An Illustrated History of Old Sutton in St.Helens
Part 31 (of 76) - Health and Sanitary Conditions in Sutton
c) Mental Health | d) Medical Practitioners | e) Cottage Hospital & Sanatorium
a) Fevers and Sewers in SuttonThroughout the nineteenth century as its industry expanded, so there was a considerable rise in Sutton's population. In June 1856, Rev. Henry Vallancey wrote how his congregation had "increased largely" since 1849 when he first arrived in the township. Vallencey commented how "the great mass of my people reside around the works" and he described how much building work was taking place, predicting a further rise in numbers in the immediate future.
This was in spite of a high death rate in Sutton and in the other three townships (Parr, Eccleston & Windle) that would comprise the future St.Helens borough. A combination of unhealthy work conditions, factory discharges into Sutton's 'Stinky' Brook, unsanitary living conditions and excessive drinking led to sickness and shortened lives.
In 1885 John Spear was commissioned to report on the prevalence of 'zymotic' diseases such as typhoid fever in St.Helens and he commented that:
John Spear's report was scathing of the lack of a proper sewage system in St.Helens and he commented how waste discharges into the town's brooks from the various chemical, copper and glass works would often disguise the presence of raw sewage and the associated health risks:
The residents of Watery Lane weren't connected to the sewers and the
health hazards worsened when Sutton Brook flooded, as in this picture
Where sewers had been provided in Sutton, the owners of houses were not always compelled to connect their house drains and this was the case for tenants in Watery Lane and Herbert Street. The report stated that nine thousand houses in St.Helens were still scavenged under the 'midden' system:
St.Helens Corporation was slow to implement improvements. Dr. Robert McNicoll had become the town's first Medical Officer in 1873 and had pleaded in his annual reports for sanitary improvements. He was specially keen for a trunk sewer to replace the open brooks, which had been promised as far back as 1855. The construction only began in 1889 after the council had been embarrassed by six guests at a mayoral banquet contracting typhoid, of which two died. Minds had also been concentrated by the death of John Lowe, Conservative Councillor for West Sutton, who had died of typhoid fever on December 6th 1888. Lowe, of Elton Head Farm in Lea Green, was first elected in November 1885 and had only been re-elected to represent West Sutton a few weeks before his demise.
On January 21st 1891 at a meeting of the Corporation's paving, highway and sewering committee it was agreed to spend £2121.10s for sewering and drainage of the Sutton district. Of this Rolling Mill Lane would cost £262 and Hill's Moss Road £156. However the scattered nature of Sutton's population meant that implementation had its limitations. In 1893 the St.Helens Improvement Act banned the building of back-to-back houses without backyards within the borough. This important legislation did, however, need much time to pass before it could have any significant effect on the town's citizens.
At a Council meeting in 1895, Councillor Charles Walsh - the representative for East Sutton who ran a draper's shop in Peckers Hill Road - took to task Councillor Forster, the chairman of the borough's Health Committee. Cllr. Walsh complained about the state of Sutton Brook around Junction Lane which he claimed was nothing short of an "open sewer". It was causing a"serious crisis" in the district with many reported cases of typhoid and other fevers:
When Sutton GP Dr. Henry Baker Bates stood in the council elections in November 1896, the quality of Sutton's water was an important issue. After defeating Cllr. Walsh and becoming the elected representative for East Sutton, Cllr. Bates continued his predecessor's campaign to improve the quality of the water. The Liverpool Mercury of June 29th 1899 reported that Cllr. Bates had complained to a Health Committee meeting that the water supplied to the East Sutton district was both unfit to drink and dangerous to health. Cllr. Bates stated that he'd often brought the question before the water committee but nothing whatsoever had been done. Dr. Harris, the borough council's Medical Officer, replied that he did not think the water was dangerous to health, although he did admit it was somewhat "unpleasant".
The Spear's Report on the 'Continued Prevalence of Fever'
From the middle of November 1895, St.Anne's schools were closed for six weeks to prevent the spread of scarlet fever. There was so much concern of disease that when Sutton Library opened in early 1897, a placard was put up banning book borrowers who lived in houses where there was scarlet fever. The bacteria in untreated milk was a prime means of transmitting it and other disease and so Cllr. Bates was keen for milk to be sterilised. In April 1899 he visited Fecamp in Normandy as a member of a fact-finding delegation. They were informed how sterilising milk had significantly reduced infant mortality in the French town. Consequently St.Helens became the first borough in England to possess a municipal supply of sterilised milk, which was supplied to the populace at a specially low rate.
