Wednesday 7 January 2015


PS...written on January 10th, 2015.

Yesterday, thanks to Christina Konig and Girton College, I had an email from the author of this book, PHILOMENA GUILLEBAUD. As you can imagine, I was thrilled to bits.
 She had this to add to what I said, on the subject of open wards:

I see that most of your correspondents were impressed by the open air aspect of the hospital, but as you will see in the book, this was only for the first two years, after which the War Office, for unspecified reasons, declared that 20 out of the 24 wards were to be enclosed, and this took place.  When the war ended, there was no memory that the hospital had once been renowned for being an open-air hospital.

It was very remiss of me, also, not to mention where you can get hold of the book, if you wanted to buy it. The answer is from the publisher: FERN HOUSE PUBLISHING, Haddenham, Cambridgeshire, CB6 3XA
and also from Amazon. 
It is a lovely book and well worth reading. It's good to have made the author's acquaintance on email


I live in a village just south of Cambridge. My house is the fourth on the left as you 'cross the border' (the sign saying Great Shelford) from Cambridge. Indeed I can see the sign saying 'Welcome to Cambridge' as I turn out of my drive. I vote in Great Shelford; I go to the Memorial Hall on a Wednesday for the WI market, and I meet my friends in the Deli. I wrote a post on this blog about the Church at the other end of the village. 

We are very lucky to have a wonderful little library in Great Shelford: modern, well-stocked and run by very pleasant people. I often go in there to look around and the last time I did I found a book which I think must have been privately printed.  I picked it up because I liked the name of the author: PHILOMENA GUILLEBAUD. The title looked fun too: From Bats to Beds to Books. 

 The writer had thoughtfully provided an email address and I wrote to her at once to ask her permission to write this post. I haven't had an answer, so if anyone reads this who knows her, or who knew her, I'd be most grateful if they could get in touch with me and give me a kind of retrospective license to write about this delightful volume. I'm also going to risk photographing some of the illustrations and if anyone knows that I am breaching their copyright, then again, please get in touch with me on adelegerasAT and tell me and I will remove them.  They all seem to have acquired a blue tinge in one corner that I'm too incompetent to remove but I hope everyone will forgive me for that.

But I'm starting with a photo of Cambridge University Library which is in the public domain. 

To my  mind, it's not a building of great beauty, but it is a wonderful place in many ways and the history of the site on which it stands is least I found it so.

Here is the story I uncovered when I took Philomena Guillebaud's fascinating book out of the library.

Anyone who's been in a modern hospital knows that one thing you can depend on is an even temperature which strikes the visitor as MUCH TOO WARM.  In Maternity Units, the excuse is that babies need warmth and that's fair enough. But even on medical wards, it has always struck me that hospitals tended towards the over warm rather than its opposite. 

It was not always thus. I am not going to make a précis of Guillebaud's excellent text but the narrative tells of a cricket pitch, shared between King's College and Clare College which was requisitioned by the Army at the beginning of the Great War and ploughed up to accommodate a hospital for the Territorial Force. This was called  the First Eastern General Hospital and when you read how speedily it was put up, complete with sewerage, electricity, gas, and medical equipment etc you wonder how slow we have become in the years since 1914.  Till it was ready, Trinity College set up wards in the college  quads (see the photo above) 

One of the driving forces behind the setting up of this new hospital was  Colonel Joseph Griffiths. He was a doctor and he had very firm views about how hospitals ought to be. To read Guillebaud's account, it seems that the organisation was extraordinarily efficient. There was food on site. The site map shows a space for a cinema.  The  hospital was on this site till 1919. Till then, staffed by doctors and nurses from nearby Addenbrooke's hospital, as well as many volunteers, VADs and others, it did good work in curing and tending the sick and the wounded. And, here's the thing: IT WAS AN OPEN AIR HOSPITAL. Read that again. It was an open air hospital. Think about it, now that the frost is on the windows and the skies sometimes full of rain and snow. OPEN AIR. One side of the ward had no windows. Griffiths, a doctor who had treated TB very often, believed in the efficacy of fresh air.

My thought when I read this was: 'well, yes, fine in the summer, but in the winter?' I was, to put it mildly, gobsmacked. I thought of the nurses, on duty on a freezing night, who referred to conditions as 'chilly' and who were delighted when they were given permission to wear.....wait for it....A CARDIGAN to wear over their uniform! Clearly, folk were made of sterner stuff then. The patients at least had their blankets. They were sometimes allowed four of these, but still, their heads were above the blankets and (though Guillebaud doesn't mention this) they must have had to get up to go to the lavatories. How did that work?  The winter of 1917 was fierce. The Cambridge winds are famous for their sharpness. It makes me shiver just to think of it. Also, of course, all the nourishing food that the kitchens provided must have been ice cold by the time it got to the wards.  Below are two photographs of an open ward, one of the interior of the ward and the other taken just outside.  Everyone looks quite happy and relaxed and not a bit cold but of course the images are   clearly taken in the summer.

