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Life at Seacroft Hospital in the 1920s

From the Barwicker No.106
June 2012

The following is a fascinating account of life during childhood at Seaeroft Hospital. Originally the writer of the article, the late Jessie Hirst (neé Robson). was asked by her family to write her story down for her grandchildren. Ann Nicholls (her daughter) and her family have agreed that they would like 'The Barwicker' to publish it as it gives an interesting insight into what went on when Seacroft Hospital was an Isolation Hospital. The late Arthur Nicholls, whom many of our readers will remember for climhing the Maypole. was the husband of Ann Nieholls.

Life began for me on the 29th March. 19I8 and my life seemed to be spent around Seacroft Hospital for at least the next 20 years. The Hospital was bought by Leeds City Council long before my time, from the then resident (I think they called him Edward Waud) of a privately owned large house and very largo grounds. It was made into an infectious diseases hospital. Wards were built and each one given a letter from the alphabet A. B. C. etc. Each ward was a separate unit to contain each disease.

Just outside the perimeter of the hospital a row of terrace houses called Bridle Path Cottages was built to house the workmen needed to run the hospital, such as the chef, electricians, joiners, ambulance men. etc.

No 1 Bridle Path Cottages. where I was born, was a very stable and happy home. At the time we lived in the cottages my father worked in the kitchens alongside the chef and others who helped with the catering for all the patients. There were also some cottages built at the lower end of the hospital as an Isolation Block for people to stay in after nursing, or if thev were in contact with any diseases which were infectious, thus cutting them off from the rest of the genera! public.

The Medical Officer of Health for Leeds at that time was Dr Johnson Jervis and the Medical Officer for the Hospital, was Dr Pearson, a very devoted Doctor to patients and staff. Seacroft Hospital, which trained Doctors and Nurses from Africa and other overseas countries. was well respected in its lime for its knowledge of infectious diseases.

The matron was a Mrs Doran. the “Mrs” being given as an honour really as she was unmarried, but had passed all her nursing skills and had much experience in other hospitals. She was something of a tartar. so everyone said and they were a little scared of her.

The only people allowed to live in the hospital apart from the doctors werc the steward, which then was a Mr Burton and his family. The Chief Engineer. Mr Hepworth lived at Killingbeck Hospital at the other side of York Road.

My Grandparents

My Grandma Joanne Robson and Granddad John Robson came to Seacroft Hospital to take up an appointment as a gardener. They travelled down by train with their belongings all the way from the Blackwood Estate. Dumfries, to Leeds Citv Station. Their belongings were piled up on a horse-drawn pantechnicon and thev came up York Road to Seacroft Hospital.

Nearing the Hospital, they were passed by a horse-drawn ambulance going in the opposite direction down to Dock Street driven by Arthur Mills who was to become my Granddad Mills. The ambulances were kept in Dock Street at that time but were moved at a later date to Seacroft Hospital. Little did the two families know that in future years they would be joined by marriage. Ida Irene Mills, to give my Mother her full name, was to marry John Robson.

At the Mills home that evening, an account was given about the new gardener who had arrived and a description of some of the contents that were seen on the van. One of these articles was a very large wooden rocking horse complete with saddle etc. This caused a great deal of interest.

John Robson, the new gardener, and his family had a temporary home in one of the isolation cottages until they moved at a later date to a more convenient house. Grandma and Granddad Robson had two sons. John and George, and two daughters Magdalane and Jessie, the latter dying from pneumonia in her teens.

Grandparents Robson moved from their temporary home into the Lodge as soon as it was completed. They stayed there until they retired. It was a lonely and quiet place then as there was no traffic. After they moved in, the Lodge became a hive of activity with increased patient intake and it was also the location where the nurses and other staff signed in and out. Two large gates were manoeuvred by hand-operated levers from inside the lodge and there was a small gate for pedestrians. No exceptions were made for those who lived in the hospital grounds - all had to be booked in and out.

No.l Bridle Path Cottages

My parents lived in Harehills for a short time until my brother was born in 1914. My father had to walk all the way to work at the Hospital. No trams ran so early in the morning and he found it very hard. One can imagine how pleased they were to get the keys for No 1 Bridle Path Cottages as it made life much easier. Then my father was called up into the Royal Artillery but he was severely wounded, losing an eye and the back of his head was injured badly. He spent many months in hospital. My mother went to Epsom Hospital in London and my father returned with her on sick leave, but had to go back to Epsom for further treatment. The outcome of these injuries was that he had to have a glass eye.

