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The long struggle to give West Norfolk modern up-to-date care: the history of what became the Queen Elizabeth Hospital

The days when a nurse’s daily rations were half-a-loaf of bread, a pint of beer and meat from the hospital broth and when patients had a change of bed sheets only once a month, were described in a special Lynn News and Advertiser report in July, 1948.

In the second of our features looking at the National Health Service – which today finds itself under considerable pressures due to the coronavirus pandemic – we reprint in full that article contributed by Mr JE Searjeant, the house governor and secretary, to the last issue of the West Norfolk and King’s Lynn General Nurses’ League Journal and Hospital News.

He wrote: "The maxim “Grow or Die’ is peculiarly apropos to the voluntary hospitals. A hospital cannot stand still and expect to survive."

A patient leaves the King's Lynn Hospital back in the 1940s. Picture: Lynn News archives
A patient leaves the King's Lynn Hospital back in the 1940s. Picture: Lynn News archives

This fact was realised by those responsible for the administration of our West Norfolk and King’s Lynn General Hospital. The story of its growth from an erstwhile cottage hospital to a busy general hospital cannot be told in brief space, it is only possible to point out a few of the more prominent landmarks in its history.

One hundred and fourteen years ago, and to be precise, on October 18 1833, there was held in King’s Lynn a meeting which was destined to have an influence on the life of Lynn and West Norfolk that no subsequent gathering has exceeded in importance, for it marked the foundation of the West Norfolk and King’s Lynn General Hospital.

It was desirable Sir W H B Ffolkes, Bart, MP, presided at the gathering and it was resolved on the motion of Colonel Howard that “it is desirable to establish a West Norfolk Hospital.” and secondly on the motion of General Fitzroy “that Lynn is the most eligible situation for the projected Hospital”.

A 1996 St James Hospital reunion. Picture: Lynn News archives
A 1996 St James Hospital reunion. Picture: Lynn News archives

So began 114 years of Lynn’s Hospital history and progress.

At the time when Lynn Hospital was being established, nursing was no longer thought of as a religious vocation and there was no scientific training – nursing in hospitals was of a very elementary kind and a hospital by-law in those days was: “Nurses who cannot read or write are not to give medicine except in cases of emergency.”

It was common for nurses to be dismissed for drunkenness. The nurse’s daily rations were half-a-loaf of bread, a pint of beer and meat from the hospital broth, and she was given her dinner on Sundays, otherwise she had to provide her own meals. Nurses did their own washing, and each patient had a clean pair of sheets once a month.

It was not uncommon for nurses to sleep three in a bed. This might have some advantage in winter time, as central heating was unknown.

Now we must jump to 1861. The annual cost of maintaining the hospital, according to the earliest annual report available, was about £2,000. Today the cost is in the region of £45,000. This figure is exclusive of capital expenditure on general development.

Much could be said of those who came along and piloted the destiny of King’s Lyn Hospital, but we must perforce have recourse to the seven league boots and drop incontinently to the year 1930.

For some time it has become obvious to the Governing Board that the time had come to take active measures to enlarge the existing hospital services, in view of the ever increasing demands upon them.

At the risk of appearing invidious, two outstanding personalities must be mentioned as pioneers of the hospital’s later history – Harry Miles Howard and Charles Robert Leake.

On the hospital’s annual record for 1911 appears for the first time a name which is in the highest degree significant: “Hon assistant secretary, Mr HM Howard”. It is hardly too much to say that the long retention of Mr Howard on the board of hospital workers proved to be an asset of incalculable value.

He died on January 11, 1944, in the hospital for which he had increasingly worker and loyally served for over 30 years.

The second pioneer was Mr Charles R Leake, who came to the board in 1923. His father, Mr H A Leake of West Winch, died at the end of the year 1929. Charles Leake had devoted a great portion of his long and busy life in serving the hospital and one of his last messages was to express satisfaction that a courageous and thorough going policy had been adopted for the enlargement of the hospital.

Through strenuous years following 1930, Charles Robert Leake carried the torch of progress lighted by his father, and led us through the vicissitudes and complexities of the many development schemes which followed.

There have been many outstanding personalities connected with the history of King’s Lynn Hospital, but the name of CR Leake must stand out conspicuously in the hospital’s annals for many years to come.

The two pioneers agreed and decided to advise the Board to fall in with other hospitals throughout the country and appoint a House Governor and Secretary. This step was adopted in 1930, and subsequent history and progress resulting amply proved their wisdom.

Then followed a hard slogging drive to organise with machine precision a wide district of 154 parishes of a quota system evolved by the House Governor. Every parish in the area served by the hospital was roped in, working committees were formed and the serious business of quota nursing was soon under way.

A further aid to recruitment was conceived by the House Governor, and a three-reel propaganda film was made at the hospital.

Yes, it was gruelling work – those village meetings on winter nights and sometimes two meetings a night in different villages. In addition carnivals were organised and innumerable events were staged to keep the pot boiling.

In 1932 a beginning of the nurses’ hostel extension was made, and completed the following summer. These extensions comprised a nurses’ lecture room, 33 bedrooms, special sisters’ wing and night nurses’ wing, nurses’ pantry and the usual offices. The contract for the work was £6,000.

Further progress in development followed. In 1933 tenders were invited for the out-patients’ department, medical and ophthalmic block. This new structure provided a commodious waiting-hall for patients. Ear, nose and throat, dental, massage, sunray, ophthalmic and VD clinics, casualty and ophthalmic theatres, dispensary, consulting rooms, almoner’s department and other offices and on the first floor 22 medical beds and eight beds of ophthalmic patients. The total cost of this scheme was approximately £20,000.

This new medical block, etc., was opened by Her Majesty Queen Mary on Saturday, February 9, 1935.

This latter achievement increased the hospital’s bed complement from 75 to 112 beds. When the further items of development progress visualised are accomplished, the bed complements at King’s Lynn Hospital will be still further increased to 158 – progress over 100 per cent since 1930.

And now what of the future? That is another story.

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