There had been a hospital of one kind or another in Bath Street, Gravesend for more than a hundred years when I first became familiar with it. My first memory of the place was when I was four years old and had broken my arm in the park at Crayford when the park keeper chased me out at closing time along with my older cousin Margaret. He was waving a broom at the time and terrified me although Margaret claimed he was only joking. Nevertheless at the time she ran faster than I did and she was eleven and to my mind almost grown up so must have known a thing or two.
At first nobody believed that I couldn’t move my right arm because I was inclined to hysteria and making things up just for the fun of it. However when Aunt Mag tried to tempt me with her home-made toffee - but only if I could take it with my right hand, even she began to grudgingly believe me. My mother blamed Margaret for not taking better care of me and Aunt Mag for persuading her that it was safe to let me go off for an hour in the park in the care of her oldest daughter. After all what could possibly happen to me with Margaret in charge? She was eleven when all was said and done!
On the bus ride home there was a lot of muttering about Mag not knowing her arse from her elbow where her Margaret was concerned and it was obvious there had been a sad mishap with my right arm although far be it from her to claim that Margaret was completely to blame. The arm had not improved the next day and that was how I found myself in Gravesend Hospital having a fracture of the shaft of the humerus reduced with the aid of a terrifying chloroform mask. I was sent home with my right arm in a sling where it remained for six long weeks thus ensuring that I learned to do a lot with my teeth. I was relieved that my older cousin always remained mostly responsible for the injury because secretly I wondered if there might be repercussions for not vacating the park at the first request of the broom waving park keeper. I had failed to admit that it was me who shouted that he was a Stinky Bum because Margaret had simply said I’d been rude which my mother had chosen not to believe because after all she knew me and I was never rude to strangers apparently.
Great-great Aunt Martha from Hamerton Road, who we always called Little Nanny, came to visit and to inspect the injured arm and she said that we were very fortunate to have the Bath Road hospital and that when she was a girl it was known as The Infirmary. Lord Darnley had given a hundred guineas to get it up and running for the Destitute Poor. Countess Darnley had opened the new children’s ward in the 1880s and Little Nanny knew of many a child perishing there of Smallpox years ago. By the turn of the century there had been two new wards added, circular in design, where a nurse sat at a desk in the middle and was able to keep an eye on everything that was going on around her. They were called the Russell Wards because they had been paid for by Russells, the Brewers of Gravesend. I had never heard of Russells the Brewers although I was vaguely familiar with Lord Darnley whose woods we plundered with my grandmother, Old Nan, picking his bluebells and primroses to brighten our kitchens and collecting his chestnuts for roasting and his blackberries to add to our stewed apples.
I had no further dealings with the Hospital until my brother had his tonsils removed there when he was two and we had to queue up to wait for the front doors to open at seven am. By that time it had improved by leaps and bounds. A whole new wing had been added at enormous cost and later I read somewhere that the Hospital had at one stage become affiliated with the Chatham Military Hospital and during the First World War had fifty beds reserved for wounded servicemen. By 1930 when my mother and aunts had clear memories of the place, an Out Patients Department had been opened together with designated Women’s Wards. By 1944 it boasted more than 120 beds. Bernard, at only two, neither knew nor cared about any of this rather predictable history but emerged from his stay wholly appreciative of the place because he had totally approved of the ice cream he had been given after his operation. It was now 1949 and our Hospital had joined the NHS under the control of the Medway and Gravesend Management Committee. There was even talk of an old Sanatorium in Whitehill Lane being converted to a maternity home. This was at a time when the majority of women had their babies at home unless they were what my mother described as Toffee Nosed with More Money Than Sense.
In mid-December 1951 when my father died in the building there were 150 beds of which he occupied one for just a day or two. The average weekly cost of an in-patient had soared and the average length of stay was three weeks. Everyone agreed that the advent of the NHS meant that we didn’t know how lucky we were as far as accessing medical assistance was concerned. This had not been the case for him of course.
My last direct contact with the Hospital was in the early winter of 1952 when I had been left in charge of my young brother whilst my mother worked extra hours for The Lovells, helping them prepare for Christmas because they were about to entertain relatives from Brighton. Bernard was now growing taller, wanting to be treated like a Real Boy instead of a baby being now five and a half years old. He had no intention of staying inside the house with me playing the kind of games I insisted on which involved him dressing up as a girl called Wendy. He preferred to retreat outside to The Old Green with Hedley Davis who was also being allowed to be a Proper Grown Up Boy. I agreed, just as long as he was back by the time our mother returned just after five, and buried myself in my latest Monica Edwards library book. He returned only an hour or so later with a horrifying looking leg injury which involved a large segment of skin rolled back and flapping against his shin. There was also rather more blood than I was comfortable with.
I reluctantly reached the conclusion that this situation could only be improved by enlisting the services of the hospital as the local doctor’s surgery was not due to open until early evening. The whole venture was complicated by the fact that a thick fog was now descending upon Northfleet but at twelve years of age I paid little heed to this because my main motivation was ensuring that the injury should look a great deal tidier by the time my mother returned. Pulling a long school sock and a handkerchief over the offending flap of wayward skin I pulled him by the hand along Springhead Road where a man was in the throes of abandoning the cleaning of his small, shiny, black car. As we had no bus fare I decided to beg a lift to the hospital telling myself that the worst that could happen was that he said No. To my surprise after a minute of doubt and a whispered conversation with his wife in which I could tell she was very negative, he did not say No – he said Yes. We hopped into the back of the little black car and the Good Samaritan drove slowly and carefully through the deepening gloom and let us out in Bath Street, wishing us luck.
There was a long wait before my brother’s leg was stitched and bandaged and an interrogation as to why we were unsupervised during which I told a lot of lies which involved my mother having to meet a fictitious relative from an airport. It did not in my innocence regarding air travel, occur to me that all planes might be grounded along with the local buses all of which appeared to be coming to a grinding halt. It took a very long time to reach home again because the pea-souper that had descended was of astonishing proportions and we had to grope our way along the London Road very cautiously indeed.
Later it was called The Great Smog of 1952 and was caused by air pollution combined with an anticyclone and totally windless conditions. Over several days it was so persistent that it penetrated the very houses and thousands of people died as a direct result of it. Our mother was also detained by the conditions and so fortunately we arrived back in York Road before she did and we were only reprimanded for allowing the fire to go out during such dreadful weather. I don’t think she really knew what to say about the hospital visit and seemed grudgingly approving of me hijacking a lift from one of the Springhead Road neighbours because we all knew they were full of their own importance, particularly the few car owners among them.
When Old Nan came visiting a day or two later she reported that the fog had played Merry Hell with her bronchitis and her coughing had had to be heard to be believed. She also said it put her in mind of Bethnal Green in the old days when she was a girl and Jack The Ripper had roamed the streets. It was well known, she said, that nothing pleased him more than a good pea-souper.
I had nothing further to do with Gravesend Hospital whatsoever although I was told in the early 1970s that a new wing had opened with fifty beds and a Special Care Baby Unit. A few years ago I was astonished to find that I barely recognized the environs in which it now stands.