Torbay's Hospitals
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When we think about our ancestors, it's the larger picture we go for. Their birth date, when and where they got married, when their children were born, when they died. If we look for further details, it's probably what they did for a living or if they went to war. We seldom think about whether they got enough to eat or if they soldiered on through life with a chronic or crippling complaint.


It's worth stopping to ask about their health and general well-being because the truths may be an awful shock. Take this truth, for instance - workhouses were only officially abolished by the British Local Government Act of 1929 but many persisted into the 1940s. The remaining responsibility for the Poor Law was given to local authorities before its final abolition in 1948 but even after the The National Health Service Act of 1946 came into effect on 5 July 1948, workhouse buildings, with all their dreadful connotations were widely used for health care.


And as for those people with chronic conditions - hare lip, club foot, asthmatics, bow legged victims of rickets, the deaf who were necessarily also dumb - you passed them all in the street, taking for granted their inability to pay for treatment to alleviate their conditions because, until 1948, that is what one had to do - pay for treatment. 


Mrs. Ella Rowcroft was a wealthy and philanthropic widow who was descended from the Bristol WILLS family, tobacco importers and cigarette manufacturers. In the 1920s, she gave 100,00 for the building of a new Torbay Hospital* on a green field site at Lawes Bridge, Torquay. She laid the Foundation Stone on 26 June 1926 and the hospital opened to patients in September 1928. She, and her sister, Dame Violet Wills, continued to donate generously to the hospital over the years and her Torquay home became part of the Rowcroft Hospice in 1997.


This was a generous act which would benefit all the people of Torbay and it was performed by a wealthy woman who just happened to be interested in promoting hospitals. It was a huge piece of luck for the people of the area that she didn't prefer to use her money setting up a a home for stray dogs; it was another huge piece of luck that she happened to live in Torquay and it was even luckier that she was able to afford the  amount she donated to this cause. 


The final piece of luck was the opportunity it brought to thousands of ordinary people to get medical treatment - something we take for granted as our right today; but before the setting up of the National Health Service, this was by no means available everywhere. Even so, with all this good luck, the people of Torbay didn't get it all their own way - the treatment they accessed had to be paid for - not by the State - but by themselves through insurance plans, pleas to charities or through means-tested Poor Law assistance - the very same Poor Laws which had so plagued the lives of their ancestors a century before being still in existence. Countless people lived for years in a miserable state of health enduring treatable conditions just because they had no insurance and could not bring themselves to ask for charity or submit to Poor Law examination. 


The original Torbay Infirmary

The original Torbay Infirmary -  opened in 1851

Courtesy Devon County Council


Prior to the opening of Mrs. Rowcroft's new hospital at Lawes Bridge, people had to rely on the old Torbay Dispensary and Infirmary. At first, it was simply a charitable public dispensary with accommodation for a few inmates in a house in Lower Union Street. Demand grew steadily though and Sir Lawrence Palk contributed a site to enable a more suitable building to be built and this was opened in 1851. The wing on the side was added in 1862 through the generosity of Mr. N. B. Edmonstone who wished to see fever patients isolated from the main body of the hospital. The east wing, largely donated by Mr. W. Lavers was built in 1875 to accommodate children.


From the History of Torquay

by T. J. White - published 1878


"In the latter part of the year 1877, the institution was re-constructed; the Dispensary was abolished and in its place was formed a Provident Dispensary, by means of which the poor, on payment of a few shillings a year, are enabled to secure professional advice and medicine. The name of the institution was altered to the Torbay Hospital and Provident Dispensary."



And until Mrs. Rowcroft made her generous gift, enabling the building of a newer hospital in the late 1920s, this cramped and unsuitable building in a busy street in the centre of the town continued to serve the residents of Torbay as their main source of medical care.


But even the provisions of the new hospital at Lawes Bridge soon began to prove inadequate as modern medicine drove the need for expansion and change. Alterations and rebuilding began in 1968 and the 40 years which followed have produced a state-of-the-art three star hospital which has become a National Centre for innovation and training.


Torbay Hospital at Lawes Bridge in the 1950s

Torbay Hospital at Lawes Bridge in the 1950s

Courtesy The Torquay Times


*Torbay is a combined name for Torquay, Preston, Paignton, Churston and Brixham - the places which lie around the curve formed by the bay.


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Last modiied: 29/12/2007