The Poor Law Act of 1698 created in Exeter "a Corporation to continue forever to consist of the Mayor and Alderman and of forty other persons... for and towards the relief of the Poor." A new workhouse was built on a site in St Sidwell on the old London Road. Designed by Richard Mitchell, the main block was complete by 1699 with other sections completed by 1707.
Referred to as the Workhouse, the inmates were put to work spinning worsted and the manufacture of clothing. In 1701 a beadle was appointed at a cost of £18 per annum "to suppress the beggars outside the workhouse, to keep the poor in good order within the House, to train the poor, and perform all cures to the best of his skill on wounds and sore legs". Inmates could be punished by whipping with thongs at a whipping post and confined to a 'dark house'.
Workhouse and hospital
In 1718 Mr John Patch was employed as a surgeon at £20 per annum - he would become one of the first surgeons at the Devon and Exeter Hospital in 1743. Between 1821 and 1858 additional buildings were constructed to expand the medical facilities beyond those needed for the inmates, and the workhouse started admitting fever and maternity cases from the whole of the city.
Many of the children at Newtown School were from the workhouse and would be accompanied to school, wearing regulation hobnail boots, and dressed in navy and black. The Workhouse remained until 1929, when it was absorbed into the hospital. In 1905 an infirmary with 150 beds was completed, with the wards named after Dr Pereira Gary and Sir Edward Seaward. The hospital still offered a social function and, in 1913, a Children's Home was built on the Heavitree Road. Soon after, the hospital became VA Hospital No. 3, one of five military hospitals, established in Exeter during First War hostilities.
The workhouse ethos still existed in the 1930's, when the Casual or Z block was created to accommodate vagrants and 'down and outs' in small cells for up to 24 hours. They were expected to break half a ton of stone for use in road building, during their stay. A derelict section of the hospital buildings was refurbished in 1930, to become a private nursing home of sixteen beds. For two guineas a week you could be attended by a doctor from the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital and even have surgery in the private operating theatre. At the outbreak of war in 1939, the private facility closed as all the hospitals in Exeter responded to the national emergency.
Destroyed by bombs
The City Hospital was the one hospital in Exeter that suffered serious destruction and loss of life in the May 1942 blitz. There were 194 patients in the hospital that night, when high-explosive bombs and thousands of incendiaries fell on the city. The hospital was hit by the incendiaries, and despite the heroic efforts of the staff, 18 bedridden patients on the first floors of Ward Block A and B were killed. Nursing staff were commended for their efforts in trying to save their patients. Night nurse Mrs Emily Knee stated "...We succeeded in getting many of the patients out, but when we came to rescue those in Block A Sick Ward the fire was raging and the stairs were ablaze, and we could not get to them". Nurse Knee received the George Medal for her bravery, while two British Empire Medals were awarded that night and seven commended for brave conduct. See hospital dead for a list of casualties. All the records for the hospital were also lost in the conflagration.
On 5th July 1948, what remained of the City Hospital was absorbed into the NHS. Since then, the hospital has seen considerable rebuilding, and become a centre for maternity, dentistry and geriatrics. The maternity unit closed down in June 2007 and moved to a new £31.5 m facility which opened for business at 8.30am on the 15th June 2007. The maternity unit had delivered 106,000 babies since it was opened in 1954, with Benjamin Hudson the last baby to be born at Heavitree, when he was delivered at 8.56am on the 15th June 2007, weighing 9lb 10oz.
The female infirmary and ward block at Heavitree. Now used for
procurement and logistics. Nursing staff in 1917 when the City Hospital was VA Hospital No 3.
Photo courtesy Dick Passmore
The First War VA Hospital No 3, Heavitree, with an ambulance trailer
hauled by a private car.
Photo courtesy Paul Tucker
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