By 1906 there was concern that the health improvements seen in other parts of St.Helens were not being felt within East Sutton and Parr. A new sewerage scheme was seen as the answer and on October 19th 1906, a Local Government Board inspector held an inquiry at St.Helens Town Hall into the Corporation's plans to borrow £48,000 for this purpose. The sewer would begin at Marshalls Cross and traverse through Mill Lane and Parr to the sewage disposal works at Double Locks. It was stated at the inquiry that the more densely populated parts of the district were already being drained into the Sutton Brook. Creating the new improved sanitation for the less populated parts of Sutton led to the death of Joseph Bray. The 63-years-old miner of 31 Frederick Street was buried alive by tons of clay that fell on him while excavating.
By the first world war there were still many privy middens in the Sutton district which were only emptied by the Corporation three times a year. The council were promoting a water carriage flushing system but it took decades before the middens were eradicated. In recent times, the notorious 'Stinky Brook', which factories have spewed waste into for many years, has improved. However, complaints are still made about the waterway that connects to the St.Helens Canal and Cllr. John Beirne made his opinions known in the St.Helens Star of April 6th 2006:
The smells are absolutely disgusting and make you feel sick. People in the area have got used to it, but in 2006, why should they? Over the last six months the smells from chemicals in the brook have got really bad. What harm could it be doing to our lungs and our health?
Download John Spear's 'Continued Prevalence of Fever' report (3mb)
b) Industrial Health & InjuriesThis website’s mineworking page demonstrates the hazards of employment in Sutton's pits and those who worked in the chemical and glass factories were similarly poor prospects for life insurance salesmen. They endured shortened lives through exposure to noxious fumes and by liver damage through drinking excessive amounts of beer. The chemical fumes rotted away all their teeth, and so they existed on 'pobs', a mixture of bread and milk plus copious quantities of beer. Many men drank because they could not eat and to cope with the horrendous conditions.
An intake of 100 pints a week was not unknown, and employers weren't too concerned as long as workers could still do their job. Action would be taken, however, if employees became incapacitated. On December 11th 1876, James Barke, a watchman at Kurtz Chemicals, found Owen McKee of Sutton "very drunk and unable to perform his work", according to the Prescot Reporter's account (23/12/1876). On being spoken to by Barke, McKee became abusive and violent, threatening to "lance the watchman inside out". He was prosecuted and fined 5 shillings for being drunk and 10 shillings for assault and ordered to keep the peace.
Common health complaints included the miners' illnesses of pneumoconiosis, bronchitis and nystagmus. The latter was a condition caused by working in the dark in which the sufferer's eyes went round and round. Sutton glass workers endured heat stroke and 'glassmaker's cataract', which was caused by the glare of furnaces. Working very long hours was also not conducive to good health. The average working week in 1870 was 70 hours and children aged between 8 and 13 were allowed to work a 6½ hour day on condition that they received ten hours of schooling per week. Working conditions were poor and accidents were frequent and even by 1916, long shifts in factories were not uncommon. In August of 1916, sixteen-year-old Harold Taylor of Waterdale Crescent was killed at the Sutton Glassworks in Lancots Lane by a crane that toppled over. Forty-two-year-old crane driver William Chadwick admitted at the inquest to having worked a shift of over fifteen hours. When County Coroner Sam Brighouse quizzed him on this, he insisted that he wasn't fatigued and had previously worked much longer hours.
Dr. Knowles wrote to Crone and Taylor to enquire whether they would pay for his services but they refused. In their reply, the 'Bone Crushers and Manufacturers of Blood & Bone Manures' said that they were "in no way responsible... we leave him in the hands of the hospital authorities". Biddulph was dead within days from anthrax poisoning as a direct result of his work. The St.Helens Reporter of 22nd January, 1895 reported that the Coroner at his inquest had commented that the conduct of the firm had been"quite extraordinary", although it was not uncommon.
c) Mental Health in Sutton
She had recently been a patient at Providence Hospital but had been so "annoying" to other patients that she was discharged. Sutton GP Edward Casey certified Margaret as an imbecile and wanted her committed to Rainhill Asylum, although the magistrates were unimpressed. "Surely an asylum is no place for a child like this?", queried the chairman of the bench and eventually Margaret was sent to the workhouse. There seemed little evidence to justify her treatment, despite signs of "mental derangement" when she was eight. Could she have been suffering from attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder?
