The Great War, Women and Essex County Hospital

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During the First World War, hospitals across the country faced a number of difficulties and challenges. At the request of the military authorities, Essex County Hospital made half of their beds available for soldiers  in 1914. In 1915, the board committee rented premises on Wellesley Road and transferred all of the female patients to free up two wards in the main hospital.

In the same year the ‘Netley Huts’, most probably named after the Royal Victoria Military Hospital at Netley, were also erected to create further space for soldiers. These huts were managed by Mrs Emily Frances Dickinson, a high-ranking member of the Red Cross, who took up the post of commandant. She was awarded an MBE in 1922 for her role commanding the VAD units (voluntary civilians providing nursing care) during the war.[1] Her husband was Henry Dickinson, the hospital’s chairman. These huts provided accommodation for a further 150 soldiers and were continued to be used as wards until 1950, when they were removed to make way for the operating theatres.

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The First World War put extreme demands on those who worked in hospitals, with many individuals being forced to work abroad to help with the wounded soldiers. This resulted in many position shortages on the home front, with a need for replacements. For example, the matron, honorary physician and head surgeons were all called up to positions away from Essex County to help the war effort. Military in-patients in 1916 numbered 959 and civilian in-patients were 716; new out patients were 2176.[2] Women began to join the medical staff at Essex County Hospital to respond to this increased workload.

The Medical Act of 1876 allowed all British medical authorities to license all qualified applicants whatever their gender. Despite this, not all roles were open to female staff, who were often still discriminated against and were limited to working with women and children. The pressures of the Great War helped significantly extending the opportunities open to women as medical practitioners by giving them valuable experience that they were often denied previously.

In 1916, Dr Flora N. Singh and Dr Mary C. Albuquerque were appointed as resident medical officers to help with the shortage of Doctors at the hospital. They were not only the first women to join the hospital’s medical staff, but they were also the first people from an Asian background to do so. Both women were born in India but studied at the London School of Medicine for Women. They practised medicine at ECH until 1919. Dr Singh was the senior house surgeon until she moved to Pebmarsh in Essex. She continued to practise as a physician and surgeon as well as becoming a public vaccinator. Her obituary reads:

Dr. FLORA NIHAL-SINGH died at her home in Pebmarsh, Essex, on Dec. 19 1946 at the age of 64. Miss Singh was the daughter of the first native (sic) canon of Lucknow and was born in India. She was educated at the Calcutta Medical College and the London School of Medicine for Women, qualifying M.R.C.S., L.R.C.P. in 1917. She had been a senior house-surgeon at the Essex County Hospital in Colchester before she moved to Pebmarsh, where she built up an extensive practice. She was greatly interested in the work of the British Red Cross Society and was an active member of the Colchester Medical Society. She had been a member of the British Medical Association for twenty-six years.[3]

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Towards the end of the war, the hospital continued to struggle with shortages of supplies and increased cost demands. With fighting at its fiercest in France, the hospital was ordered to put up emergency marquees, increasing the number of available beds to 339, its highest number ever.

1918 marked the 100th anniversary of the Hospital site. During its first century of service, Essex County Hospital treated 46,870 in-patients and 113,493 out patients.[4]  Celebrations were kept to a minimum due to the war, with the annual report simply noting “An expression of gratitude to Almighty God.”

Even then, thirty years before the founding of the NHS, it was clear the hospital would come under much greater pressure in the future. Chairman Henry Dickinson wrote in his 1918 report:

In consequence of the increasing demands made upon the present accommodation . . ., and the requirements of the present day methods of treatment…, the question of reconstruction of the hospital premises has forcibly brought to the attention of the committee… they feel that in the near future this task will have to be seriously taken in hand and additional and adequate provision made for the growing requirements of a County hospital.[5]

By the end of the war, the hospital had treated nearly 4000 soldiers.

Essex County may not have been able to keep up with the demands of a growing local community, but it’s important to recognise the central role it has played in providing healthcare to the people of Colchester and north Essex over the past 200 years – including through some of the most turbulent times in recent history.

By Declan King, heritage project officer.

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[1] ‘Colchester: Essex County Hospital, Lexden Road’, https://greatwarhomehospitals.wordpress.com/home/colchester-essex-county-hospital-lexden-road/ (Accessed 01 February 2018).

[2]  John B. Penfold, ‘The History of the Essex County Hospital, Colchester: Previously the Essex & Colchester Hospital 1820-1948 (1984)’ The Lavenham Press, Sudbury. p.200.

[3]   ‘British Medical Journal’, Vol. 1, No. 4490, (Jan. 25, 1947), p.162.

[4] John B. Penfold, The History of the Essex County Hospital, Colchester: Previously the Essex & Colchester Hospital 1820-1948 (1984) The Lavenham Press, Sudbury. p.200.

[5] John B. Penfold, The History of the Essex County Hospital, Colchester: Previously the Essex & Colchester Hospital 1820-1948 (1984) The Lavenham Press, Sudbury. p.202.

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