Skip Navigation

Welcome to Bedford Borough Council

Hospital records part one

Care of the sick has always been one of the preoccupations of human society, but until the late eighteenth century it was rare to find purpose-built hospitals outside London. Travelling to the metropolis for medical treatment was expensive - for example the Kempston Overseers paid 4 16s. 7d. for coach hire and other expenses in getting Martha Palmer into Guy's Hospital in 1772 (Ref: P60/12/4) - and as a result most patients were treated locally.

The strong connection between sickness and destitution meant that people who were ill, disabled or mentally afflicted were often unable to support themselves and were looked after either at home or in the parish workhouse, with the cost of their treatment paid out of the poor rates. Sometimes contractors were paid to take over the running of the workhouse. In Dunstable in 1763 John Cudd received 108 for the year for which he was expected to provide "good and wholesome food", to "Discharge all Doctors and Surgeons Bills and find and provide Nurses for all sick persons under his care (Small Pox, Broken Bones excepted) and to pay for the Burying of all such poor people as shall Depart this Life in the said Workhouse" (Ref: P72/18/4). Some parishes had their own pest houses for the isolation of people suffering from small pox or other infectious diseases, but these were not hospitals in the sense that they provided a full range of care for the local population.

Details of our sources on Bedfordshire hospitals can be found by inputting the name of the hospital into the subject term field of the online catalgoue e.g. Bedford General Hospital. Essential reference books are also mentioned, including Private Charity and Public Purse: The Development of Bedford General Hospital, 1796-1988 by Bernard Cashman, which covers both the General Infirmary and the Workhouse Hospital, now respectively the South and North Wings of Bedford Hospital. Margaret Currie's book Hospitals in Luton and Dunstable, an Illustrated History is also useful.

We have records for several types of hospitals : Poor Law/Public Assistance Infirmaries; General Infirmaries, Isolation Hospitals; Tuberculosis Sanatoria; Convalescent Hospitals; Mental Hospitals and institutions for the mentally defective. These last two categories are covered in Part Two. Each hospital has some records common to all and some unusual series relevant to their specialisation. Before the setting up of the National Health Service in 1948 they generally worked independently of one another.

Poor Law/Public Assistance Infirmaries

Bedford Poor Law Infirmary (later St. Peter's Hospital) had its origins in the workhouse opened in 1796 for the five Bedford parishes and its role was extended to include the rest of North Bedfordshire in 1834. As part of the general services for the poor it provided an infirmary. In 1930 the building was run by the County Council as a Public Assistance Institution. To find information on what is now North Wing you should look at a variety of archives: Bedford Borough (Ref: BorBI), Poor Law Union (Ref: PUB), County Council Public Assistance Committee (Ref: PAH; PABC-PABH) and for the post-1948 period the North Beds.
Health Authority papers (Ref: HO/NB). A number of useful records on individual patients survive from the late nineteenth century in addition to the minute books, ledgers, correspondence books and admissions registers. These are grouped under the reference PUBH and include Medical Officer's report books and workhouse medical relief books. Birth and death registers survive from 1835 and maternity registers for 1925-1947. In 1948 the hospital was amalgamated with the Bedford Infirmary under the NHS and acquired its present name of North Wing in 1950.

The records of Bedford North Wing and its predecessors are among the most comprehensive of our holdings, but similar records survive for other Union Workhouses founded in 1835. Luton (later St. Mary's Hospital) is the most important of these. In addition to the Poor Law and Public Assistance records, some post-1948 files exist
(Ref: HOLSMR).

General Infirmaries

In contrast to the Bedford Poor Law Hospital, Bedford General Infirmary opened in 1803 as the first purpose-built local hospital with a county-wide catchment area. The Infirmary was endowed under the will of the first Samuel Whitbread (1720-1796) and supported by local subscribers. The first building, designed by John Wing, was replaced by the core of the present South Wing Hospital in 1898. The Building Committee minutes (Ref: HOB/M25) and plans of the rebuilding (Ref: HOB/V15) survive.

The bulk of the archive (Ref: class HO:B) relates to the administration of the Hospital. The minutes (Ref: HO:B/M) are useful for information on its day-to-day running while the data on patients is mainly statistical. The occasional person is mentioned by name, such as George Virgin, a Mormon patient, who was complained about in August 1859 for handing out tracts in the Hospital. There are few patients' records apart from a register of military cases for the two World Wars (Ref: HO:B/R1) and a list of inmates, c1938-1940 (Ref: HO:BR2).

Thanks to the county-wide service offered by the Bedford General Infirmary, Luton only felt the need for a local hospital in the 1870s. The first hospital was a modest Cottage Hospital, opened in 1872, replaced by the purpose-built Bute Hospital in 1882, and absorbed in its turn in 1939 by the new Luton and Dunstable Hospital. The annual reports of the Cottage and Bute Hospitals are held here (Ref: HOL/A1/1-4), as well as an early minute book of the Cottage Hospital for 1872-73 (Ref: HOL/M 1/1).

The Luton and Dunstable Hospital was opened on 14 February 1939 as a major general hospital serving the expanding towns of Luton and Dunstable and their immediate areas. Patients' registers exist from the 1940s to the 1970s. There are also a number of documents relating to the nursing staff (Ref: HOL/R).

Isolation Hospitals & Tuberculosis Sanatoria

The survival rate of records is reasonably good for Poor Law Hospitals and general infirmaries but the same cannot be said for the archives of other hospitals. Few records survive for the isolation hospitals, but there is a file of papers and reports on those established in the county, c.1896-1901 (Ref: HeV4). For example, Woburn Isolation Hospital opened in 1903, but none of its records survive apart from plans of the building (Ref: R1/1023) and a few postcards. The building now serves as Maryland College.

The picture is broadly the same for the tuberculosis sanatorium at Mogerhanger House which was run by the General Purposes Committee of the County Council in 1920. There are few records apart from plans of alterations and additions to the buildings (Ref. class: HO:MP), but there are general county tuberculosis case books for 1913-1927 (Ref: HeV3/1-3).

Convalescent Hospitals

The surviving records for the convalescent homes are more comprehensive. The area round Woburn Sands was thought to be particularly healthy and a number of homes were established there. Daneswood (Ref: HOD) was funded by prominent members of the Jewish community for Jewish consumptives in 1903. Admission registers cover the years 1903-1981, with one gap, whilst minutes of the Trust to which the Home belonged date back to 1863. Edmonton Union from London ran another convalescent home nearby called Edgebury. Admission registers date from 1928 to 1955 (Ref: HOE).

Some of the larger hospitals also ran convalescent homes. Bedford Hospital Convalescent Home admission registers exist for 1920-1948 and there is a similar register, 1889-1920, for the Luton Sick and Convalescent Hospital for Children (Ref: HOL/A 3/1) as well as an incomplete run of annual reports (Ref: HOL/A 2/1).

The development of mental hospitals follows a parallel course to the general hospitals looked at in this guide, for more details see Hospital Records: Part Two.