When it came to adults, alcohol was often blamed as the cause of their 'madness'. On September 9th 1891, Joseph Barton, who was said to have been “respectably connected”, went to Constable Hall to confess that he had committed a murder in Sutton and that men were pursuing him. A doctor certified him as being deranged through drink and magistrates ordered his temporary detention in the Whiston workhouse. Then on November 15th, 1900, the Liverpool Mercury reported that Ellen Sheridan of Herbert Street had spent a fortnight "wandering about in terror", believing that people were going to murder her. Like Joseph Barton, Ellen was probably paranoid although paranoia was not Dr. Casey's diagnosis when he gave evidence to the St.Helens magistrates. Instead he said the cause was drink and the cure was 14 days in the workhouse. Alcohol was often the scapegoat for many forms of strange behaviour, which these days we are more likely to consider a symptom that might exacerbate a sufferer's condition, rather than cause it.
This was often the case with depressed individuals who committed suicide. 70-years-old butcher Thomas Johnson was clearly depressed when on April 13th, 1871 he hung himself from a beam in his outhouse by Sutton Oak station. The Liverpool Mercury report said that he had been drinking heavily of late and had become temporarily insane as a result. This was a common inquest verdict, such as on February 20th, 1895 when farmer Thomas Ireland Lowe of Micklehead Farm, Lea Green, who'd previously worked Maypole Farm in Bold, poisoned himself with carbolic acid on the train to Manchester.
An interesting case of mental illness occurred on May 4th 1882 when William Foster of Peasley Cross Lane was apprehended by the police. The bottle hand at Cannington Shaw's had disturbed people by telling them that he had killed a man called Robinson in Yorkshire some nine years earlier. Foster was described in the newspapers as a man of "peculiar temperament", who was sometimes very excited and danced and sang. At other times he was "very melancholy" with fits of crying. These days I suspect that doctors would have little difficulty in diagnosing manic depression or bipolar disorder, as it's now known. The police released Foster without charge after making enquiries with colleagues in Yorkshire, although he had to endure the embarrassment of detailed articles in newspapers.
On July 2nd 1896, 44-years-old engine driver Robert Durning of Helsby Street committed suicide by cutting his throat with a knife. At his inquest it was revealed that he had had an attack of influenza three years earlier and hadn't been well since. Of late Durning had been "low spirited" and unable to work. These days a diagnosis of M.E. and depression might be made, treatment could be available and a suicide avoided.
By the turn of the 20th century, St.Helens had a Police Court missionary who looked after the welfare of vulnerable people who found themselves in court. However some court sentences for the mentally ill were still rather harsh. On April 29th 1914, John Eden of 67 Hills Moss Road at St.Helens Junction appeared in court charged with theft. The 61-years-old had helped himself to 94 pounds of seed potatoes from Travers Farm in Bold run by Mr. Pemberton as well as two wooden sleepers and a rail. Eden's wife Jane said he'd been "strange" for some time, picking up useless things and stuffing his pockets with them and the miner had been unable to work. Despite being clearly disturbed, Eden was given two months' imprisonment, the bench stating that the prison doctor would attend to him during his detention.
If you were working-class and depressed you were expected to "pull yourself together". However, if you had some money and were suffering from a "nervous affection", you could avail yourself of specialists like Dr. Wilkinson who, for a while, was based at Brook House in Sutton. His advert in the Liverpool Mercury of August 7th, 1855 invited "unhappy" folk to visit him for a consultation. The "nervous and diffident" could also send him a guinea (£1 1 shilling) and would receive in return a letter and some medicine. A guinea was the equivalent of around £60 in today's money and well out of the reach of the poor, whereas the alternative 'pull yourself together' treatment cost nothing, apart perhaps from some lives.
d) Sutton's Medical Practitioners
In fact John Spear reports 23,262 births and 12,170 deaths (including 3,501 children under 1 year) registered between 1872 and 1881. In the 1881 census the St.Helens population was 57,234 (11,000 in 1845 and 89,000 by 1900). Sutton's medical practitioners through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who did much to improve people's lives, were the aforementioned Dr. Edward Casey (practised in Sutton c.1882 - 1909), Dr. Thomas Pennington (? - 1891), Dr. Henry Baker-Bates (1891 - 1906), Dr. Frederick William Kerr Tough (c.1907 - c.1921), Dr. Robert Cook (in 1911 census at 43/45 Peckershill Road - died suddenly on 7/1/1918 aged 41) and Dr. Fox.
Children had a saying about the various Sutton medics: "Dr. Casey set baits (Dr. Bates) to catch a fox (Dr. Fox). He is going to cook (Dr. Cook) him but will find it tough (Dr. Tough)."
