by Alexander Price
With credit to Jennifer Burton and John Bland for their tireless work to create “Nuneaton Hospitals, The First Hundred Years”, without which I would not have been able to use the relevant facts and dates.
Medical Care on the site of George Eliot Hospital as we know it today began in the Workhouse, the land was originally owned by Sir Roger Newdigate, who provided funds for it to be built in 1800, evidence suggests that it was built by prisoners captured during the war with France, and stone cladding was acquired from Attleborough quarries to dress the outside, records also show that there was a workhouse in Chilvers Coton as early as 1772, but I haven’t found any evidence to suggest where this one was located. The main building of the one that many of us remember was on College Street close to the junction we now know as the Bedworth bypass island with its “banana” bridge, it was originally known as the “college for the poor”. Mary Ann Evans “George Eliot” would have been familiar with the workhouse in regard to helping her father, Robert Evans, administer to the poor of the parish in his capacity as church warden.It is believed that she wrote about the workhouse, “Shepperton College”, as she referred to it in her novel “Scenes from a Clerical life”. Another author Jennifer Worth who was a nurse, in her book “call the midwife” about her work in the 1950’s also made reference to the fact that many of our workhouses were converted into hospitals. Prior to its demolition in 1971 the main workhouse building was known as Coton Lodge, which was used to house older people, at the time it was a listed building, there was a lot of opposition from staff who felt it could still serve a useful purpose. In my opinion it would have made an excellant venue for the hospital museum. The Daniel Deronda Centre was built on the site of the main workhouse building to provide day care for people with psychiatric problems.
In the 1850’s Doctor Edward Nason the towns doctor and surgeon, was appointed medical officer and was responsible for administering to the inmates. An archway had been built into the front of the building for carriages to drive through and there was a stable in a building on the left hand side for the doctors horse along with the workhouse’s cart horse, later the archway was filled in and used as a doorway leading into a porch.
Trained nursing care began in workhouses after a campaign by Florence Nightingale, her concerns were highlighted by the Cholera Epidemic in the 1830’s, the first trained nurses however were not employed at the Workhouse until 1902, prior to that the inmates looked after each other with visits from the medical officer.
My great great grandmother Mary Smith nee Harris who was living in a cottage on charity land by the canal off Bridge street in 1850 had been admitted to the workhouse and gave birth to her fifth child, there were complications and Mary died with Hannah Grimes fellow inmate in attendance.
In 1860 when my great grandmother Emily Smith nee Flowers was born her mother Emma Flowers also gave birth in the workhouse, Dr Edward Nason may have been called in if there were complications, during the 1800’s free doctor’s care would only have been provided to inmates of the workhouse, also at that time the only assistance in or out of the workhouse would have been from untrained women who had experience of childbirth themselves. By 1861 Emma and baby Emily were safely back with Emma’s mother Maria in Garretts Lane Attleborough, it was quite common for unmarried mothers to be admitted to the workhouse, some were forced to stay due to their circumstances so a nursery was built to care for the children while the mothers worked.
Further to the first trained nurses an infirmary and laundry were added to the workhouse, the infirmary was later know as “Poyser block”, or the “old Maternity”, this was believed to be opened by Mr William Johnson MP on the 24th March 1906. The front of the building faced the workhouse which was situated on College street and a corrugated walkway was erected down the centre to link the two buildings, looking from the main workhouse building it consisted of a men’s ward with day room, children’s ward, and duty room on the left, Matrons room in the centre and operating theatre, infirm ward, dinning room, doctors room and women’s ward on the right, these later became Romola and Dorothea Wards, prior to the conversion of the second floor into a maternity ward it was used to accommodate the nurses when they were off duty. In 1912 two balconies were added and used along with Tuttle Hill isolation hospital, and the fever ward at Bramcote hospital, which was later known as Forest ward, to provide treatment for tuberculosis patients. The balconies provided sunlight which was believed to be beneficial at the time, later this became Poyser Ward, and was used as a maternity, it is unclear what year this was exactly and was used until the building of the current Maternity block in 1967, prior to that maternity care had been divided between the Manor Hospital, a private nursing home in Attleborough and rooms on the third floor of the old infirmary.
I was born in Poyser ward in 1957 with the aid of forceps, a metal kitchen tongs like instrument, a pair of which is currently stored in the hospital’s museum collection. I saw a pair when the museum was originally housed in the maternity block, the items are currently in storage with hopes to make the objects accessible once more.
One story my mother told me was that she could hear a child crying and informed the sister that I needed her, I was in the nursery which was in the balcony area at the time, the Sister said it wasn’t me crying and advised my mother to get some rest, as soon as the Sister had gone my mother asked the other mums to keep a look out, then she climbed on her bed and looked through the small windows at the top which looked out into the balcony area and there I was right behind her waving back, she could see my wrist band with our surname clearly visible.
There have been further changes over the years, as well as the infirmary and laundry added to the workhouse in the early 1900’s, WWII brought further changes when beds were urgently needed to cope with demand, “temporary huts” were added, which became the wards many of us know that were in use up to the opening of the current building when nursing care and services were transferred. Today the huts are no longer in use but at the time of writing were still standing, but with public access restricted with a no entry sign on the corridor that housed the theatres. Next to be added was the Maternity block, this was the start of the three phases of the building we know today.
