Only 15 days until the ECH Open Day!

Final poster 2018.png


The Great War, Women and Essex County Hospital


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.


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]


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.


[1] ‘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.

Essex County Hospital Through The Lens

deb    Deb Wiltshire

ECH Main Entrance 1918 #5

Many of us will at some point have spent a happy Sunday afternoon rummaging through the treasure trove that is a photograph album or box of old family pictures.  We were fortunate to find such a box at Essex County Hospital. These images allow us to see Essex County in its early years and to trace how it has changed over its 200-year history.

There are photos which capture the main site. In this early picture from 1884 we can see the hospital as it was orginally designed.

ECH 1884

In this aerial photo from around 2001 the original building is still apparent with its distinctive white portico. We can also see how much the site has grown around it – as had the scale and the needs of the local community.

ECH site

The photographs discovered don’t just tell us what the hospital looked like, they show us how the buildings were used and what services were provided at Essex County.

ECH pharmacy B ECH pharmacy F

The above pictures show the dispensary or pharmacy at the turn of the 20th century, whilst the picture below is of the operating theatre around 1921.


There are also many photographs showing life on the wards, including the charming pictures of the wards at Christmas which were the subject of an earlier blog.


People are a vital part of any hospital community. Amongst the photographs were a number of formal group photos of medical staff dating from the late 1800s.

ECH Medical Staff 1880 ECH staff 1926

Within the box of photographs, we found an almost complete photographic record of the women who were in charge of the wards – the matrons – spanning from Miss Robertson (matron from 1877 to 1881) to Miss Wyman (matron from 1958 to 1974).

Miss Robertson 1877_1881 Miss Wyman 1958_1974

We also found a number of informal photos, many of the hospital’s nurses relaxing in the grounds surrounding the hospital and nurses’ home.

Night nurses home Oxford Rd 1948

We were pleased to find a photographic record of staff whose work is not always as well documented as that of nurses and doctors. Mr Lamb, a porter, appears in a number of pictures, carrying water and tending to the hospital gardens under the watchful eye of a young patient.


Some of the photos were annotated with dates and names, but many were not. All of the photographs have been digitised and can be found on the ECH Heritage Flickr page and we invite you to look through the collections. Perhaps you recognise some of the people, or perhaps you can tell us more about life at the hospital? If so, please do get in touch with us via our Contact page.

Or you can come and visit us at the Heritage Open Day to celebrate and commemorate 200 years of service on the 30th June 2018. Stay tuned for more details soon!

Essex County Hospital: The Brewery

Alcohol has been an invaluable antiseptic for centuries – and it’s still being used to this day. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was also commonly consumed by patients in hospitals as part of their daily diet. The absence of modern sewage and water treatment systems meant that clean drinking water was not readily available, and the risk of water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhoid were high. In fact there were two cholera outbreaks in Britain in this period, in 1832 which was the first reported case killing 8,595 by August 1832, and then again in 1848, killing approximately 1,595 by January 1st 1849.

Patients at Essex County Hospital (both male and female) were rationed one pint a day of beer or porter (stout). Initially this was purchased by the hospital through a local brewery. But so many patients complained about the quality of the beer that the hospital committee intervened. In November 1822, the decision was made for the hospital to brew its own beer.

The hospital hired its own brewer and produced roughly 3 butts (a butt being approximately 2500-3000 pints) in one batch, the cost of this being £8. 4. 2 every 2-3 months. Brewing most likely took place in the cellar (shown in map above of 1876). Although the hospital was producing its own alcohol, the matron at the time also noted in one year the additional purchasing of “200 Gallons of Porter, 4 dozen bottles of port wine. 2-4 gallons of gin, 2 gallons of brandy, 2 dozen bottles of sherry”.

John B. Penfold, historian of the hospital, noted that most of this was likely used by the Board as cordials. In the 1830s, alcohol made up an astonishing 10 per cent of the hospital budget.