94-year-old Catherine Williams vividly described in the St.Helens Star of October 6th 1983 how medical practitioner Dr. Casey, of 1 Junction Lane, would pull out aching teeth as well as treat patients' other ills. He'd charge sixpence for each painful extraction, although if a child didn't cry or shout, the Irish doctor would return their tanner! Catherine wrote that he was a character of "unusual rarity":
a Godsend to the many-starved children of those days.
Dr. Baker Bates arrived in Sutton ten years after Casey and did sterling work as chairman of St.Helens Corporation's Health Committee. The medical man, whose practice was at 24/26 Junction Lane, is believed to have owned the first motor car in Sutton and became four-times Mayor of St.Helens during the first world war. Dubbed the “uncrowned king of Sutton”, Dr. Bates did much to improve the health of the people of St.Helens.
From 1913 to March 1916, Dr. Bird cared for Sutton folk as assistant to Dr. O'Keefe, dying from pneumonia at the young age of 33. There was also a Dr. Campbell who lived and had his surgery at Phoenix House in Peckershill Road for many years during the mid-twentieth century. This used to be the house of Phoenix Brewery. More recent medics during the 1960s and '70s include Dr. Sullivan who became Bold Colliery's doctor, Dr. Lennon and Dr. Thomas Sutton.
Mention must also be made of Nurse Barbara Lacey (Brown) who was born and bred in Sutton at 8, Ditch Hillock. She was a familiar figure for some twenty years, pedalling in her nurse's uniform round the district from her home in Irwin Road. All that cycling was clearly good for her as she was ninety-six years of age when she died in 1985. Then there was Nurse Smith, a midwife who brought many Sutton babies into the world and who married a coal dealer in Peckershill Road. Her father survived the Titanic disaster, only to drown in 1915 when his ship was sunk by a German U-boat.
If you couldn't be saved by Sutton's medical practitioners, you were likely to meet undertaker and blacksmith Isaac Ashton who had premises at 21 Fisher Street - his adverts said 'Funerals furnished throughout on the shortest notice'
e) St.Helens Cottage Hospital & Borough SanatoriumThe work of health practitioners plus pressure from trade unions, concerned citizens and politicians led to improved living conditions and sanitary disposal and a gradual improvement in the populace's health. The creation of what we now call St.Helens Hospital in Marshalls Cross Road in Peasley Cross, then part of Sutton, also played a crucial role in improving health.
St.Helens Cottage Hospital in Marshalls Cross Road, Peasley Cross - contributed by Sutton Historic Society
St.Helens Cottage Hospital opened in January 1873 after copper smelter Fenwick Allen leased part of a house from Sutton landowner Michael Hughes for £20 per year. St.Helens industrialist and Wigan MP Peter Greenall had called for an infirmary during the early 1840s, although it took thirty years to make it a reality. Part of the chosen property in Peasley Cross was occupied but the vacant section had been untenanted for some time. It required large-scale renovation to make it fit for purpose, which cost Hughes £462. There were only three furnished rooms which accommodated nine beds in total.
A. G. Kurtz of the alkali works provided funding for the hospital and each patient had to pay a shilling a day, unless enrolled in the 'penny-a-week' scheme. Although the cottage hospital received some funding from donations and legacies, its main revenue was the weekly pennies that were deducted from staff wages by employers. Martha Walker, a Quaker lady who had served in a hospital camp during the American Civil War, became the first Matron. She was assisted by three young orphans from Whiston workhouse. One girl was only seven and the other two were just eight years of age.
Martha wanted the very best for her patients and soon ran up a debt of £1000. By October 1875 she had been forced out after refusing to make economies. Kurtz gave the hospital a loan and then bought the whole house plus three acres surrounding it. The 'penny-a-week' fund paid off the debt by 1882.
Another view of St.Helens Hospital in Peasley Cross - contributed by Sutton Historic Society
By 1894 the number of beds had increased to fifty, which was now run by matron Annie Stocks. By this time the extensive improvements and extensions belied its cottage hospital description. So in 1896 it changed its name to St.Helens Hospital. In 1898 Miss Ann Garton's bequest of £28,675 gave the hospital some financial security. On December 29th 1904, an extension was opened by Alderman J. C. Gamble which cost £23,000 and boosted the bed count to over 100.
