Epidemics have been unwelcome visitors to Ipswich since colonial days. The names of the diseases may have changed but public health measures are remarkably familiar, with Ipswich General Hospital at the heart of care and treatment in our town.
The hospital opened at the beginning of March 1860 with a small space allocated for fevers. Within a few years there was talk of a need for bigger facilities. At this time the hospital was very modest and supported by community donations and subscriptions so consideration of greater accommodation for those with fever was no small thing. By 1872 it was agreed by the Hospital Board that a special fever ward was required. Tenders for the project were called with a budget of £800. 1
However that was not the end of the matter: ‘… epidemic fevers taxed accommodation severely and in 1886 improvements included a new fever ward as well as a new kitchen and a new laundry. At times the new ward did not prove sufficient and convalescent patients were housed in tents.’ 2
A typhoid fever epidemic befell Ipswich in late 1888 with 120 cases.3 Then the following year with yet another Scarlet Fever outbreak, the Ipswich Hospital began to think about an isolation ward to separate sufferers from the general hospital population. A ward was designated and dedicated staff to treat the sick were appointed. By this time the ward was sometimes referred to as the “Scarlet Fever ward” due to regular presentations of the disease in the Ipswich community and therefore at the hospital.
At an Ipswich Hospital Board meeting with the Joint Epidemic Board in 1901 it was argued ‘that the Ipswich Hospital is a general hospital, ‘…. to aid the sick, and not an institution established for the treatment of epidemic or infectious diseases. A general hospital such as ours is not supposed to take in patients suffering from epidemic diseases at all, for fear of contagion….’ 4
Isolating the contagious has been a recurring theme. In the early years of the 20th century the old immigration depot near the North Ipswich Cricket Reserve was often proposed for that purpose although never accomplished. Instead, the Joint Hospital Board and representatives of the State Government, at a meeting in October 1903, discussed the potential use of tent wards erected in the hospital grounds at times of crisis. Funding to build a hospital to handle epidemics was ‘out of the question altogether’ according to Under Secretary W. H. Ryder.5 Just like today, during that Scarlet Fever epidemic people were questioning quarantine restrictions and non-compliance.
For several years an epidemic hospital operated at Newtown under the management of the Joint Hospital Board but was unpopular with local residents as a school was located nearby and infection was feared. 6 After years of community agitation to move the hospital, a site adjacent to the Sandy Gallop Asylum was chosen. The new epidemic hospital opened there in 1914 designed by well-known architect G. B. Gill. This hospital was not part of Ipswich General Hospital and was managed by the Joint Hospital Board. Its use as an epidemic hospital was short-lived however and 3 years later a new epidemic facility opposite the Ipswich General Hospital assumed the role.
A property at 7 Chelmsford Avenue had been purchased from Joseph Foote Cribb. The “hospital” included 2 rooms (wards) to accommodate 20-30 patients, plus nurses’ quarters in the old Cribb house. 7 Interestingly, there were no walls in the wards just canvas blinds that were pulled up during the day and folded down at night. These remained a feature of the epidemic hospital for many, many years. Happily there was also space in the grounds for tents, if required. This new facility was close to the main hospital but crucially was (in excess of) 60 feet from existing hospital buildings, as decreed by the Health Commissioner.8 It also came under the supervision of the Ipswich Hospital Board with Dr Philip Thornton in charge of operations from 1916-1920.
This site was used until the 1950s and was the epicentre of infectious disease management in Ipswich for decades. It is still part of Ipswich Hospital today.
With special thanks to Jane Kingston, Ipswich Hospital Museum
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