Medieval Bridge over Exe
Medieval Bridge over Exe



Talk by Mike Richards

Thursday, 9 June 2022, at Jurys Inn


Mike Richards first paid tribute to his sources of information, particularly David Cornforth of Exeter Memories, Andrew Knox, who published The Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital 1741-2006, and Pat Russell who died last year.


Turning to hospital history, Mike pointed out that the Greeks already had medics known as “medici“ who carried out simple procedures and the Romans here in Exeter had field hospitals but their expertise was lost when they left the city in 75AD.


The first hospital, as we know it, was the Magdalene Hospital located roughly at the beginning of Fairpark Road off Magdalen Road. It was founded in 1161 to treat lepers. The Custos was the person in charge, and the inmates had a bell or clatter to warn people of their approach.  In 1454 the Mayor of Exeter was admitted as a leper and died four years later.  The hospital was demolished in 1863.


Meanwhile in 1238 there was also a hospital next door to St Nicholas Priory. This was eventually sold and the money absorbed into the hospital at East Gate.  This shut around 1530 and then, in the 19th Century, the site became the Blue Boys’ School.


Poltimore House was built in the 1550s as a family home for the Bampfylde family. It has seen many uses since then – having been both a boys’ school and a girls’ school and in 1945 it was purchased by two doctors to use as a maternity hospital.  It served well in the post war baby boom but by 1975 it was felt that there was no further medical use for it.  Their Tudor courtyard is a real jewel in its crown and one operating theatre has been retained for interest to those who wish to visit.


Adjacent to Mary Arches Street Church, the Blue Maid Hospital School was originally a girls school in 1656 but was pressed into service as a hospital and used by the military who arrived with William of Orange on 5 November at Brixham.  His soldiers were mainly drawn from the Dutch colonies and living in tents in th cold and wet meant that many of them need hospitalisation when they arrived in Exeter.  156 soldiers suffering from exposure, leg ulcers and chest infections (although one was recorded as “stupid”) stayed at the hospital for eleven days before they all moved to London aiming to restore the Protestant monarchy.  They were billed £284.12.6d for medical care but this bill is still outstanding. 


Interestingly, Mike showed us a print of William entering Exeter accompanied by black soldiers - the first recorded in Exeter although in fact the Romans also had black soldiers.


In the 1500s nearly all hospitals were run by monasteries and Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and therefore most hospitals.  Only St bartholomew’s  and St Thomas’s in London and Bedlam for the Insane survived his assault.


The City Workhouse was built in Heavitree because the country air was thought to be healthier. A beagle was paid 18 pounds to oversee it. With additional buildings it developed medical facilities Surgeon John Patch was paid £20 per annum and in 1741 it opened with 40 beds (the workhouse had 156 beds). and became known as the RD&E (Heavitree),     Gladstone House was built in 1904/5 and is still standing today having survived the 1942 blitz when the main buildings were destroyed.   Three nurses on duty that night received honours for their tireless work saving all but 18 patients – one, Emily Knee, was awarded the George Medal. Others were commended including the gardener who lived nearby and had rushed to help. 


 In 1913 a Children’s Home was added on Heavitree Road though it was first used as one of many hospitals for injured soldiers.  Now it is student accommodation.  The Maternity Hospital was demolished to be replaced by Waitrose Supermarket.


A new building for the RD&E was opened in Southernhay in 1741.  When it opened it would not accept infants, lunatics, pregnant women or persons suspected of infection!  Admissions were only allowed on a Tuesday at 11am!  If patients’ health improved they were put to work the pump in the cellar which transferred water up to the tank in the towers.  The building is now posh flats.  


A typical diet for the patients was a bowl of gruel and 15oz of bread for breakfast, with rice milk for lunch and vegetable soup made with milk for supper.  Also patients were allowed four pints of beer which, to be fair, was only 1% alcohol and purer than water.  The hospital had its own brewery, as did the bishop’s palace.  There were a total of 32 breweries in Exeter at that time.


The hospital provided 6 physicians, 5 surgeons, an apothecary, a matron and 2 nurses.  Physicians gave advice and reassurance but little else on lifestyle temperance, diet, air, sleep, evacuations, exercise and equanimity. Night staff were employed to wake a nurse if there was an emergency.   