The Great War was a challenging time for the hospital as large numbers of wounded and sick soldiers were treated there. During the year ending April 1917, there were 1585 patients of which 477 were soldiers. The hospital's income was also reduced with many of their subscribers in France. For the year ending April 1916, there was a decrease of £931 in the penny-a-week subscriptions. They also lost their Matron Harriet Oates for a time as she was seconded to the Military Hospital at Fazakerley. In March 1917 Senior Sister L. Lewis was commended by the War Office for valuable service in connection with the war. The first resident medical officer, Dr. Patrick Murnane, was appointed in 1919. Until then GPs referred their patients to the hospital and treated them themselves. During 1922, the hospital treated 860 men, 344 women and 315 children. Colliery workers and their dependants comprised the lion's share with 853 admissions.
In 1926 a maternity ward was opened which had first been announced 11 years earlier. Then the Mayor Sir David Gamble, addressing the annual subscribers meeting, said he believed the "experiment" of a maternity ward would be a success. But if not, the hospital would have the room for general use. In 1929 the penny-a-week scheme became penny in the pound, as contributions became linked to earnings. So if an employee earned £2 per week, they paid twopence and threepence per week if they earned £3.
St.Helens Borough Sanatorium a.k.a. the Fever or Infectious Diseases hospital
This was also known at various times as the Borough Sanatorium, Fever Hospital or Isolation Hospital. The latter was an appropriate name as there was little treatment available for many conditions in the hospital's early days. So isolating an infected person from society to prevent contagion was its main raison d'être. In fact a Mrs. Pearce and her daughter, with no medical training, were charged initially with looking after the patients. At St.Helens Corporation's monthly council meeting held on December 1st 1886, a long discussion took place at to whether a trained nurse should be employed instead. It went to a vote and health chief Dr. Gaskell won the argument for a medical presence at the Infectious Diseases infirmary. The council meeting also considered an application from the St. Helens Tramway Company to use steam traction trams instead of horses. Progress was coming to St. Helens!
However the new hospital didn't do much business at first, partly because adult patients were charged a shilling a day and children under 14 sixpence. Between 1886-7 only twelve people were admitted, eleven of whom had typhoid fever. Although poor families could appeal to St.Helens Corporation's Heath Committee for their fees to be remitted and during 1890, 78 patients were admitted with 27 of them receiving free treatment. From January 1891 all treatment became free apart from pauper cases, with the Prescot Board of Guardians contributing £40 per annum for their treatment.
As revealed in the 'Fevers and Sewers in Sutton' article at the top of this page, scarlet fever was highly prevalent in Sutton during the 1890s. Councillor Charles Walsh, representative for East Sutton, reported to a St.Helens Town Council meeting on September 7th, 1892 that there was an "epidemic of fever" in the Sutton district adding that:
Notice in the Lantern newspaper of October 18th, 1889 - Courtesy St.Helens Local History & Archives Library
The census conducted on March 31st 1901 provides a snapshot of the types of patients at both infirmaries. Of the 29 male patients over 12 years of age in the main hospital, twelve were mineworkers (11 hewers), five glassworkers and three chemical workers, underlining the dangers of such employment. The remaining nine male patients included six children just seven years or younger.
The matron then was Harriet Oates, who had seven nurses under her, along with six ward, laundry, house and kitchen maids, plus a cook and porter. There were 14 female patients, of which half were under 16. The fever hospital, as the sanatorium was often described, was little more than a children's hospital in 1901. Of its 58 male and female patients, astonishingly only three were over 14. In 1911 the matron was Miss Burgess.
St. Helens Hospital was said to have its own ghost! Catherine Williams, mentioned earlier on this page, described in the St.Helens Star in 1983 how a Sutton woman who'd died there regularly haunted the laundry rooms. New nurses at the hospital were said to have been warned of what to expect when entering the laundry.
The unveiling of the spectacular new £100 million hospital in 2008 with its purple, yellow, red, orange and green zones ended an important link with the past. I wonder how many readers of this page have been grateful for the care that they have received from the doctors and nurses in the old Rennie, Gamble, Garton, Hammill, Pilkington, Kurtz and Bishop wards and clinics? These were named after benefactors and medical practitioners at the Hospital who helped to improve and save lives in St.Helens. Their eponymous wards have now gone but hopefully their contributions will long be remembered.
Please do contact me if you can provide any further information and / or photographs concerning Sutton, St.Helens. You might also consider contributing your recollections of old Sutton for the Memories pages, which are proving very popular. Sutton Beauty & Heritage strives for factual accuracy at all times. Please do also get in touch if you believe that there are any errors. I respond quickly to emails and if you haven't received a response within 12 hours, check your junk mail folder or send your message again. Thank you! SRW