand due to Tuberculosis was very much less than it had been, other conditions - chronic Bronchitis, Cancer of the lung, these two both so closely related to cigarette smoking, and asthma were becoming of greater significance and on a small scale more beds were needed for these. In the end the hospital carried on for about six years and was finally closed in 1964.

In 1948 the Hospital Management Committee had been made up to a great extent of those members who had previously been on the Local Committee, many of them also on the Management Committee in London, and Col. Edward Leaf the Chairman of that Committee was invited to and agreed to join the new H.M.C.. Mr. Whinier was the first Chairman and lie was followed by Mr.Netherton and then by General Roome who was also Chairman then of the Isle of Wight H.M.C.. Finally in 1958 the two Management Committees were merged and after 90 years the R.N.H. ceased to have its own independent existence; and not many years after that passed into disuse, if not oblivion. It closed finally in 1964; for five years no use was found for it and both buildingsand grounds became to an increasing extent a wilderness. Then the local council, happily rejecting suggestions of a housing estate or holiday camp, determined, helped perhaps by suggestions from others, to develop an open garden there. The grounds underwent a metamorphosis and with the help of Sir Harold Hillier became Ventnor Botanic Garden.