From bodysnatchers and the pioneering surgeon who helped treat 'the madness of King George' - the history of Hemel Hempstead's hospitals

We take a trip down memory lane with Roy Wood, Vice President & Honorary Secretary of Hemel Hempstead Local History & Museum Society

By The Newsroom
Monday, 25th April 2022, 12:09 pm
Updated Monday, 25th April 2022, 3:43 pm
St Pauls Hospital
St Pauls Hospital

Our story begins back in 1898 when a Charter was granted to Hemel Hempstead by Queen Victoria which effectively made the town a Municipal Borough, thus enabling the people of the town to elect the posts of Mayor, Bailiff, and an Alderman.

The first elected Mayor of Hemel Hempstead, from 1898 - 1900, was Sir Astley Paston Cooper of Gadebridge House. The house stood opposite Gadebridge Park, on the other side of Leighton Buzzard Road as we know it today. Indeed, prior to the demolition of the house and the construction of the Leighton Buzzard Road, the park had actually been, more or less, Sir Astley’s front garden!

Paston-Cooper was an eminent surgeon, widely acknowledged in the medical profession, especially in the fields of Cerebral Circulation and Vascular Surgery.

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Sir John Sebright, 7 th Baronet of Besford.

He would go on to perform several pioneering operations, not least the removal of a sebaceous cyst from the brain of King George IV, as part of the treatment of what became known as ‘The Madness of King George’. Some six months later he was awarded a baronetcy, and was later appointed Sergeant Surgeon to the King, and was the recipient of several other prestigious honours.

It was Sir Astley Paston-Cooper who would give Hemel Hempstead its very first hospital in 1826. This was a ‘Cottage Hospital’ housed in a row of old cottages, known to date from the 15th century, in the Piccotts End area of the town. These were turned into an infirmary which would serve districts from Bushey to Tring and as far away as Redbourn, Harpenden and St Albans.

This hospital opened on the 1st January 1827, and surgeons undertook operations without the use of anaesthetic and worked hard to develop new techniques for limb amputations.

It is said that Paston-Cooper openly obtained corpses from ‘bodysnatchers’ at 10 guineas a time, and even paid their fines if they were caught!

Kings College Convalescent Home (AKA Cheere House)

A number of references to the great man remain in Hemel to this day, Astley Road, Paston Road and Astley School all bear his name, and there are numerous tributes to his work in the medical world. A statue of the great man, created by Edward Hodges Baily, remains today in St Paul’s Cathedral.

Before leaving here, however, we have to say that this ‘row of old cottages’ are in fact exactly the same buildings where the renowned Tudor Wall Murals were discovered. They are believed to date from as early as 1470-1500. The faces of the characters can be seen to have been obliterated, probably due to the Protestant Reformation during the 16th Century.

There are five panels in total, three upstairs and two in the lower area, each of them holding its own stories and meanings. For example, the two lower panels both contain figures of St Catharine who lived in the 4th century. She was believed to be a scholar who tried to convert the pagan Emperor Maximus Daia. Having found her guilty he sentenced her to death on the unbelievably horrific ‘Breaking Wheel’. However, legend tells us that she touched the wheel whereupon it broke, so she was beheaded instead!

Some 35 inpatients and 426 outpatients were treated by the third year. However, such was the size of the area the hospital was trying to accommodate, it became obvious that a new hospital would be needed.

Sir Astley Paston Cooper

As we have heard, the need for a new hospital had become a matter of some urgency and it was in 1831 that Sir John Sebright, C in Worcester and Beechfield Park Hertfordshire, put up £13,000.00 of his own money to fund a new building in Marlowes, known as The West Herts Infirmary, later Cheere house, the name by which we still know it today. It was later known, in 1878, as The Kings College Convalescent Home, when used purely for that purpose.

As with Paston-Cooper, his name remains in the town today in Sebright Road in Boxmoor, and prior to its demise The Sebright Arms public house on Marlowes. Furthermore, there was also a ward in the main Hemel Hempstead hospital named after him, which we shall pick up on later.

Before moving on we should mention The Hemel Hempstead Union Workhouse. This was erected during 1835/6, and was located at the east side of Redbourn Road, now Allandale, at a cost of £3,500.00. Authorised by the newly formed Hemel Hempstead Poor Law Union, and designed by Mr John Griffin, who had built other such buildings elsewhere, it would house some 200 inmates.