Consumption, convulsions, dropsy, throat ulcers, colic  and lead poisoning were common illnesses and common causes of death were listed as convulsions, dropsy, tuberculosis, fevers, and, small pox, thrush and old age.  Post mortems became common at this time.  In 1797 a very strange machine was purchased which pumped smoke into the rectum to supposedly help with various ailments.  There were few drugs other than herbs and opium but instruments such as the stethoscope and thermometer improved treatments.


An eye hospital was opened in Holloway Street with seven bedrooms but a larger building was needed so the West of England Eye Hospital was built in Magdalen Street.  It had four wards, 25 beds, an operating theatre and an acre of garden.  It cost £25,000 to build and was considered second only to Moorfields in London.   All its treatments were free and those earning more than 25 shillings per week were ineligible.


A patient known only as Mr Coffin who was born blind from cataracts evidently rode 60 miles home on his horse after surgery at the hospital.   During WW1 the hospital was designated for wounded front line soldiers and in 1992 it was absorbed into the new RD&E Hospital, (Wonford) and the building is now the Hotel Du Vin.


The Exeter Dispensary opened in Queen Street in 1818 next to Northernhay Street.  It was a charitable hospital and the staff gave their services for free.


The cholera epidemic of 1832 resulted in many deaths, mostly in the West Quarter and St Thomas. Sufferers were treated at home to reduce infection though it was not yet realised that cholera was waterborne so houses were burnt and the dead buried quickly. New cemeteries were needed and opened in Bury Meadow, Southernhay, and Pester Lane (now Union Road).


Two outstanding doctors who ministered to those who fell ill were Dr Peter Hennis  is commemorated by a Blue Plaque attached to the wall of St Sidwell’s Church, and Dr Thomas Shapter, who has a plaque outside his home in Barnfield Crescent.  Bishop Phillpotts, the unpopular bishop of Exeter, decamped to Torquay to avoid any chance of contracting cholera.


1898 saw the use of the first diagnostic X-ray at the RD&E.  Exposure took 40 minutes.


During WW1 Exeter received a total of 40,000 wounded soldiers.  They arrived by train at Exeter Central Station and Georgiana Buller,  daughter of General Redvers Buller, was instrumental in setting up Exeter’s Voluntary Aid Detachment temporary war hospitals.  She was the only woman who was given such a job – throughout England only men were considered capable!  Many of Exeter’s hospitals were re-designated as war hospitals and the Eye Infirmary became Hospital No. 1, No. 2 was Bishop Blackall School, No. 3 was the Children’s Home, No. 4 was at Topsham Road Barracks, No. 5 was Bradninch House (formerly the Vinery at the top of Castle Street), No. 6 was the Bishop’s Palace, No. 7 was Streatham Hall (now Reed Hall on the University Campus).


Mike showed an image of the City’s War Memorial in Northerrnhay Gardens which - somewhat uniquely for the times - includes a statue of a nurse.

A hospital for the Care and Cure of Crippled Children – the Orthopaedic – was built on Gras Lawn in Barrack Road.  Georgiana Bullock was the driving force behind its development and it was opened in 1927 by the Duchess of York.  She asked that it be named after her infant daughter, the Princess Elizabeth. It has now been absorbed into the RD&E but maintains its name and a separate entrance.


Many Exeter women will remember the Mowbray House Maternity Hospital in Butts Road which provided maternity are from 1940 until the 1980s.  Previously maternity care had been located at Mount Radford and in two houses in Dix’s Field. Another maternity hospital was located on the corner of Heavitree and Gladstone Roads but the area has now been rebuilt as Waitrose.


Mike ended his very interesting talk by telling about some of Exeter’s rather famous  medical personnel such as Herschell Smith who invented the Pill and Albert James Gale, who In 1968 performed the first kidney transplant using a kidney from a 15 yr old girl killed while riding pillion on a boyfriend’s motorcycle.  Her father said she had often talked of organ donation.


Professor Robin Ling and University design engineer Professor Clive Lee were awarded honorary degrees for their invention of the Exeter Hip in 1970 of which three million have been produced and used successfully around the world.  They are still being made today with very minor adaptions. 


In closing, Mike talked about the Nightingale Hospital, one of seven nationally which were rapidly created to cope with Covid patients.  It had 116 beds  and was one of seven created nationally.  It started accepting covid patients on 26 November but was not used much for its

original intended use and was later converted to cope with other procedures thereby relieving pressure on Exeter’s main hospitals.


Thanks to Mike Richards for a very enjoyable talk.


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