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A healthy future for Blandford

Like many small hospitals, Blandford Community Hospital has had its problems. But after a pleasing past and a precarious present, its future seems assured. Tony Burton-Page tells its story.

Blandford Cottage Hospital as it was in the early 1900s before any extensions (image: Blandford Town Museum)

Blandford’s Community Hospital has been much in the news of late, most recently for the encouragingly positive reason that it has been granted half a million pounds by the trust that runs it for new services to be introduced. This has been reassuring for Blandfordians, who have had to read a few negative things about their much-loved hospital in the press during the last year.
A century and a half ago, Blandford’s hospital was also in the papers. The Blandford Express of 17 March 1883 reported that a man injured in a wagon accident at Tarrant Hinton was taken into ‘the new Cottage Hospital’. This was not the cottage hospital which is the basis of the present building, but a small establishment with five beds and a cot in Church House, at the junction of Salisbury Street with White Cliff Mill Street. It had been set up earlier that year thanks to the generosity of the Portman family, owners of the nearby Bryanston estate, and was later known as the Nurse House.
Naturally, this was better than nothing – there had not been a hospital in Blandford since St Leonard’s Chapel had been used as an infirmary for those returning from the Crusades – but by the late 19th century the population had increased to about 4000: five beds was clearly insufficient for the town’s needs. Concern by local members of the medical profession led them to appeal for donors and subscribers for a new hospital, and this resulted in a meeting at the Corner Coffee House (in the same building as the Nurse House) in November 1888. The subsequent report on this meeting points to the real need for a new hospital: ‘From the first, the five beds and one cot have seldom been unoccupied…. It must be obvious that the work of nursing in so small a house, especially in hot and sultry weather, and when every bed is occupied, must be of a trying character…. More commodious premises are greatly to be desired.’
Once again, the Portmans stepped in. They provided the funds to acquire a new site a little further north, on the east side of Milldown Road – the hospital’s present site. The same report, which came out in 1890, states that ‘through the generosity of the Portman family, a Building was erected at once elegantly simple as a Cottage Hospital should be, and admirably adapted for all its purposes; in a fine and healthy situation, with wards well lighted, well warmed and well ventilated.’ The total cost of £3165 9s 10d was entirely borne by the Portmans, even including the laying out and maintenance of
the garden.
The Matron, Miss Short, moved into this new building on 25 April 1891 with four patients. There were also beds for private patients, who paid a charge of up to two guineas (£2.10) a week – a considerable sum, given that the Matron’s salary was £30 per year. Apart from the private beds, there were four cots for children and beds for six men and six women. Nurses were engaged for a salary of £16 per year, but the local doctors and visiting consultants gave their services free – a practice which continued until the formation of the National Health Service in July 1948. The 1906 Blandford Directory states: ‘This Hospital is principally intended for the necessitous poor of Blandford and those Parishes in the neighbourhood which have no institution of the kind within easy reach of them. Such patients are admitted free of charge.’
Rising prices in the inflationary 1930s, however, led to unexpectedly increased expenditure and this necessitated charging patients a small fee. This in turn brought about the founding of the Blandford and District Hospital League, which paid the costs of those who subscribed to it. The League endured until the start of the NHS, when it was disbanded but almost immediately re-formed as the League of Friends, with Viscount Portman in the chair at the first meeting. It continues its work of supporting the hospital to this day: although nowadays known as the Friends of Blandford Community Hospital, there is still a Viscount Portman as patron.
The 1891 building was complemented by an isolation hospital for infectious diseases such as smallpox and scarlet fever. It was built at the end of the 19th century in the northern outskirts of the town and survived until 1945, by which time advances in medicine had made such a facility less necessary than previously. The actual hospital was demolished but the Matron’s house remains, an odd Victorian survival in a 20th-century industrial estate.