By the latter part of the 1860s a purpose-built separate 40-bed infirmary had been added at the rear of the property. Later, towards the end of the century the eastern side of the property was occupied by an isolation hospital for the treatment of infectious diseases, with its main entrance opening onto Highfield Lane, now Queensway.

Piccotts End Cottages – Hemel Hempstead’s first cottage hospital

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By the 1920s the Isolation building had become a Children's Home, and there was another separate home directly at the north of the site, at a house known as ’East Lodge’.

By 1930 the workhouse had come under the control of Herts County Council, and had become known as ‘Hempstead House Public Assistance Institution’. Time moved on and with the approach of WWII temporary ward blocks were erected at the north end of the premises as part of the emergency medical services. During 1948 the site joined The National Health Service as a Maternity Hospital for the town and became known as St Paul's Hospital.

This site has long since been demolished and is now the rather aptly named ‘Slipper’s Hill’ housing estate. This site has only been mentioned due to its eventual connection to the West Herts Hospital, but of course the town has had other isolation hospitals, sited at Wood Lane End, St Albans Hill in Bennetts End, and a very early one discovered on the site of The Crabtree Public House during renovation works.

There was a further pest house at Wood Lane End from the mid-eighteenth century. By 1898, however, the need was felt to erect a more modern isolation hospital for the area. Thus a wooden hut was erected on Highfield Lane, in Hemel Hempstead. It was run by the local authority for the use of patients only within that district, namely the area surrounding Hemel Hempstead. In 1913 it was decided to erect a purpose-built building at Bennetts End with a total of 45 beds, although during a smallpox epidemic in 1916 the Highfield Lane hospital had to be re-opened.

The Crabtree, one of the town's older Inns, dates back as far as 1563. It is known, from early 17th Century tithes, that the premises were also used as one of the local pest houses (isolation hospital cum workhouse), and was known in this context at the time of the great plague. Refurbishments costing £5000.00 were made in 1972, and during these renovations, a number of items of surgical nature were discovered, believed to date back to the isolation hospital days.

Operating theatre, circa 1940s-50s

As secretary of the Hemel Hempstead Local History and Museum Society, I am at the forefront of many questions, queries and donation offers that come to us by way of our website, and it was our website that introduced me to one of the most intriguing people I have had the pleasure of investigating.

I was contacted by Keith and Carole Chandler of Suffolk, who were trying to find a home for two items related to The Hemel Hempstead Poor House. All of which concerned one Edwin Trowell and his Wife Margaret. Naturally, due to their provenance, I accepted the offer there and then. Here began one of the most interesting history investigations I have undertaken.

Edwin was first employed, by Royal Crown Derby and worked in time, at 14 years old, on the renowned 40 piece dessert service, a presentation set to the then Prime Minister, the Right Honourable William. E. Gladstone. Edwin was a porcelain painter of note, and worked on some of the intricate scenery, emblems and other decoration.

Clearly, here we had two people dedicated to their chosen careers, and with clear and attainable targets, they worked at several other institutions and hospitals before arriving at Hemel Hempstead, where they gave twenty years of devoted service. One of the artefacts I have is the certificate presented to the couple on their retirement in 1923, which reads:

‘’The Present (and some past) Members of the Hemel Hempstead Board of Guardians; Ladies Visiting Committee and the Officers employed by the Board desire to record their warm appreciation of the very valuable services which have been rendered by Mr Edwin Trowell and Mrs Margaret Trowell as Master and Matron of the Hemel Hempstead Pool Law Institution during their long service of over Twenty Years.

“The care of the aged and happiness and welfare of the young have always most strongly influenced them in the performance of their duties. The responsibilities of their respective office have greatly appreciated that period, and especially so during the years of the Great War when the management of the institution was carried on with great difficulty.

“Mr and Mrs Trowell take with them into their retirement, the heartiest good wishes of all subscribers for their future happiness.”

It is dated 9th September 1923 and is signed S.J. Marnham Chairman of the Board. A gift of Treasury Notes in a case accompanies this testimonial.

Clearly, a devoted and exceptional couple!

We now move to the site on Hillfield Road, known to us previously as The West Hertfordshire Infirmary, and up to 1970 as The West Herts Hospital.

