The Bow-Tows & Leith Hospital
A personal reminiscence by Dr George Venters, co-founder of Newhaven Heritage
Even before it was founded in 1848, Leith hospital had a connection with Newhaven. John Stewart of Laverockbank left £1,000 for the purpose of setting up a fever hospital in Leith. This provided the major donation for starting the hospital. Since that time until its closure 140 years later it was well supported and used by the people of Newhaven.
It was always an innovative, independent, teaching hospital, playing a key part in women’s education by making teaching beds available for women medical graduates in medicine in Edinburgh. Medical education progressed rapidly in Edinburgh throughout the second half of the 19th century and Leith benefited greatly. The quality of care was equal to that provided in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary because the same doctors tended patients in both.
As medicine evolved so did the services it provided, becoming a small general hospital specialising in in-patient and out-patient care for general medicine and surgery. Before the National Health Service came into being in 1948, the hospital required public support to fund the various activities it undertook. Thanks to the generosity of the people of Leith and Newhaven, it was one of the best funded hospitals in Scotland at the start of the NHS.
In addition to the numerous bequests and donations it received , an annual pageant and procession garnered yet more much appreciated revenue. Floats from Newhaven were regularly conspicuous in the processions. The fishwives, costumed in their “braws” (their finest costumes), were always an attractive addition to any occasion and the Fisherwomen’s Choir and the Fisherlassies’ Choir performed benefit concerts on Leith Hospitals behalf.
Many a Newhaven sideboard or mantelpiece was graced with a collection tin for the hospital. One Newhaven worthy, George Hackland, recalls his mother having a line of tins beside the door which he would have to deliver to houses and shops so that the people could put their pennies in. With that kind of support there was a sense of ownership of the hospital amongst the community, and they used it appropriately and extensively.
Before the advent of the NHS, healthcare cost money. In the 1930s and 40s a doctor would charge anything from half-a-crown upwards for a visit, so frequent use was made of the Leith casualty department. This was the catch-all place for minor injuries and illnesses and people sat on benches in the waiting room for their turn to be seen.
When the porter in charge of the queue was a Newhavener he would often bump Newhaveners up the queue, much to the resentment of the people in Leith who lived next door to the hospital!
Doubtless tons of tonsils have been removed from Newhaven bairns during a period when it was fashionable to take them out. Mine certainly were and I remember the process well. My mother dropped me off, then carried on to the public wash house, leaving me in the tender care of nurses in the paediatric unit. No such tenderness was evident from the anaesthetist who jammed my mouth open with a gag and proceeded to suffocate me into oblivion. Mind you, we did get the rare treat of ice cream the next day while we convalesced but I would have preferred to have kept my tonsils!
The hospital was well loved by everybody who worked in it, for it was seen as a beacon in the town. When people passed by, at all hours, they could see the people working there, caring for the sick and reflecting the kindness inherent in the community. On winter nights the nurses in the paediatric wing could be seen from Great Junction Street, hurrying to tend and comfort the bairns.
That paediatric wing became Leith’s memorial to the suffering and loss occasioned by the First World War — no bronze soldier with bowed head here, rather a place where love and caring was manifest.
As a house surgeon there, I had the chance to keek from the main corridor through the peephole of the door of the ward where I had lain with my sore throat some 20 years before.
I chose Leith for my first job because of my affection for the place and the deep debt that I and all Newhaveners owed it. Looking back, I could not have made a better choice. The people I worked with were skilled and caring and taught me well. The spectrum of illness and injury that confronted us was wide and varied, which gave me a range of experience unequalled in any other such post in the city. And best of all, I was treating my own people.
Ironically I was to play a substantial part in its closure in 1988 and the fight to save it. But that’s a story of betrayal for another day.
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Info: George A Venters is a retired Consultant in Public Health Medicine who was a lecturer at Trinity College Dublin, Aberdeen University and Lothian and Lanarkshire Health Boards
Duke and Duchess of Kent visit Leith Hospital 29 May 1935; Entrance to Leith Hospital on Mill Lane