A community hospital doesn’t only cater for elderly patients

By the late 1930s the Cottage Hospital building was approaching its half-century and was itself in need of therapeutic treatment. Major extension work began in 1937 and was completed the next year, with a formal opening by the Countess of Ilchester and a blessing from the Bishop of Salisbury. The new additions included a women’s ward, resident staff quarters and domestic offices. According to the Hon. Secretary’s Report for 1938, ‘As soon as the new ward was opened the beds were quickly filled, with the result that the total number of patients admitted was 241, which was twelve more than the previous record…. 81 major operations were performed by the Honorary Visiting Surgeons, whilst 110 minor operations were performed by the Honorary Medical Staff.’ A portable X-ray unit had been purchased in the 1920s, and the report boasts that 169 patients were X-rayed in 1938, and also that ‘a new Ultra Violet Ray Set, as well as a Galvanic Battery, were purchased during the year and these together cost about £37.’
There was further extension work in 1963, and in 1969 a new X-ray unit and medical records office were provided. But the NHS Reorganisation Act of 1973 required major changes: the district hospital in Dorchester was to be supplemented by smaller ‘community hospitals’ in Portland, Weymouth, Bridport, Shaftesbury, Sherborne and Blandford. Plans to enlarge the ‘cottage hospital’ started to appear in 1976 and building work finally began in 1982. What emerged in 1986 was virtually a new hospital, with 30 geriatric, 20 psycho-geriatric and 22 general beds, a 24-hour casualty department, a newly-equipped operating theatre and improved outpatient, physiotherapy and occupational therapy facilities. A sign that the hospital had finally come of age was that it was opened by Princess Anne, the Princess Royal.

Blandford is one of the few community hospitals with its own hydrotherapy pool. It was financed by the hospital’s League of Friends.

The League of Friends raised enough money to have a hydrotherapy pool built in 1988 for the physiotherapy department. It was the first of its kind in a UK community hospital, and Blandford is still one of the very few to have such a facility. Further developments included the reconfiguration of the Tarrant Ward, the addition of family rooms and a sun lounge, and an audiology clinic – many of the changes being financed by the Friends.
But the financial pressures of recent years have taken their toll. The Portman Ward has been closed since 2010, the 24-hour casualty department is now a minor injuries unit; and this year an inspection by the Care Quality Commission led to the temporary moving of the Betty Highwood Unit, an older peoples’ mental health ward which had only been open since 2001, to Weymouth Community Hospital, largely because of staffing concerns.
Many Blandfordians are understandably worried about the future of their hospital. Fortunately for them, one of the most fervent supporters of the hospital is actually in charge of it – Darren Wickwar, one of the 21st-century ‘modern matrons’.

The hospital has a fully-equipped occupational therapy suite

‘We’re quite a long way from any of the larger hospitals, so the service we provide is vital for Blandford and the surrounding villages,’ says Darren. ‘The patients we have on the ward nowadays are much more unwell than they used to be in community hospitals, so we’ve worked hard on developing new skills and providing nurses with the training they need to perform tasks which traditionally weren’t done here – blood transfusions, intravenous antibiotics and other infusions, which a few years ago would have been performed at an acute hospital such as Dorchester or Poole.
‘The majority of our patients are older people, but we do have younger ones – one local younger patient comes in three times a week for intravenous antibiotics, and there are other young patients who come for similar treatments early in the morning and then go off to work in town. This wouldn’t be nearly so convenient if they had to travel to an acute hospital.
‘We also provide end-of-life care, and many people prefer to be somewhere more familiar and personal than a large hospital – moreover, it’s easier for family and friends and neighbours to visit the patients here within their community.
‘We have great plans for the future – with £500,000 investment from the NHS and further support from the Friends we’ll be able to redevelop the Portman Ward and bring it back into clinical use, improve our services and also provide some new ones.’
Perhaps the last word should come from the patients, who continually give positive feedback about their hospital and its staff. Blandfordians, it seems, can rest assured.

Vestiges of the old Cottage Hospital can be seen on the right of this photograph. Both the minibuses were provided by the Friends of Blandford Community Hospital.


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