Hospitals for people in Leigh

In the middle of the 19th century, the Government was becoming aware that the huge number of deaths from typhoid, diphtheria, measles and TB could be to some extent controlled. Under Government pressure, two cottages in Brook Street known as Knox Cottages – near West Kent College – were put together as an isolation unit. However, Government inspectors were not satisfied. The Tonbridge Council, therefore, borrowed £1,400 and the D’Avigdor Goldsmith family provided the land where in in 1880 a new hospital was opened on what was called the Vauxhall site – where the present Cottage Hospital stands today. It was large by the standards of the day with twenty four beds. No paupers or people from Southborough were to be admitted!

There was also an isolation hospital at Dislingbury, out towards Pembury near Kent College. Potential customers were dubious, so GP’s were offered 2/6d for each case of contagious disease they notified to the hospital. Initially, there was no nursing care but it came later after a sliding scale of charges was introduced, starting with £1 a week for the rich, who the records show were the worst payers. In spite of the fact that all the clothes as well as the bed linen had to be washed, there was no running water. In the worst diphtheria and scarlet fever epidemics – in 1888 and 1893 – a marquee had to be hired for the patients; and children were put in beds “top to toe”. In the last four years of the century, there were also very bad outbreaks of typhoid and scarlet fever, the latter usually involving seven weeks in the isolation hospital with many not recovering; measles was on one occasion so bad that all schools closed for many weeks; and there was at least one serious smallpox epidemic.

It seems that normally parents did take infectious children to hospital, and after 1890, they were required to do so under the Notification of Infectious Diseases Acts, with the threat of a fine if they failed to do so. The usual practice was to have children taken from Leigh or Tonbridge in the official conveyance – a horse drawn ambulance. However, it must have been a brave decision sometimes, with hospitals in those days clearly dangerous places. In 1902 there was a big advance in hospitals available to people in Leigh. Money collected for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, together with an even bigger fundraising effort on the Queen’s death in 1901, eventually provided a new hospital on the corner of Quarry Hill and Baltic Road. It was called The Queen Victoria Cottage Hospital and it started with four beds – although it was meant to have thirteen. As it expanded, it was able to do excellent work during the First World War, with help from a temporary VAD Hospital on the opposite side of Quarry Hill, where Fosse Bank Girls School was until recentlly.

For Leigh people the Queen Victoria Cottage Hospital brought several different advantages. As well as coping with in-patients, it was able to deal with out-patients and was provided with one of the first hospital X-ray machines by Sir David Salomon. By the 1920’s it was catering for around 300 people a year as in-patients; over 100 for X- rays; and about 150 as out-patients.

After the First World War, a local hospital insurance scheme was started with the larger local employers which took a penny a week from the wages and a penny from the employer.

The major hospital advances came at the end of the 1920s and in the mid-1930s. The Kent & Sussex Hospital was opened in Tunbridge Wells in 1928 and the Tonbridge Cottage Hospital at the Vauxhall site was built. When the Cottage Hospital opened in 1935, it at last contained the kind of equipment and staffing that one associates with a hospital today. Each bed had its own electric light and alarm bell; there was running water throughout the building; nurses had their own rooms with a wash basin, mirror and a Lloyd Loom chair; Matron had her own sitting room ; maternity care was starting. And to help the nation’s health, there was a National Rat Week (in which the Tonbridge rat catcher was top in the whole county with 467 killed!).

To give some idea of progress in the nation’s health over the last hundred years, it is only necessary to look at the infant mortality rate. In Leigh and Tonbridge a hundred years ago, 98 babies out of every 1,000 died before they were one year old. This was comparatively good – the national average was 154. Nowadays it is 6½.


Parish Magazine Article: Mar/April 2002: by Pat Matlock