Page last updated at 00:11 GMT, Saturday, 20 December 2008

Great Ormond Street's Victorian patients

By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News

Nurses: Pic:The Museum & Archive, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children
A group of nurses at the hospital

Life was hard for many Victorian children, particularly for the poor and malnourished whose lives were often plagued by sickness.

Diseases like tuberculosis (TB), diphtheria, rheumatic fever, croup and measles were rife, and often killers.

Even if the children survived they could often be left weak or disabled.

Now a fascinating website is giving the public access to photographs and life stories of some of the Victorian and Edwardian convalescent patients at the Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital, in London (GOSH).

'Pillar to post'

Researchers have uncovered records of 10,000 children treated at the hospital's Cromwell House convalescent home in north London between 1869 and 1904.

They have been added to GOSH's 'Small and Special' website, launched last year, which already held details of 84,000 young patients.

Dr Sue Hawkins, research project manager from Kingston University , added: "Life for some of these desperately sick children involved being passed from pillar to post.

Life for some of these desperately sick children involved being passed from pillar to post
Dr Sue Hawkins, GOSH

"With so few hospitals willing to treat children, and their home circumstances not ideal for recovery, GOSH and Cromwell House were lifelines."

Here are some of their stories.


Thomas Garvey was admitted to the hospital on 23 March 1871 aged nine, and was thought to be suffering from aphasia - speech loss - after a stroke.

Before his illness Tom had been healthy and able to read and write.

He caught scarlet fever at Christmas of 1870 and was very ill, lying "motionless for four or five days", after which he was unable to speak.

His right arm and leg were paralysed, and the right side of his face was "drawn".

Tom Garvey:Pic:The Museum & Archive, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children
Tom Garvey is thought to have had a stroke

For a month he suffered from extreme pain in his head, and "screamed all the time". On his admission to the hospital, three months later, he was able to walk, but his right arm was flexed and was painful when touched.

He seemed to understand instructions and could point to other boys in the ward when they were mentioned by name.

When asked if he would like some beer, he would smile and nod his head, but asked if he would like cod liver oil he would frown and sometimes cry.

He spent time in the convalescent home and at the seaside and his condition improved.

After Tom was finally discharged he could repeat any word said to him and also sang a verse of a hymn.


Rebecca Novis was nine and a half when she was admitted to the hospital on 17 April 1871.

She was taken into the hospital because she had hardly spoken, moved or opened her eyes for four months.

Her father, however, claimed to have seen her walk round the table one evening when she thought no-one else was in the room.

Rebecca Novis: Pic:The Museum & Archive, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children
Rebecca Novis' case mystified doctors

When the doctors first saw her, she hid her eyes behind her left arm, and the rest of her body trembled constantly.

On admission, Rebecca was put on a diet of beef tea, milk and wine - and laxatives. In order to get her legs moving and her eyelids open, she was given warm showers and galvanic baths (electrotherapy).

She was well when discharged, on 3 August 1871.


Nellie Wallace, aged four and a half, was having problems with her knee - probably a TB-related condition caused by bacteria in unpasteurised milk.

She stayed in hospital for three months, and in September, having recovered sufficiently, was sent to the convalescent home to build up her strength.

Nellie Wallace.Pic:The Museum & Archive, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children
Nellie Wallace probably had TB

But while there she contracted scarlet fever, and on 17 December she was sent back to the hospital to recover.

But her knee problems worsened and she was re-admitted to the main hospital where part of her knee joint was removed.

Although she was declared fit and discharged the problem recurred and she had to have further surgery.


Sarah Coulson, aged six, from Derby, was first admitted to the hospital in August 1875 with severe burns to her chest.

She stayed at the main hospital for 10 days, but her condition did not improve and she was transferred to Cromwell House to recover.

Sarah Coulson: Pic:The Museum & Archive, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children
Sarah Coulson was admitted with serious burns

There her condition did improve slowly, but after eight months she was readmitted to the main hospital with fainting fits.

Her mother then requested she return home as she was missing her "on account of the great distance" even though she was not fully recovered.

Ten years later, records show, Sarah was working as a waitress.

Hospital records show burns were a common danger for Victorian children - some were so badly burned they died.

Treatment often included surgery to relieve the contraction of skin and tissues caused by the scars.

Catherine Wood, matron at GOSH from 1878-1888, gave advice on how to treat burns in her book of cottage lectures which was aimed at "peasant women" in the villages of England.

She stressed the need for careful management of the burn in the recovery period.

"Some of the most painful deformities that come into our hospitals are caused by neglect of the scar whilst the burn is healing."


Annie Kezia Eastland was admitted to the hospital, aged nine, on 21 November 1870, after developing a growth on the tibia bone in her leg and necrosis (dead tissue).

Annie Eastland. Pic:The Museum & Archive, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children
Annie Eastland died from TB

She was at Great Ormond Street for over six months, being discharged on 15 June 1871.

Her condition on her release was described as "relieved" or improved, but within a couple of months Annie was back with the same diagnosis.

A picture of her taken while she was in the hospital was probably used in one of their fund-raising schemes, as she is in one of their hospital's sponsored cots.

Later records show that Annie died at home from phthisis, the respiratory form of tuberculosis.

Dr Andrea Tanner, an archivist at GOSH, said evidence gathered shows that 10% of the children treated 1852 and 1914 were suffering from an infectious disease, one in five of whom died.

"The information about children suffering from infectious diseases is quite revealing.

"The hospital was not supposed to accept children with such severe conditions but the doctors obviously felt unable to turn them away."

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