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Newcastle Fever Hospitals

As Newcastle industrialised the population boomed, rendering the people of the city susceptible to waterborne diseases and outbreaks. As renowned local historian Ken Smith articulates, hospitals opened to combat these afflictions. This piece tracks the history of those institutions in the city.


Newcastle's early Fever Hospital, also known as the House of Recovery, was opened in 1804 a short distance outside the town's Western Walls. A previous plan to open a fever ward at Newcastle's old Infirmary at the top of Forth Banks was dropped because the spread of infection was feared.

The land for the Fever Hospital, in Bath Lane, was gifted by Newcastle Corporation and funding for construction was raised by subscriptions. Early 19th Century historian Eneas Mackenzie, writing in the 1820s, declared that great attention was paid to 'purification' of the rooms, bedding and clothing of patients. He stated that 'since it was first opened in 1804, the progress of fever in this town and the vicinity has been frequently and promptly arrested'.

Patients who could afford to pay were charged two shillings per day and had to provide their own medicines and attendants. The poor could be attended to if their friends or the parish paid the same amount. Patients were given medicines by an apothecary from the town's Dispensary who visited the hospital on a daily basis. Wine was among the prescriptions available. It is clear that many of the poor would be unable to raise the amount of money needed for admission and treatment.

Diseases suffered by patients included smallpox, cholera and typhoid. As late as 1881 seven patients were reported to have died from smallpox. All had been suffering from the severest form of the illness.

The Fever Hospital closed in 1888, but the building survives to this day in Bath Lane as a reminder of an era in which infectious diseases were often rife.

The former Fever Hospital in Bath Lane, Newcastle, pictured in recent years after it was extensively renovated. Photo: Tom Yellowley
The former Fever Hospital in Bath Lane, Newcastle, pictured before extensive restoration work. The hospital opened in 1804 and closed in 1888. Photo: Tom Yellowley

The old hospital, however, was replaced by a new one, the Newcastle City Hospital for Infectious Diseases in Walkergate in the East End of the city. It opened in the same year the House of Recovery closed. Patients were admitted with diptheria, scarlet fever and other serious conditions.

A 'temporary' smallpox hospital had been opened on the city's Town Moor in 1882, consisting of single-storey buildings of corrugated iron and wood. It was situated off the southern side of Grandstand Road between the junction of Cow Hill and Kenton Road. Today, a track leads from Grandstand Road towards the site of this small hospital, where there is now a group of trees.

In 1927, 65 men contracted smallpox and nearly all were admitted to the Town Moor hospital. Some were residents of Newcastle Workhouse and others patients of the Workhouse Hospital in Westgate Road (which was developed into Newcastle General Hospital). Fortunately, in this outbreak the illness was mild. Every patient recovered.

The hospital was stated to be capable of accommodating 170 patients, although whether this number was ever admitted at any one time is doubtful. The temporary 'hospital' was used as an overflow unit for patients suffering from a variety of infectious diseases and not exclusively for those with smallpox. It was demolished around 1957.

A second isolation hospital, on the western side of the city, was in operation at Lemington by the early 20th Century, although it later became a unit for elderly people with health problems.

However, the earliest known Newcastle hospital for an infectious disease was not the Fever Hospital of 1804. This was the Hospital of St Mary Magdalene, near Barras Bridge. Founded during the reign of Henry I (1100-1135), it catered for people suffering from leprosy. Their carers were 'a master, brethren and three sisters'.

A medieval health problem, leprosy is believed by some to have been brought back to England by Crusaders returning from the Holy Land. However, there is no conclusive proof that this was the case and doubt has been cast on the theory.

In addition to those suffering from leprosy, people with various types of skin ailments are thought to have been admitted to the leper, or 'Lazar', hospitals.

Fear of leprosy led to the hospital being built on the northern edge of Newcastle and when the Town Walls were built in the late 13th and 14th centuries the institution was left outside this defensive barrier.

The hospital site was in the area of the present-day St Thomas's Church and St Mary's Place. Those who died from leprosy are believed to have been buried near the bridge spanning the Pandon Burn, which ran past the hospital. It is thought that the name for the crossing, Barras Bridge, was derived from 'barrows', an alternative word for graves. This cemetery, belonging to the hospital, was known as the Maudlin Barrows and the patients were buried there.

St Thomas's Church, Barras Bridge, Newcastle. The medieval St Mary Magdalene Hospital for those suffering from leprosy was situated in the approximate area of the church and St Mary's Place. Photo: Tom Yellowley

By the time of the reign of Henry VIII leprosy was very rare in England and those in poverty who were sick were admitted to the St Mary Magdalene Hospital 'in times of pestilence' – a reference to the visitations of the bubonic plague.

Another hospital, known as St James's, was opened on the other side of the bridge approximately at the location of today's Great North Museum and this was a sister institution to St Mary Magdalene. It is also believed to have cared for those afflicted with leprosy and perhaps other conditions. Chapels were attached to both hospitals.


Retired Newcastle journalist Ken Smith is co-author, with his wife Jean, of The Great Northern Miners. He has also written more than 20 other books on aspects of North-East history, often with co-authors, including shipbuilding and shipping as well as coal mining.


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