The houses were surrounded by fields and are still there today, but the area is now built up. As Manston School was full I started school at the Methodist Hall on Austhorpe Road when I was five years old. I was left there every day by my brother George who went to Manston and he picked me up again at home time, 12 o'clock and 4 o'clock. Later I went to Manston and George and I had to walk all the way to school past Mary Pitt, a disused mine along Farm Road, with fields all the way until we got lo Cross Gates Police station. At the side of this building was a farm where in the summer they hung a parrot outside and it would shout "Hello" to us as we went on our way.

After walking four times, we were ready to go to bed. We did not need rocking to sleep at night and had very little time to play. Days passed very quickly. In the summer, we would go to see Grandma Mills who lived in Harehills but we had to wait for my Dad to come home. Then we would catch a tram to where the Shaftesbury Picture House used to be (I think it is now a D.S.S. office).

We had to walk all the way on Harehills Lane down to Compton Road and had to leave well before 10 o'clock in the evening to catch the last tram back to the beginning of the Bridle Path.

At weekends we would sometimes walk all the way to Roundhay Park - Mum & Dad, George and myself - through the fields through Daffodil Farm or perhaps down Foundry Lane past Nicholls Farm up to Harehills Park. We could pick flowers and drink lemonade (home made of course) which we always took with us calling at Grandma Mills for a cup of tea.

I can remember a little old lady who used to visit us. She used to walk all the way from the workhouse at St James, Beckett Street, about Easter and Whitsuntide. She would come about dinner time or just a bit earlier and ask if we had any darning to do, buttons to sew on, which mother always gave her to do. They were given permission to do this to make a bit of cash for themselves. She always wore a clean grey dress and white apron and a grey or black shawl round her shoulders.

She used to love to sit with us and have a cup of tea. and home-made scones and cakes. She had to be back before the workhouse gates closed and always left with some baking. Her family lived in Harehills but did not want her. As with so many old people, times were hard there being no social security then.

From my bedroom window I could stand on a chair and look over the hospital wall and see out. There are several buildings there now, one of which I think is the blood transfusion unit. Trams only ran to the Weigh House at the bottom of Halton on Selby Road. I cannot remember when that was but when I was about nine years old the tram track continued up York Road.

While living in the Bridle Path, all shopping was done in Cross Gates. Meat was delivered every Friday from Uncle Driff’s butchers shop at Seacroft in a very smart pony and trap. This gave my father an idea, that he would buy a little trap and trotting pony, a very smart outfit with leather seats and brass fittings. At weekends he would take us out down and round the country lanes.

We always had visitors at weekends, and they would join us too. My Mother would get very embarrassed because as soon as the pony started to trot, it used to break wind, and George and I refused to sit up front, but we could never stop laughing. When Uncle Fred Mills was with us it was a riot, with the things he used to say about our poor little pony. The horse had to be stabled at Godsons in Church Lane, opposite Mansion Church, and Dad got a bit tired having to walk back home and it was expensive. They had a lovely paddock for it to run in but in the end it had to go.

The Big House And The Isolation Cottage

After being demobbed towards the end of 1918, my father returned to his job at the hospital in the kitchens. However, after a time he was getting very frustrated with his work. Then a position became vacant at the Isolation Cottages being a joint position for a husband and wife.

The Husband was expected to keep all the lawns and gardens cut, something with which he was very experienced. The wife had to see to the comfort of any "smallpox contacts" after any member of the family had developed smallpox and had been sent to Killingbeck Hospital on the opposite side of York Road from Seacroft Hospital.

Bulmers who had held the position previously during the war, never had any 'contacts' in at all. Mr Bulmcr was killed on active service and his wife was not in very good health. They had a son and daughter, who also went to Manston School. It was the son who told George and I that we were going to live in their house, which was a very big one. My father and mother were furious that the news had been leaked to us before they had time to tell us and before they had proper confirmation that they had been accepted.

The house had to have a very good clean and the gardens required attention and. as far as I can remember, there were about 16 Isolation Cottages complete with two or three or four bedrooms (all furnished with beds), living rooms, bathrooms, and outside toilets. The bedding was all kept in our house in big wardrobes.

I have never seen two people work so hard in all my life. When the final day came Grandma Mills came to look after me as I was poorly and we were the last to leave No. 1 Bridle Path Cottages with the last of the furniture.

