As we head through autumn it seems that ailments has become the trending topic of conversation. Covid is on the rise with a new variant, vaccinations are going on apace with a good number suffering a reaction to their double covid and flu jabs as sickness and stomach bugs are doing the rounds as the kids back at school spread all manner of illnesses through the community.
That all set me thinking about what happened when you were ill during the war. There was no National Health Service, the doctor cost an arm and a leg, hospitals were funded by local benefactors and fund-raising efforts and so granny’s cures were the most likely source of medicine for most children.
Cornwall had a vast number of evacuees, mainly unaccompanied children although there were also a large number of schools evacuated to the county and a large number of young mothers with pre-school children. The first wave had arrived over the weekend Britain went to war in September 1939. Another wave came when France fell and invasion seemed imminent with a further influx when the Blitz started in September 1940. Cornwall also received thousands more when large cities like Plymouth and Bristol were bombed in 1941. For example 26,000 children were expected during January 1941 and almost double that number came in March.
So what happened when an evacuee fell ill? At first, they would have been treated by the family’s favourite remedies. If something was more serious then the doctor would be involved. If the family couldn’t afford the doctor, then they either appealed to the local church, charity or to the evacuation authorities for help. Serious illness might result in hospitalisation and followed by recouperation at an evacuee sick bay hostel. Infectious diseases would result in the child being sent to an isolation hospital.
The last three months of 1940 saw a huge jump in the incidence of infectious diseases among children in Cornwall compared to the corresponding period a year earlier. There were 353 reports in 1939 and 3,467 notifications in 1940 – the impact of the influx of evacuees, with some coming from squalid housing conditions in the cities they had left behind and some being forced into overcrowded conditions in Cornwall that were far from satisfactory. Cases of scarlet fever had gone from 80 to 308, diphtheria from 44 cases to 207 and measles from 39 to 2,767. Dr R.N. Curnow, the county medical officer to the Cornwall Public Health Committee, acknowledged that the dramatic increase was due to the evacuation scheme. The Committee praised the work of the Camborne-Redruth District who had carried out over 9,000 diphtheria vaccinations on children without making a charge. The Cornwall War Medical Committee however urged that a county-wide vaccination scheme was needed to deal with the seriousness of the
Sending children away to an isolation hospital for these kinds of diseases was standard medical practice in the 1930s. Both my mother and an aunt told of stays in such an institution as young children for scarlet fever. Both said the isolation from family was the worst part of the ordeal. Cornwall’s isolation hospital was housed in the old workhouse in Truro. Situated at the top of Tregolls Road, it had been used as a naval hospital during the First World War despite still being used as a workhouse until 1929. It then became known as St Clement’s Hospital when it opened as Cornwall’s Isolation Hospital in 1940. Patients recalled an austere stone building with granite staircases cantilevered from the whitewashed walls. The building was still not connected to mains sewage during World War Two making infection control a full-time job for the nurses. It has now been divided up into 60 residences and is known as Chy Hwel (rather bizarrely as Hwel means mine!) and Yew Tree Court. There had been a total of 173 patients treated at the isolation hospital during the last three months of 1940 and all but six of them were evacuees.
Given the vast number of evacuees in Cornwall – official and otherwise – further facilities were desperately needed. The June 1940 influx had seen 28,000 evacuees arrive in Cornwall over three days from London alone, and they were just the ones
registered with the authorities. Many families who had relatives or connections within the county made their own arrangements.
So during 1940 a number of country houses were requisitioned to serve as Evacuee
Sick Bays providing basic nursing care for those who were unable to be looked after in their host household or hostel or those who needed a period of recouperation after leaving hospital. One such example was the 17 th century Tredethy House near Helland to the north of Bodmin. The house had passed through the hands of several notable Cornish families including the May and Hext families. Now unoccupied it was turned into a sick bay for evacuees in the Bodmin, Wadebridge and Camelford area. George Ellis, the Bodmin based press photographer, visited on several occasions and captured life at Tredethy – the young evacuees making a good photograph to tug at the heartstrings at Christmas or Easter. George Ellis told my father he had done what he could to make sure these out of sight evacuees were not forgotten, often taking toys and treats donated by the members of the Congregational Church in Bodmin of which he was an elder.
After the war Tredethy became the home of Prince Chula and Princess Elizabeth from Siam (now Thailand). Several buildings and memorials in nearby Bodmin bear their mark as they contributed greatly to Cornish life, including Princess Elizabeth’s
involvement with the Cornwall St John Ambulance Brigade. After the Princess’s death in 1971 the house became a hotel for a number of years but now is privately owned although two properties in the grounds are let as holiday accommodation.
Another Cornish property that was requisitioned was Castle House at Castle an Dinas. Situated at Royalton off the old A3059 that connected the old A30 to St Columb and Newquay, it now stands overlooking the new A30 dual carriageway. The house, known for its castellated front, was unoccupied in the 1930s. It was taken over in the summer of 1940 and staffed by nurses from the Civil Nursing Reserve. Evacuees from Newquay, St Columb, Fraddon and many of the clay country villages who fell ill ended up having a stay there. Today the site is a holiday caravan park.
Just a little further up the road towards St Columb an isolation unit for Castle House was established. This was in wooden huts erected on raised concrete block bases that supposedly allowed the buildings to be aired and ventilated creating a healthy
atmosphere and thus reducing the chances of infection spreading. Quite how it felt on a chilly winter’s day one can only imagine. The site is now overgrown although the bases for the huts can still be found amongst the vegetation.
Many historians consider that it was the public realisation of the living and health
conditions of many of the poorer children in our country that paved the way for the
creation of the welfare state, commenced with the publication of the Beveridge Report in 1942, and led to the creation of the National Health Service in 1948. Sadly in a post-pandemic cost of living crisis where obtaining a dentist or GP’s appointment is nigh impossible or not having your crucial operation cancelled by the hospital is rare, it again seems the medical divide between rich and poor is as wide as it’s ever been.
Alas, until next month, stay safe, stay well.