The story begins in 1877 with the opening of what we look upon today as the main block. The ceremony was performed by Princess Mary, Duchess of Teck mother of Queen Mary. There was room for some fifty patients, and accommodation for seven nurses. In 1899 the hospital acquired X-Ray facilities. It is thought this was one of the first hospitals in England to do so.

1914, of course, saw the beginning of WWI, and to accommodate sick and wounded members of the armed forces, extra beds were added in the Windsor Wing. Following the war, in 1918, the hospital was struggling to meet the requirements of the district, and it was undertaken to provide extra nursing accommodation and the provision of both electrical power and lighting.

Work on the new Marnham Ward began in 1926, and The Prince of Wales was on hand to lay the foundation stone. Continuing from this the period 1929 - 1939 saw the hospital make significant headway. Operating theatres were added, together with a private ward and Chapel also came into being. Apart from this there were significant extensions made to the X-Ray Department. Also in 1939 a new Children’s Ward was opened.

In 1946 Cheere House became officially a ‘Hospital Property’, when it was used as a nurse’s training school, and also extra nurse’s accommodation. Also that year the pre-fabricated huts, used by patients evacuated during the war, were developed into a new unit known locally as St Pauls Hospital. To begin with this additional unit was used as Elderly Care Medical Wards. Later the adjacent, desolate workhouse was finally demolished to make way for a brand new Maternity Unit, with two wards, a Special-Care Baby Unit and a Nursery.

Two years later, in 1948, The National Health Service was established, and this led to the amalgamation of the two units in Hemel under the new name of ‘Hemel Hempstead General Hospital’. However, the growth of Hemel Hempstead, now a New Town, continued to push the hospital to its limits, and so during 1952 developments to improve the situation began. The West Herts Wing became the main site for surgery and outpatients, and The St Pauls wing became a medical unit a specialised Maternity Unit handling all maternity cases requiring medical treatment. Later, in 1959, Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother came to the Hemel Hempstead to open a brand new outpatients department and a new block which would house an extra 58 beds.

A further improvement arrived in 1967 when, following an appeal by the then-mayor, a new play centre was opened, which offered a valuable service caring for small children of parents and relatives. Later, in 1968 a new Coronary Care Unit was opened up at St Paul's Wing.

During the 1970s the West Herts Wing continued to develop and expand its services with the addition of a new Recovery Ward and a new Antenatal Clinic, and a further extension to the X-Ray Department, effectively increasing it to a five-room set-up instead of just the two. Further additions were introduced in the 1980s with the acquisition of essential evaluation equipment such as a scanner and ultrasound machines.

1988 was a year of tragedy and jubilation. Cheere House was badly damaged due to an electrical fire. The roof in particular was damaged in several places as the fire had spread rather quickly. The immediate decision was to demolish the building due to the damage. However, following protestations from medical staff, the decision was overturned, and it was agreed to completely refurbish the building and turn it into a new Postgraduate Centre which duly happened in 1992. It was also at this time that it became a Doctor’s residence.

The next ten years or so saw many changes made including the addition of three new wings, named Tudor, Veralum and Windsor. The Queen Elizabeth block was refurbished and a new, larger A&E Department was put in place. Somewhat sadly, 1989 would see the decision taken to completely close the St Pauls Wing, and relocate all the services to The West Herts Wing at Hillfield Road.

The next year to bring great change was 2004. It was then that the Hemel Hempstead, St Albans, Mount Vernon and Watford General Hospital Trusts were brought under one umbrella, amalgamated to become The West Hertfordshire Hospitals Trust.

2008 saw the opening of an Urgent Care Centre, specifically introduced to look after patients who need immediate treatment, but whose injuries were not life-threatening. These would include such things as cuts, strains, sprains, fractures, insect bites etc.

2009 saw The Trust embark on a series of significant redevelopments including the redesigning and relocation of the outpatient and therapy departments, specifically designed to provide considerable improvement to the patient experience. There was also the opening of a new GP- Led Health Centre offering appointments seven days a week, 365 days a year.

It was during 2014 that The West Primary Care Trust (PCT) took the decision to lead on the development of a new purpose-built local general hospital for the people of Hemel Hempstead and the surrounding areas, which would incorporate the services of a local general hospital, and possibly even others.

Today, The Saga Continues……