The acidic taste of the beer was a recurring theme, however. In 1831, doctors recommended adding alkali – responsibility for implementing this improvement then fell to the hospital’s apothecary. A change in the cleaning methods of the equipment also brought a welcome break from complaints for a period.

But in 1859 and 1862 patient complaints on the quality of the beer became more severe. The hospital was forced to sell the stale beer it was producing and buy a decent brew from local suppliers to give to the patients and staff. The economic strain on the committee meant brewing finally ceased in August 1864, around 40 years after it had begun.


To find out more, see John B. Penfold, The History of the Essex County Hospital, Colchester Previously the Essex & Colchester Hospital 1820-1948, (Sudbury; 1984).

Preserving Memories, Respecting Lives

By Dr Terry Smyth, former nurse at ECH

Aerial Photo Pre 2001

Essex County Hospital is my alma mater, the place that catapulted me from a shy, naïve young man into a registered nurse. It was where I learned about human nature, about human suffering, and how patients, families and staff respond when faced with accident, illness or death. The few years I worked there made a profound and lasting impression on me. Now, nearly five decades on, I still find myself thinking about my time there, reflecting on particular patients or staff, and how together they helped shape my later career as a nurse teacher and education manager.

I left school with no qualifications, but somehow managed to squeeze into nurse training courtesy of the long defunct General Nursing Council entrance test. This was the era of hospital-run apprenticeship training, and Essex County Hospital generously gave me my first taste of paid work. Even though nominally we were “student” nurses, we thought of ourselves as workers, and were certainly used by hospital management as pairs of hands. Lengthy periods of time rostered on the wards and departments alternated with short “blocks” of formal teaching in the classrooms attached to the hospital. In those days – the late 1960s – university education was not even a speck on the horizon.

We need to jump forward forty odd years to April 2014, when I learn that the Trust is planning to close Essex County Hospital seemingly with little fanfare. A few years earlier, a similar situation had arisen in connection with Severalls Hospital. I had also trained and worked there, in the 1970s, immediately after leaving Essex County Hospital. Severalls closed in 1997 and the buildings, but more importantly the lives and memories of patients and staff, allowed to slide into an unforgivably painful and tortuous period of decline. 1998 saw the publication of a Trust-commissioned social history of the hospital (“Madness in its Place” by Diana Gittins) which was well received by reviewers. But the profound and highly visible blight inflicted on the Severalls site had obliterated many of the more subtle benefits accrued from the Gittins’s book. By September 2012, when it appeared the developers were close to bringing in the bulldozers, I wrote an impassioned letter to the Chief Executive and Chairperson of the Mental Health Trust in which I argued for a final open day. These extracts convey the tone.

I worked at Severalls between 1970 and 1983, as a student nurse, staff nurse, charge nurse, nurse tutor and finally senior tutor … My experiences in Severalls made a lasting impression … I witnessed the good, the bad, the cruel and the compassionate faces of mental health care. I tried in my work with students and colleagues to improve the care offered and to encourage respect for every individual. Overwhelmingly, I came away with a strong sense of the reality of people living out their lives, lives intertwined and complex, not always happy but equally not always sad or tragic. Whatever one believes about the suitability of large institutions like Severalls in the care of people with mental illness, the simple truth is that many people did spend large parts of their lives there – patients and staff – experiencing the heartaches and happiness shared by those in wider society.

… I believe that many people, myself included, would appreciate the chance to visit the hospital before it is transformed into a different kind of community altogether, before the bulldozers begin in earnest. Arranging a visit for those people who would like to bid a final farewell would be a very fitting gesture of respect to everyone with connections to the hospital.

After a week, the Chair of the Trust responded sympathetically:

I found your comments extremely interesting and also very moving. I am sure [the CEO] will respond to your suggestion of a “farewell” visit in due course. In the meantime, many thanks once again for taking the time and trouble to write to me.

Although I was never rewarded with a reply from the CEO, the Trust did organise a “Farewell to Severalls” tour, which eventually took place on 7 November 2013. Everyone taking part in the tours received a ‘certificate’ to mark the occasion.