At the start of WWII as more hospital beds were needed to cope with casualties, both civilians and local soldiers returning from the front to be near their families. Nine “temporary huts” were erected behind the existing workhouse infirmary. Normally temporary buildings were made of wood, however due to Stanleys brickyard being near by it was decided that all of the buildings would be built of brick, which as we now know has served the community long after they were built but now sadly stand empty. These buildings were originally given letters instead of names, six of the huts that we can see today either side of a quadrangle of grass, provided two hundred extra beds, which were initially furnished with folding army style camp beds and wooden boxes to serve as lockers. Facing the Infirmary building and starting from the left hand corner by the corridor that links the newer buildings with the old, we have “A” ward which became Amos Barton this at the height of the Coventry Blitz was used to nurse casualties from Coventry who had been injured as the hospitals in Coventry had received server bomb damage and weren’t able to cope with the amount of injured people, many of them were firemen. Next were “G” and “F” which we now know as Janet and Lydgate, these wards became the wards used to house our wounded soldiers from the battle of the Rhine. There was a kitchen and dinning room, which could have been “B” and “C”, but there is nothing to show either where they were or what letter they were given, although there was at least one hut adjacent to Catrina that I don’t have any recollection of but can be seen on the aerial photo. On the opposite side of the quadrangle we see a further three wards, there appears to be no evidence to show what letters these were allocated, as many of us know the one in the right hand corner opposite Amos Barton became Tulliver. I faintly remember a Rehabilitation unit where you could get acupuncture in the centre one and I am somewhat confused by Dorothea as that was on the ground floor of the Poyser block, it appears as though Dorothea may have started life in one of the huts, could this be what later became Petiffer Ward, at the time of writing I cannot answer either letter allocation of remaining huts or if Dorothea was in one of the huts originally.
The hut right in the corner, which entrance was facing the infirmary known to many as Catrina Childrens Ward before it was demolished in 1993 was originally allocated as sleeping and “off duty” facilities for the nurses, again I have not been able to find out what letter this was known by. Going along the corridor back towards Amos Barton, what we knew as the twin theatres, weren’t added till the 1960’s to cope with demand, the original WWII twin theatres were built as an extension at the rear of the infirmary. All the corridors around the quadrangle of grass that many of us have walked along, were only covered walkways until the 1960’s, all the new additions along with the infirmary became known as the “Emergency Hospital”, the workhouse was still in use at the time, the Master and Matron a Mr and Mrs Harrison were asked to continue to run the newly extended infirmary and huts along with the workhouse. The Inmates as well as their usual tasks washed the hospitals laundry and washed up, because of the blitz the workhouse babies were transferred to Shipston on Stour and the nursery turned in an antenatal clinic, the hospital also became an initial homing centre along with Bramcote for evacuee’s and prisoners while they were processed and accommodation found.
During the reorganisation of medical facilities in the 1950’s and 60’s the old workhouse dinning room was converted to provide an outpatients, I remember this well, it was situated at the front right hand side of the infirmary, the entrance was side on to the infirmary and could be reached via a sloping path at the front, The entrance which was originally the dinning room kitchen housed a reception area on the left and a café counter on the right as you go in, on the left just passed the reception desk was a small x-ray room, were I remember having a kidney x-ray when I was 12, opposite was a small consulting room were I think I saw the Ophthalmic Consultant regarding the need for an eye operation. Through the double doors was a corridor waiting area with consulting rooms at each end, as a child I was fascinated to look up and find I could see the patient records on rows of shelving through a gap in the ceiling, I think that a narrow passage to the right led to another consulting room and possibly the wards, and opposite the doors there was another passage with toilets, then out into a covered area that led to the Pathology lab where patients were sent for tests. Accident and Emergency remained at the Manor until its closure in 1993 when the A and E we know today was opened, I think the old outpatients was the first building to be demolished, followed by the infirmary which was still being used in the 1990’s as I remember my aunt Grace Moore spending time in the half way house, that was once Poyser ward, while waiting for place in a care home to become available after she broke her hip.
The building of the “New Maternity” block in 1967 was the start of the redevelopment, and “Phase 1” of the Hospital as we know it today, a new Pathology, x-ray along with Dolly Winthrop wards were added in “Phase 2”,
1993 saw the completion of “Phase 3” providing not only A and E but more theatres, a new Rehab unit and a new “Catrina” along with other wards we know today facilitating the final transfer of facilities from the Manor, which started during the reorganisation of facilities in the 1950’s and 60’s, the Manor was then closed on the 20th July 1993, and now houses a doctors surgery.
The George Eliot Hospital has served this community for many years, from its humble beginnings it has grown into an indispensible resource, despite some facilities being transferred and attempts to close it.
Many babies have begun their lives in various buildings on this site, some of them like myself members of Nuneaton Memories, baptisms have taken place there, one of my children was baptised by Reverend Sneath in 1975 in the old Catrina ward, many people have died on this site, with regard to my own family, my earliest record goes back to 1883 when my three greats grandmother Maria Flowers died in the workhouse, as I mentioned earlier my great great grandmother Mary Smith along with my great great granddad Charles Smith also died in the workhouse, my grandmother Maud Ashby died in one of the huts in 1970, and my dad died in Dolly Winthrop in 2001, it would not surprise me if there were even marriages that took place there. The George Eliot evokes many memories both good and bad, but has been a major part of all Nuneatonians lives for generations one way or another.