Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Stannington Sanatorium was the first purposely built hospital for children with tuberculosis in the UK, opening its doors in 1907. At the time, more people in Britain died of Tuberculosis (TB) than any other disease.
Before the National Health Service, funding for the sanatorium was supplied by local charities. It was important that the hospital was funded externally and not by patient contributions, as tuberculosis disproportionately affected the poor. In 1907 there was no known cure for TB apart from bed rest and time outdoors, something that the poor could ill afford. As TB struck down people of all ages, this often meant that the main earner of the family was bedridden for months or even years at a time, leaving families penniless. The disease also spread more easily in the cramped and dirty conditions these families were forced to live in.
Stannington initially opened with just 50 beds, taking only children. The first 5 patients came from Gateshead Workhouse, Hebburn Colliery, South Shields, Heaton, and Gateshead. By 1924 it had swelled to its largest, housing 310 children.
The lives of the children in the sanatorium may have been preferable to their homes for some: they had clean beds, lessons, plenty of chances to play outdoors, and films or local performers to entertain them. Patient 145 was admitted to Stannington Sanatorium in October 1945 aged 3, and is a typical example of some of the terrible conditions these children experienced:
"The home conditions in this case are appalling. The housing accommodation is only two rooms, in which are already living four adults and five children."
The girl was luckily discharged to the Briarmede Nursery in Gateshead, as doctors thought that sending her home would undo any of her progress in the sanatorium.
For many children the only hardship was limited contact with parents. The sanatorium limited visiting hours to try and contain the spread of TB, which is mildly contagious. Travelling to Stannington was not easy in an age where very few families had cars, and some
would be travelling from their homes in Yorkshire or Cumbria by unreliable public transport. Most families were allowed to visit once every two months, which for a child must have seemed an achingly long time. Children on the terminally ill ward were allowed visits once a month, a small mercy.
The sanatorium, over its lifetime, saw the introduction of more reliable cures than just bed rest. Improvements in sanitation, vaccination, and other public-health measures began significantly reducing rates of TB from 1900 onwards. The introduction of Streptomycin in 1947 revolutionised treatment for some, though not for all. George Orwell, the author of 1984 and The Road to Wigan Pier, had such harmful side effects that he awoke every morning to find that blisters in his throat had burst, sealing his lips shut with dried blood. For others however, Streptomycin allowed them to finally shake off TB for good. Prior to the introduction of this medication, the only treatment was surgical intervention, including the "pneumothorax technique", which involved collapsing an infected lung to "rest" it and to allow tuberculous lesions to heal. Stannington had an operating theatre and an x-ray room in order to carry out these procedures on site.
The sanatorium was updated and extended many times, usually thanks to the donation of benefactors. This included the building of a state of the art sun room for patients, as well as purpose built school rooms. Very little remains of the original buildings now. It is easy to confuse the location of the sanitorium with that of St Mary’s Hospital, also located in Stannington and opened at a similar time. St Mary’s was a specialist mental health facility rather than a part of the sanatorium, and has recently been converted into a rather nice hotel and some houses.
The National Health Service took over the responsibility of the sanatorium in 1948. In 1953 it became a general children's hospital, with cases of TB having declined rapidly due to the new advances, until its closure in 1984. 120 linear feet of records from the sanatorium were deposited with Northumberland Archives, and they now have an excellent online exhibition from which I drew heavily for this article. If you would like to find out more, visit their website https://northumberlandarchives.com/exhibitions/stannington/index.html
Jess Matthews lives and works in Morpeth. She graduated in English Literature at Edinburgh University with a side of Medical History, and specialises in early 20th century medicine and psychiatry.