From 1826, a purpose built Public Dispensary operated from number 46 Queen Street, providing medical care and surgical relief to the deserving poor. By the mid-19th century, the Dispensary had entered financial difficulty and was considered inadequate to meet the needs of the growing town. A new general hospital was proposed and in 1849, the Dispensary relocated and became South Staffordshire General Hospital and Dispensary. In this post, Queen Street volunteer, Sally Burrows explores its fascinating history.
Towards the end of the 18th century, the impact of the Industrial Revolution was felt in towns and cities across the country. Rapid growth of population in urban areas had resulted in extreme overcrowding and poor sanitation. The new working class were poorly paid, had little job security and lived with the constant threat of destitution. In response to this, a growing number of public dispensaries appeared across the country to provide medical care for the poor.
On the 3rd January 1820, John Freer Proud, a surgeon practising in Wolverhampton, wrote a letter to the editor of the Wolverhampton Chronicle advocating the establishment of a Dispensary in the town “for the preservation of the health and strength of the sick poor” having witnessed the situation of those individuals destitute of all the comforts that contribute to good health. In April 1821, ‘highly respectable’ inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood met and, acknowledging the benefits of dispensaries in other towns, resolved that it would be highly desirable to open one in Wolverhampton.
Donations and subscriptions raised sufficient funds for a committee to draw up a plan, devise regulations, provide a house and appoint a resident surgeon and apothecary for the Wolverhampton Public Dispensary. The Wolverhampton Public Dispensary opened its doors to ten patients on Tuesday 10th July 1821 with Dr J Dehane, Dr Mannix, (physicians), Mr. Fowke and Mr. Proud, (surgeons) offering their medical skills free of charge.
Oral tradition suggests that the original premises was located at 47 Queen Street but this has proved difficult to verify. By December 1824, the Dispensary committee published a favourable report into the expediency of erecting a new building “to promote and extend the usefulness of the … institution and … be a public ornament to the town”. On the 8th March 1826, the Wolverhampton Chronicle announced that “the building of the new Dispensary… is now nearly complete” at the site of 46 Queen Street.
A Public Dispensary, typical of this era, consisted of a dispensing room, waiting room, consulting room, and examination room on the ground floor, with a committee room and the resident medical officer’s living accommodation on the upper floors. The Wolverhampton Dispensary likely benefitted from a similar design and could also boast of an additional ward with room for six beds.
According to the Wolverhampton Chronicle, the aims of the Dispensary were “to afford Medical and Surgical Relief, with the Benefit of Vaccination to those poor Persons who are unable to purchase Medical Advice for themselves”. In 1821, medical diagnoses depended on the ancient theory of maintaining a healthy balance of four bodily humours and many treatments were based on purging to restore equilibrium using emetics and laxatives. This could include doses of poisons such as arsenic and mercury as well as the practice of blood-letting. However, many compounds dispensed by apothecaries included herbal remedies not unfamiliar today, for example, senna, ginger and cinnamon for digestive conditions; hemlock and opium were given for pain
Surgeons were employed to perform operations and deal with accidents and skin disorders. Mr Coleman, House Surgeon-Apothecary to the Dispensary received a salary of £100/annum and he would make home visits on horseback within one mile of Queen Street; the individuals thus treated were recorded as home, or ‘out’, patients. Without blood transfusions, anaesthetic or antibiotics, surgery was hazardous. There was no knowledge of the role of bacteria in the spread of infection and ‘bad air’ was thought to be the cause so surgeons’ hands, instruments, and the rags used to clean wounds were washed infrequently. In 1824, Mr. Coleman, House Surgeon, resigned to set up a practice in Salop Street from where he went on to be the first surgeon in Wolverhampton to undertake an amputation using general anaesthetic.
To receive treatment for illness, potential patients had to obtain a recommendation in the form of a ticket which were issued to a Minister of the Church, a subscriber to the Dispensary, Overseer of the Poor or Officers of Friendly Societies. This rule may have been devised to ensure that only deserving cases benefitted from the charitable institution. Initially, it seems that many were unaware of this rule as, on the day that the Dispensary opened, at least ten people were turned away for ‘want of recommendation’.
