— #07 Annfield Street
A personal reminiscence by Dr George Venters, co-founder of Newhaven Heritage.
Even before it was founded in 1848, Leith hospital had a connection with Newhaven. A Mr John Stewart of Laverockbank left £1,000 for the purposes of setting up a fever hospital in Leith. This provided the major donation for the starting of the hospital. Since then it has always been well supported and used by the people of Newhaven.
It was always an innovative, independent and teaching hospital and played a key part in women’s education by making teaching beds available for women medical graduates in medicine in Edinburgh. Medical education in Edinburgh advanced rapidly during the second half of the 19th century and Leith benefited greatly from this. The quality of care was equal to that provided in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary because it had the same doctors tending patients in both.
As medicine evolved so did the kinds of services it provided and it became a small general hospital giving in-patient and out-patient care for general medicine and surgery
Before the National Health Service came into being in 1948 the hospital needed public support to fund the various activities it undertook. Because of the generosity of the people of Leith and Newhaven. at the start of the NHS, it was one of the best funded hospitals in Scotland. In addition to the numerous bequests and donations it was given, an annual Pageant and procession made a very useful addition to the money it received. Floats from Newhaven were regularly conspicuous in the processions. The fishwives, costumed in their “braws” (their finest costumes), were always an attractive addition to any occasion and their Choirs performed benefit concerts on its behalf.
Many a Newhaven sideboard or mantelpiece was graced by a collection tin for the hospital. A Newhaven worthy, George Hackland, tells of his mother having a line of tins beside the door which he would have to deliver to houses and shops so that the people could put their pennies in. With that kind of support there was a sense of ownership of the hospital amongst the community and they used it appropriately and extensively.
Before the advent of the NHS, healthcare cost money. In the 1930s and 40s a doctor would charge anything from half a crown upwards for a visit, so frequent use was made of Leith casualty department. This was the catch-all place for minor injuries and illnesses and people sat on benches in the waiting room for their turn to be seen. When the porter in charge of the queue was a Newhavener he would often bump Newhaveners up the queue, much to the resentment of the people in Leith who lived next door to the hospital.
Given that everybody walked everywhere for the first half of the 20th century, Leith was not a far distance and even as children we thought nothing of walking the half mile to the hospital. I can remember as a five year old taking my wee brother aged two along there for a minor injury. (My mother was due to deliver my sister the next day so, as eldest I was in charge.)
Doubtless tons of tonsils have been removed from Newhaven bairns during the period it was fashionable to take them out. Mine certainly were and I remember the process well. My mother dropped me off then carried on to the public wash house leaving me in the tender care of nurses in the paediatric unit. No such tenderness was evident from the anaesthetist who jammed my mouth open with a gag and proceeded to suffocate me into oblivion. We did get the rare treat of of ice cream the next day when we convalesced but I would have preferred to have kept my tonsils.
The hospital was well loved by everybody who worked in it for it was seen as a beacon in the town. When people passed by, at all hours, they could see the people working there, caring for the sick and reflecting the kindness inherent in the community. On winters’ nights the nurses in the paediatric wing could be seen from Great Junction Street hurrying to tend and comfort the bairns.
That Paediatric wing was Leith’s memorial to the suffering and loss of the First World War — no bronze soldier with bowed head but a place where love and caring were everywhere.
As a house surgeon I had the chance to keek from the main corridor there through the clear peephole of the door into the ward where I had lain with my sore throat 20 years before.
I chose Leith for my first job because of my affection for the place and the deep debt that I and all Newhaveners owed it. Looking back, I could not have made a better choice. The people I worked with were skilled and caring and taught me well. The spectrum of illness and injury that confronted us was wide and varied which gave me a range of experience unequalled In any other such post in the city. And best of all, I was treating my own people.
Ironically I was to play a substantial part in its closure in 1988 and its fight to save it. But that’s a story of betrayal for another day.