We've been here before

While we're waiting to hear about the new hospital and what will happen to Berwick Infirmary, here's a potted summary of the history of healthcare in Berwick from local historian Jim Herbert.

Saturday, 1st December 2018, 8:00 am

Ring any bells, anyone?

The Berwick Advertiser of December 11, 1813, notes 22 gentlemen signed a petition to the Mayor, which by January 11 led to Berwick’s first dispensary being opened in a house in a yard off Church Street.

Demand must have outstripped the services supplied (sound familiar?). As early as 1819, the committee was looking for a new site.

Seven years later (bit of a delay there, then), the dispensary moved to 18 Quay Walls (now Customs House) with rooms for patients recovering from operations.

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In 1870, local doctors proposed replacing the dispensary with a hospital. The Greenses site was secured and plans prepared by John Starforth of Edinburgh.

Berwick’s new infirmary opened in 1874: ‘Injured patients requiring operation had, up until then, to go by train to Edinburgh and then by cab to the infirmary for isolation or infection or operation.”

Clearly, travelling so far for surgery was considered unacceptable (bit of a theme there) so plans for operating facilities were drawn up by hospital architects Newcombe and Newcombe of Newcastle, with local firm Gray and Boyd of 2 Ivy Place acting as local agents (no joint county council, health authority and commissioning group decision in those days).

By 1911, there had been 98 operations with anaesthetic.

More was added: the 1911 Verandah Ward; new X-ray equipment in 1913; the Jane Richardson Ward in 1926; and better kitchen and staff facilities in 1930.

Berwick Dispensary and Infirmary operated as a charitable institution for 135 years, funded by the generosity of the League of Subscribers. This is now the League of Friends (who raised funds for the endoscope, which was recently removed and sent to Alnwick).

Despite these many improvements, a few patients still had to be transferred to Edinburgh, Newcastle and elsewhere (just a few, though).

Despite the introduction of the new Health Scheme, and further extensions in 1950, the Regional Health Board was accused of prioritising other towns like Ashington and Stannington (now, of course, it’s Alnwick and Morpeth).

Alderman GM Lamb deplored the fact that people, many elderly, were being sent 67 miles from home (Lord Beith’s saying the same today).

“The care of the sick was largely a matter of psychology, but the psychology in this case was to the detriment of any aged person.”

Elderly care and mental health still need addressing.

Further extensions were added to the infirmary in 1962 and the 1970s.

History places the A Better Hospital For Berwick campaign in context; it seems we have been here before in many ways.

Fortunately, the community spirit that created, funded and brought about all the improvements between 1813 and 1948 is alive and well.

It is obviously not only the case in the past, but also now for the future that Berwick deserves a better hospital.

For the full story, visit http://berwicktimelines.tumblr.com/post/180044674933/dispensing-history

Steven Havelin

A Better Hospital For Berwick