Nostalgia with Margaret Watson: The communities that built hospitals

Nostalgia - The New Dewsbury and District General Infirmary opened in 1929.
Nostalgia - The New Dewsbury and District General Infirmary opened in 1929.

There has been much talk recently about the future of Dewsbury District Hospital, but this column is not the place to discuss current events and so I will leave the matter there.

What we can talk about is the history of the medical care which has taken place in Dewsbury over the years, and also the three fine hospitals which our parents and grandparents built out of their own pockets.

The first - a small cottage hospital - was established in Dewsbury in 1875 in a rented house with only eight beds and situated on the site now occupied by Pioneer House.

The second was opened in 1883 further up Halifax Road but it closed 50 years later to make way for a bigger and more modern one. The building still stands, and many will remember it as the Municipal Buildings, later to be renamed Boothroyd Buildings.

This hospital cost £21,445 to build, and when opened, was completely free of debt, every penny having been raised by public subscription, which was a remarkable achievement for a working class own.

But by the 1920s, the hospital was deemed not big enough for the needs of the ever growing Heavy Woollen District, nor modern enough for a town which was forging ahead and demanding the best for its people.

Dewsbury’s third hospital was built in Moorlands Road at a cost of £98,000, and once again it was paid for by voluntary subscriptions, and was given the name Dewsbury and District General Infirmary.

And like its two predecessors, this was also run entirely by voluntary subscriptions until 1948 when the National Health Service came into being and took it over.

This hospital, named Dewsbury General Hospital, was regarded as one of the finest in Yorkshire, and no-one could have guessed that within 50 years this too would be closed down. Such is progress.

This fine hospital building was demolished and the land sold for housing, and a fourth hospital, the present one, was built in Healds Road to serve the towns of Dewsbury, Batley, Mirfield and Spen Valley.

Looking back it is almost impossible to believe that the people of Dewsbury had been willing and able to raise such vast amounts to build and run these hospitals.

Admittedly there were some major donations from the factory owners and other wealthy benefactors, but the bulk of it came from ordinary men and women.

The entire community joined together in raising nearly £100,000 to build Dewsbury General Hospital, the last hospital which the people of Dewsbury would build out of their own pockets.

The largest money raising effort was held in 1929, just months before the hospital was officially opened, and it raised a staggering £22,000.

The event was a grand five day bazaar held inside the hospital before the first patients were admitted.

Remarkably, 2,000 volunteers were directly involved in arranging and running the event, the like of which had never been seen in Dewsbury. It is highly unlikely that so many volunteers could be recruited for any similar event today.

A souvenir handbook of over 100 pages (priced 6d) describes the daily events which took place every day in great detail.

In the forward to the handbook, Mr. J.E.Chadwick, hospital chairman, stated: “The voluntary hospital system provides the opportunity for every member of the community to take part in the work, either in the form of personal service or by becoming a regular contributor to the funds necessary for maintenance, and upon these rest the future success and prosperity of our voluntary hospitals.

It is very likely that almost everyone in Dewsbury, and further afield, visited the hospital that week, not only to help raise money but to actually see for the first time the hospital they had built.

The Yorkshire Woollen District Tramways, who were running a special bus between Northgate and the Infirmary for a 2d fare, provided public transport to the bazaar, and donated 50 per cent of the fare to the bazaar fund.

Almost every organisation, church, charity, pub, club, business, factory, and village took part in this mammoth event, and there was no class distinction as to who served on the stalls, or made afternoon tea or did the washing up afterwards,

Mill owners rolled up their sleeves alongside their workers, as did surgeons with their junior doctors, and the matron also played her part assisted by her newly appointed nurses.

The Dewsbury County Borough Police, led by its Chief Constable, Mr S Barraclough, ran tea and supper rooms, charging 1/- for plain tea or supper and 2/- for a meat tea or supper.

The entire town was wholly united throughout the week and the community spirit engendered throughout must have been heart warming to see.

A mini post office was also set up where parcels could be made up and delivered for a small charge , and the staff of Jas Smiths cleaners helped here, as did the Cubs, Scouts. Guides and Brownies.

Concerts and dances and various other forms of entertainment were held during the afternoon and evening in what was then the entertainment hall of the hospital, situated on the ground floor.’

This mammoth bazaar was an absolute triumph of organisation, and by the end of the week it had raised the magnificent sum of £22,153..

Thousands from all walks of life had given freely of their time and money that week, and many would probably have been alive 50 years later to witness its demolition. It must have broken their hearts.

Thankfully, the names of many of those who contributed to building the hospital have been preserved for posterity, engraved on solid oak plaques nine feet tall and five feet wide, which, until its demolition were displayed at the hospital.

The plaques which were too big to be displayed at the new Dewsbury and District Hospital in Healds Road, have been stored for the last 20-odd years in workshops at the hospital.

But now a permanent home for them is being sought by two voluntary organisations, (Dewsbury Women’s Health Group and Dewsbury Matters) after they were tracked down to their present location. Foremost among these volunteers, is Wendy Senior, a former nurse, who was the first to launch a campaign for them to be put on show. She was determined that those who gave so much to the building of t the hospital, are not forgotten.

It is hoped that the plaques will be on display in Dewsbury Town Hall, along with a blue plaques exhibition organised by Dewsbury Matters on Saturday March 29, starting at 11am.

I would like to extend my grateful thanks to Alan Thomas, of Dewsbury Matters, who has helped me research material for this article.