 The site after the  end of the war became (again, very quickly indeed) housing for families who needed accommodation urgently. The colleges wanted their cricket pitches back. But the University was in discussions about using the land for a much-needed Library. By 1929, newspapers carried photographs of the homes on the site being vacated. The Cambridge University Library was on its way to being built. 

The last photograph shows the operating theatre in the Hospital.  I am thinking of those patients being wheeled along the corridor to a ward whose temperature doesn't bear thinking about. Still, no one died from cold, and most of the men who were treated there were cured. Colonel Griffiths believed passionately in the fresh air treatment. What's your opinion? I suspect that  open air wards would be a common feature in hospitals today if being in one was really efficacious. I'm  glad that Addenbrooke's, which is down the road from my house, is nice and warm but I admire and salute the men and women who served in the First  Eastern General Hospital and I loved the book Philomena Guillebaud has written about it.


Pippa Goodhart said...

Fascinating! Did you know that Cambridge University Library was designed by the man who designed the iconic (old) red phone boxes? You can see some similarity!
I hope those patients all wore bed socks and hats! Lovely post, Adele.

Lydia Syson said...

Love the book title. Could you have known how timely this post would be, with Addenbrooke's all over the news this morning 'in critical internal incident mode'? The 'fresh air' obsession must surely have been an extreme reaction to the closed window fixation of the Victorians (I'm thinking of Marghanita Laski's 'The Victorian Chaise-Longue' here) but must have also been making a virtue of necessity during WW1. Did anyone else see the lovely exhibition last year at the Florence Nightingale Museum (just by St Thomas's) about 'The Hospital in the Oatfield' which was also in tents, decorated with striped hotel awnings, but I don't think it lasted the winter? ( This book is also excellent.

Sally Prue said...

There was a fashion for the fresh air treatment of tuberculosis at the time - the first English sanatorium opened in 1907. Perhaps this was part of that. Mind you, if you had TB, as well as being left out in the snow you might well have a sandbag put on your chest, too, to strengthen your lungs.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Fascinating. I wonder how my son and his partner would feel about working in such an environment - they're both nurses! It's the sort of story that would make an interesting documentary.

Joan Lennon said...

Belief in the fresh air treatment lasted a long time. I was in Yalta in 1981 and rode on a ferry past open air hospitals for TB patients - but that was in hot, hot summertime.

adele said...

Thank you for your comments! And yes, Addenbrooke's is the latest to announce they are overworked in A&E...I had no idea that this would be in the news, I promise....and the fresh air thing keeps coming up. There are nursery schools, aren't there, in Scandinavia which are ENTIRELY OUTDOORS. Not for me! Didn't know about the phone boxes, Pippa but yes, there is a resemblance indeed...

Clare Mulley said...

I think I might trade one open wall for an on-site cinema, but I would need multiple cardis... Love the phonebox fact too Pippa.

Rosalind Adam said...

How things change. You're quite right in saying that hospitals today are unhealthily hot. Without revealing too much about my age I have vague memories of an open air hospital where Leicester's General Hospital now stands.

Christina Koning said...

A few weeks ago, I attended a talk by Philomena Guiilebaud, the author of 'From Bats to Beds to Books', which was given at my old college, Girton. It was a fascinating talk, and I'm happy to say I bought the book afterwards, which is - as Adele says - full of the most interesting detail, much of it previously unknown (at least to me). I'd spent many hours in the University Library as an undergraduate without suspecting that it stands on the site of a hospital. My own recent investigations into the First World War period made this all the more of a revelation to me... I'm afraid I don't have contact details for Philomena, but wonder if the Girton OG Society might?

Grace said...

There is a very funny (yes, really!) account of TB treatment in the USA in the 1940s, including cold, cold, fresh air, in Betty Macdonald's The Plague and I. And I have recently come across open air schools for sick children in Gateshead and Sheffield - and I don't suppose these are the only examples in the UK.

adele said...

Thanks so much, Christina....I will get in touch with Girton at once. How wonderful that you actually met her!

And I had a email from a friend in the USA (British) who said this:
Oh how I remember fresh air, the 2 years I spent in an Italian Swiss sanatorium with TB as a teenager. We slept in open glass roofed balconies all the year around and it was COLD. We were wrapped in woolen blankets, no sheets, for extra warmth and escaped frost bite!

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