In exceptional circumstances, poor individuals involved in accidents could sometimes receive ‘casual’ relief, without a ticket or being admitted onto the books, and thus were recorded as ‘casualties’. In October 1824, an appeal for donations of linen rags was made due to the high numbers of casualties being brought in for treatment.
In its first year, the accounts show that the Dispensary was £218 in credit having admitted 1,452 patients. Expenditure for the year was £642 4s 9d which included initial start-up costs. Of ongoing running costs, the biggest expense was for drugs at £212 19s 6d – the equivalent of £18,921 in 2018 values.
An annual ball was held to raise funds and was usually organised by the Hon. Lady Wrottesley, wife of the treasurer, and Mrs Littleton, wife of an MP, and held at the Public Library. By December 1824, there were sufficient funds to build the new Dispensary. In 1833, casualty wards for an additional sixteen patients were built behind the main building costing £711.19s and the Institution became known as the Wolverhampton Dispensary and Casualty Hospital.
Unfortunately, the cost of running the Dispensary rose steeply and by 1842, there was consternation on the committee that it was exceeding annual subscriptions. In response, the committee made various recommendations to bring down the costs. For instance, due to the frequency of ‘bed blocking’, the committee resolved to challenge any patient whose stay exceeded one month. To try and reduce costs further, Mr. Lewis, the House Surgeon, was ordered to remonstrate with one drugs supplier for overcharging and it was decided that Druggists would now have to tender for a contract to supply the Dispensary.
The committee was also increasingly suspicious of casualties using the Dispensary who may be outside its remit due to their wealth. In August 1842, a Mr. Walton, travelling on horseback from Birmingham, was hit by an empty omnibus in Queen Street, broke his thigh in two places and was carried into the Dispensary. The committee allowed him to remain but, due to his station in life, expected him to remunerate the Dispensary for expense and trouble. Inappropriate admissions continued to be an issue and it became necessary to draw up formal regulations for admittance onto the casualty wards.
By January 1843, it was becoming increasingly apparent that Wolverhampton needed a larger infirmary to meet the growing needs of the town. In 1845, George Briscoe, a merchant and sometime magistrate, proposed that steps be taken to erect an infirmary which could provide ample accommodation and assistance to the densely populated mining and manufacturing district.
Shortly after, J.T. Cartwright, a surgeon, wrote in support of Briscoe’s suggestion noting that the funds afforded by the town and neighbourhood for keeping up the present dispensary were wholly inadequate. Plans for a new hospital continued however and by 1848, £1800 had been raised.
On 7th August 1848 it was recorded in the Minutes that the Dispensary was about to be transferred to the Staffordshire General Hospital, Cleveland Road.
The following year, the new South Staffordshire General Hospital and Dispensary situated in Cleveland Road, opened its doors for the first time.
The hospital catered to medical needs for almost 150 years before sadly closing in 1997.
Shortly after the Dispensary vacated from number 46 Queen Street, the property was rented by a Mr John Lees. The property re-opened as an Orphan Asylum, providing housing and education for 13 young boys. The Asylum eventually relocated to a larger establishment and number 46 became the home to the town post office. Over the years, number 46 has housed various businesses.
Today, 46 Queen Street is occupied by various fast food establishments. Although the Public Dispensary closed its doors for the last time almost 200 years ago, the current building retains many elements of the original 1826 design.
For more information on Wolverhampton’s Public Dispensary, see ‘A History of the Royal Hospital’ by Neil Fox. There is also a fantastic blog post by Bev Parker on the Wolverhampton History and Heritage website. Illustrations taken from The Graphic (27th December 1879) courtesy of the British Library Board and accessed via the British Newspaper Archive website.
Look out for the ‘Queen Street Through Time’ series of blog posts which you can find on the Wolverhampton Arts and Culture website. For regular project updates and announcements please visit our Facebook page and for more information on the Queen Street Townscape Heritage Scheme, please see our webpage.
* All images courtesy of our friends at Wolverhampton City Archives and the British Newspaper Archive.