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How do you fix a hospital that is ‘the worst in the Kingdom for a Recepticle of sick people’?

logo with mottoThe 225th anniversary of Northampton General Hospital passed in September, Julia Corps of Northampton Heritage Hunters looks at its early beginnings…             

The new Northampton Infirmary was opened 225yrs ago in September 1793. It was a much needed improvement to the original one located in George Row, which opened fifty years previously and was originally a town house converted to take care of the sick. However,that property was soon outgrown and its limitations became obvious.

In 1789 a full meeting of the Governors was called  to consider ‘the propriety of erecting a new hospital, instead of the present, in a more convenient location and on an improved plan.’

The Chairman the Governors was the 2nd Earl Spencer and a prominent member of that committee was  Dr William Kerr, who was to play a large part in the organisation of the project.

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A subscription list was opened to raise £5.000 to buy land and to build a new hospital. Dr Kerr was asked to prepare a report on the old hospital. He duly produced quite a damning one, claiming six of the eight wards were unfit for use as hospital apartments; the operating rooms, offices and kitchen were all inconvenient and too small for purpose.

The annoyance of the Bells of All Saints’Church, the noise of the street especially upon all public occasions, the vicinity to the jail, and the confinement by high buildings on three sides, all combine to render it a bad situation, perhaps the worst in the Kingdom for a Recepticle of sick people.’

For all these and other reasons Dr Kerr urged most strongly that the proposed measures were necessary and should be adopted forthwith.

Drs Kerr, Syme, Curry, Litchfield and Harden drew up a list of what they thought to be necessary principles for building the new hospital.

They included:

  1. Accommodation to be provided  for 90 to 100 patients, an Apothecary, his pupil, matron. porter, three maid servants and four nurses. (Patients would have be expected to help on the wards and with meals from the kitchen if they were well enough).
  2. Not more than ten patients in a ward, with provision of a few two bedded wards.
  3. Wards were to be lit and ventilated by windows placed on opposite sides of the house, built so there were north and south aspects.
  4. W.C’s and washing facilities for patients to be positioned out of the wards. The brew-house, bake-house and wash-house to be in a separate building.

An area  of land of just over eight acres was bought for £1,000. It lay in Northampton Fields near the town ditch that ran along Cheyne Walk to York Road and a road was required to connect it to the town. This parcel of land had its own supply of spring water and no other buildings nearby, allowing for a good, uninterrupted supply of clean air.

We will leave the builders to get on with their work while we look at one of the founding members of the hospital.        

                                         Dr William Kerr ( 1738-1824)

Kerr was born in Kelso Scotland, arriving in Northampton in 1763, taking the position of Surgeon In-ordinary at the George Row Infirmary. His career started in the military as an army surgeon and the early 1790s was indeed a busy time for him as not only was he praised for his ‘unparalleled attention to the institution’ but also because while the Napoleonic Wars were raging, this ex-serviceman raised a oolunteer cavalry troop for home defence, which he commanded until disbandment in 1823.

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Dr William Kerr

He was a very popular doctor and as his reputation and popularity grew it resulted in his competitors, Drs. Curry, Bree and Graves, having to leave town as they were unable to make a living with so many people preferring to be treated by him. A key moment in his early medical career was being one of the first surgeons to perform a successful amputation of the hip joint on a young consumptive girl in 1779. Unfortunately the patient died 18 days later with Kerr admitting that the death was unjustifiable but nevertheless he was awarded a Medical Diploma for his work in this form of surgery.

Kerr continued to practise at the hospital until he was 83. He died on 4th September 1824, aged 86, and was buried in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

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The building of the new hospital was completed and doors opened to the public in September 1793.

The final cost came in at £5,000 over-budget which was set at £10,000. There was a dispute between the Governors and the firm of masons and bricklayers as alterations had been agreed as building progressed  but contracts not altered accordingly. Unfortunately this resulted in hardship and eventual bankruptcy for Messrs. Adson and Gordon.

A description of the new hospital given in 1840 shows the basement was occupied by kitchens, store rooms, offices etc. The ground floor by the House Surgeons, Matron’s and Pupils’ rooms, the Chapel, Library and Committee Room. The two upper storeys used for sick wards, which afforded comfortable accommodation for 114 patients.

The euphoria of having a new roomy, purpose-built hospital didn’t last long as the population of the town steadily increased and In 1808 it was announced that the hospital could take no more patients except accident cases, owing to lack of accommodation.

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