ECH Open Day poster 13-6-2015-page-002

Although the Trust worked hard to organise the day, I felt that an opportunity had been missed. No thought had been given to capturing the memories of those taking the tours. Spontaneous recollections on the day were reflective, rich in detail, and full of all shades of humour. Sadly, they went begging.

In 2014, with the Severalls Hospital experience fresh in my mind, I felt compelled to respond in some way to the imminent demise of Essex County Hospital. Whilst I fully understood that the Trust’s top priority had to be the smooth transfer of patient services from Essex County Hospital to Colchester General, I remained conscious of the fact that this was a hospital with a 200 year history, and I feared that this considerable legacy might not be recognised, or its role in the life of the local community not fully valued. So, on 14 November 2014, I emailed the then Chief Executive of the Trust – Dr. Lucy Moore – with my concerns.

At that time I was in the throes of a PhD at the University of Essex which, although based in the Sociology department, had strong connections with History. Given my irrepressible urge to create links between people and ideas, I struck out in several directions, pressing the case for collaboration between the Trust, the university’s History department, and Colchester Recalled. The latter is the voluntary local history group founded nearly thirty years ago to compile an archive of recorded memories of Colchester and District over the past 120 years. To cut a long story short, by February 2015 Colchester Hospital NHS Trust had invited me to join a working group to plan an Essex County Hospital “open day” for the summer. Before long I had also secured the agreement of the History department for one of their staff – Dr. Amanda Wilkinson – to formally represent the university on the working group. Chaired by Nick Chatten (project manager for the transfer of services), and supported by his deputy Becci Hurst, the group steamed ahead. The open day was held on Saturday 13 June 2015 with local media providing valuable advance publicity.[1] On the day, some 500 visitors arrived. We escorted them in small groups on a tour of the hospital; volunteers from Colchester Recalled took the contact details of those willing to share their memories of the hospital.

ECH Open Day poster 13-6-2015-page-001

After the Open Day, Nick Chatten wrote a letter of thanks to all those who had helped to make the event such a success. I’ll quote from his letter because it conveys something of the impression the day made on the hospital management.

I wanted to put on record my very sincere thanks to you for the part you played in making our ECH Open Day a great success. It was a real pleasure to overhear the chatter about times past and to see so many former colleagues meeting up.

Whilst at times we were a little overwhelmed by the sheer numbers coming through the door, the whole ECH team of staff, past and present, rose to the occasion and gave visitors a very interesting and enjoyable visit.

Since the open day, it is great to see that the ECH heritage project has really taken off, boosted by the appointment of Dr. Alix Green to the History department. Her special expertise in the promotion of public history and community engagement is exactly what the project needed to take it to the next level. Although the delay to the closure of the hospital (now expected to be July) must have frustrated hospital management, it had the beneficial side effect of providing extra breathing space for the heritage project to get off the ground.

On a personal note, I “lost” several months of involvement with the project due to other commitments. However, now that I have resurfaced, I can recognise just how much progress has been made. I am particularly pleased to see that the connections between the various stakeholders have been strengthened, especially through the generous sponsorship of the two MA History students whose energy, expertise and commitment is reflected in this website.

[1] E.g.


Terry Smyth

Terry began his health service career in 1967 as a student nurse at the Essex County Hospital, followed by psychiatric nurse training at Severalls Hospital. After qualifying as a Nurse Tutor in 1977, he spent six years in psychiatric nurse education at the North East Essex School of Nursing. In 1985, he moved into further and higher education at Colchester Institute. He left in 2003 to become an Education Consultant working freelance for local colleges, funding bodies and national education and training agencies. Terry has written two textbooks for the care sector, and articles for various professional journals and popular magazines.

In 2013, he started a full time sociology degree at the University of Essex, graduating in 2017. His PhD thesis was entitled “Roots of Remembrance: Tracing the Memory Practices of the Children of Far East Prisoners of War”. His interest in local and public history has grown significantly in recent years, linked principally to the closures of Severalls and Essex County Hospitals. He has just been appointed a ‘Community Fellow’ by Essex University’s Department of History.