I had a good look round our new home before going to bed. There was a big kitchen with a stove and a brass fire screen round it and four gas cookers with hoods over the top. The walls were surrounded with large cupboards (top to bottom) with bedding-sheets, pillow cases and blankets, one side had a big medicine cupboard, with various medicines including huge bottles of white mixture which cured all ills. The top cupboards were stocked with vegetable dishes, plates, cake tins and bread tins etc. all to be used for the cottages whenever they were needed. There was a large dining table in the centre with eight chairs, and off one end of the room were two large larders with stone slabs and coffee and tea urns etc.

The living room was very large with a fire range, and three windows. This room accommodated all our furniture which included a three piece suite, table, dining chairs, large sideboard, piano, china cabinet with marble top, and a round table complete with aspidistra.

From a central hall were doors which led from even- room to a beautiiul front door. Above was a large landing, three very big bedrooms, bathroom and separate W.C. The staircase was wide with a mahogany curved handrail and the landing turned in front of a very large window. There were weeks of hard work cleaning the house and all these cottages which my parents had to do, floors, furniture, beds to be cleaned and springs all greased. It was such hard work for two people!

Then after all this was done, there was an inspection by the council and medical dignitaries, including the Chief Medical Officer for Leeds Dr Johnson Jervis and the Matron. An inventory was taken down for every sheet, blanket, pillow^ case and all crockery down to the last salt spoon. By this time Mrs Doran the Matron had retired and was replaced by Miss Tomlinson, a much more modern person in all ways.

My parents were not allowed to go out together; someone had to remain in case of emergency. They had little rest before the first batch of contacts came in.

A school of about 50 boys and their teacher had been camping on the East Coast and one of the boys had developed smallpox and all had to be isolated at once, and so they came by the bus load with their teachers, wet through after being under canvas. Beds had to be made up for 50 boys and teachers. Washing had to be done and ironed. Some of the heavy clothing was sent to be fumigated in the hospital Laundry.

After they had all been bathed, they all had to be vaccinated. Mother assisting Dr. Pearson to swab their arms, while he scratched their arms, quite a few passing out and going quite pale. My mother was dressed in white like a nurse for this procedure.

From our house, breakfast, dinner and tea had to be cooked and the boys fetched the meals that were served on trays. They collected them from a porch attached to the kitchen. This porch isolated the boys from the preparation of food and also protected them from the weather. They then carried the food back to their cottages.

Then I knew why there were four big gas cookers. My father had to knead four or five stone of bread at a time. The food supplies were collected from the kitchens in the hospital. Can you imagine ingredients for 50 plus breakfasts, dinners and teas every day for about three to four weeks? If anybody developed smallpox while in isolation, it all started over again. Dinners for all these boys and teachers had to be cooked - meat, fish, potatoes and vegetables well as puddings, all by my parents.

Then my parents asked for some assistance from Matron to look after our own home and be there for George and me and a notice went up in the Maids' Home for this vacancy. There were many applicants as the maids wanted to get off ward duty. We were lucky as the position was filled by a wonderful maid who came from Monk Fryston. Her name was Edna Robinson. She took over all the house duties and came to live with us, a plump rosy cheeked girl and full of fun. She was there for us when we came home from school.

We had many happy hours with Edna. She enjoyed taking George and 1 out on a Friday night to the pictures. She did not have to have a pass to go out of the grounds and we felt so free. We were the only two children brought up in the hospital and this brought many restrictions and isolated us from our friends.

All the bedding from the cottages had to be washed in a big wash-house outside, where we used to play when it was raining. There were drying and ironing rooms. The Hospital laundry could not do it in case it spread the smallpox disease to the other patients.

Fortunately the boys were cleared within the isolation time and were sent home.

After a clean up, there was a bit of relaxation time once more. During our life at the Isolation Cottages we met some really nice families along with the not so nice. I do recall a very large family by the name of Bradley. While they were staying in the cottages, my parents and the Bradleys got on well together. One member of the family played a banjo and one had an accordion, we used to link arms and sing outside the cottages as we could not go in. This was one of the warm summers and these sing-songs were in the cool of the evenings when the work was done. There were no houses or estates near to hear us and these people were confined to the cottages and this was a means of them letting their hair down. When the Bradley family left they said they would ask us to their house as my parents had looked after them so well. They kept their promise and we were all invited to tea. We received permission for all our family to leave the hospital together for this outing. When we arrived, I believe it was somewhere at Woodhouse, we were greeted with open arms and made most welcome.

The children had very good manners and all looked after their mother and treated their parents with a great deal of respect especially their mother. They had a natural aptitude for fun and we enjoyed their company.

Jessie Hirst, died on the 2tfh March 1999 just before her 81s' birthday. She left a son and daughter, five grand-children and five great-grand children.

JESSIE HIRST (neé Robson)

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