Friday, 20 May 2016

The Earlston Hospital that Never Treated a Patient.

Many hospitals in the Borders closed their doors after many years of service to the public. One thinks of  Peel, of  Dingleton, of Sister Margaret Cottage Hospital in Jedburgh, of Gordon Fever Hospital and many more.  

But one Border hospital,  four miles from Earlston,  
 closed without ever having had a patient through its doors. 
                       Not surprisingly, few people know much about it today.

A hundred years ago, “infectious diseases” were a special problem, and the Borders had several Fever Hospitals where patients with illnesses like diphtheria or typhoid could be admitted. There were fever hospitals  at Gordon, at Newstead, at Kelso, at Selkirk, at Millerhill (near Ayton), and at Meigle, Galashiels.

The most feared infectious disease was smallpox, which needed specialist isolation nursing, and the Public Health (Scotland) Act of 1897 allowed rural counties to group together to provide smallpox facilities. The cities could create special hospital facilities as part of their fever hospitals, but in rural areas transport was a problem. A horse and cart had to be used, since the railways refused to carry infectious patients (or so the Medical Officer of Health for Berwickshire said in his 1894 annual report.)

And so in 1906,  several local authorities combined to establish the “Border Combination Smallpox Hospital”. The town councils of Kelso, Lauder, Melrose, Duns and Coldstream and the West and Middle districts of Berwickshire were involved. Four acres of land “at or near Brotherstone Moor” were leased from Lord Polwarth. Other people referred to “Marchfield, near Smailholm,” and to "Boghouse".   If, instead of turning left on to the Mellerstain straight, you go to the right and walk down the farm lane, Boghouse is at the end of that lane.

 The site of the hospital today 

The Minute of Agreement setting up the hospital covered the building of “a house of reception for convalescents from smallpox”, and the appointment of a Medical Officer, a Clerk and Treasurer, “and others as necessary” to be paid “salaries as the board think proper”. (The 1908 accounts allowed £100 for a nurse, a doctor and a servant.) It made orders for “the destruction and disinfection of articles such as bedding and clothing”, and the “horsage” of an ambulance. 

It carefully worked out the costs of the enterprise – half to be paid by the local authority admitting the patient, and half to be paid by all the authorities on the basis of their populations. In the days when all other hospitals were run on a charity basis, it was important to establish who paid for what.

All the facts so far quoted are to be found in the archives at  the Heritage Hub at Hawick, as are rental bills for the hospital from 1919 to 1924. Beyond that, little is known for sure. I am told (but cannot be certain) that no patient was ever admitted to the hospital. When Earlston's Dr John Young was responsible for the establishment,  he would make regular visits, often taking his family for a summer country picnic there!

There is nothing in the records about a similar smallpox hospital for the counties of Selkirkshire and Peeblesshirethere is nothing to confirm the rumour that the hospital was never used, and there is no indication of when the ghost hospital closed.

The World Health Organisation declared smallpox extinct in 1979.

Another view of the hospital site today.

With thanks to  Dr. John Burns of Earlston, who contributed this article.  

Auld Earlston would be delighted to feature further articles on the village's past  from other contributors.  Please contact:   



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