Christmas at Essex County Hospital

By Deb Wiltshire

Being in hospital over Christmas can be especially hard. Our work digitising the materials found at Essex County Hospital uncovered a number of photographs that show the efforts made by the staff to help patients enjoy the festivities.

Ward 4 1932 Matron Jones Dr Sidney Curl Hon Physician

This early photograph from 1932 show the elaborate decorations put up on ward 4 for patients. The hand-written notes on the photograph allow us to identify the matron and doctor on duty, although we do not know anything about the other people present.

Ward 6 1946

Christmas on ward 6 in 1946

Immediately following the Second World War, this photograph shows a more sparsely decorated ward, but it must still have offered the patients some much-needed festive cheer. We also have a photograph of a turkey being carved on the ward!

ECH Ward 6 1946 #1

The turkey being carved on ward 6 in 1946

It’s easy to forget that, for the staff working round the clock on over the Christmas period, missing that time with their families can also be difficult, then as now. These efforts to bring Christmas into the wards must have been valuable for them too.

Here at ECH Heritage we would like to thank all the staff at hospitals across the UK – past and present – who work over the festival period to care for those who are sick. We wish staff, patients and our supporters a very Happy Christmas!

Don’t forget, if you worked at Essex County Hospital or were a patient at Christmas, we would love to hear from you, using the contact us form on our website.

Migration stories


Kyle Cameron-Symes

People of colour have lived in Britain for centuries. David Olusoga’s recent BBC2 documentary Black and British: a forgotten history powerfully documented the long relationship between the British Isles and the people of Africa. The NHS has a particular place in the more recent history of this complex relationship. On 22nd June 1948, the Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury bringing many migrants from the West Indies. Britain’s post-war reconstruction needed their labour, and the newly-formed NHS actively recruited doctors and nurses from the Commonwealth over the following years.

Immigration was, and remains, essential to the development of the NHS. One of the most compelling first-hand accounts of immigration to Britain comes from Nurse Shirla Philogène, whose first job in Britain was at Essex County.

You can find Shirla’s story in her book Between Two Worlds: A Narrative, which gives us an insight into the experience of a West Indian migrant coming to the UK, with all the trials and triumphs that it brought. Shirla reflects on how people of Britain viewed her:

‘In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, most people appeared to be intrigued by the presence of West Indian nurses within the hospital. We were viewed as being partly mysterious and exotic.’[1]

She also recounts her time working at Essex County Hospital; one of her most vivid memories is of her arrival at the Nurses Home of the ECH:

‘We arrived at the nurses’ home. The high iron gates were locked and chained. There was a dim light in one of the rooms on the upper floor. We rang the bell and rattled the chain, but there was no response. We continued in our efforts and were eventually rewarded by the spectacle of a figure dressed in a long white robe, wearing a night cap over a pig tail, and who, in a tone as frosty as night said, “Nurse, you know that you should not come to the front entrance of the nurses’ home after 9.00pm You should have gone to Night Sister’s office in the main hospital, and she would have let you in.”’[2]

The biography makes for an engaging read, describing Shirla’s experience “between two worlds” of Saint Vincent and the United Kingdom, and also giving us access to an important story of life at Essex County Hospital. I would highly recommend this book – it is an inspiring read.

People still come from around the world come to Britain to work in the NHS; the contributions that migrants make to our healthcare system are invaluable – it wouldn’t work without them.

2018 marks Essex County Hospital’s 200th anniversary but also 70 years since the foundation of the NHS and the arrival of the Windrush. There must be many more stories of people who, like Shirla, migrated to Britain and came to work at ECH – and we would like to be able to hear and share them. Over time, we hope to build up a record of people’s recollections as a lasting legacy of the hospital so please do send us a message on our contact form if you do have anything you would like to contribute.

[1] Shirla Philogène, Between Two Worlds – a Narrative (Author House: Milton Keynes, 2011) p.51
[2] Shirla Philogène, Between Two Worlds, p.42