Shutting Leith’s hospital left us scarred for life

The former Leith Hospital
The former Leith Hospital
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Some shuffled through its doors with fevered brows and broken limbs. There were those who arrived, body pummelled by a passing tram in an accident or horrifically wounded in a time of war.

Into Leith Hospital’s wards poured children with tonsilitis, measles, whooping cough and scarlet fever; shipyard workers brought to their knees by accidents and countless women seeking care or giving it as nurses or – unlike many other hospitals at the time – teaching others.

The hospital has now been converted into flats

The hospital has now been converted into flats

When Leith Hospital was finally branded out of date for modern needs and the doors shut, it left behind an open sore in the port that nearly a quarter of a century later still hasn’t fully healed.

Today, its Victorian walls in Mill Lane house smart flats and the children’s ward built as a First World War memorial to Leith’s fallen soldiers is, controversially, no more. The hospital’s once diverse range of services – it offered surgical and medical care, paediatric to geriatric, accident and emergency all under one roof – are now spread miles apart between Edinburgh’s remaining hospitals.

But while times have changed, vivid memories of Leith Hospital and its unique role remain, and are now recalled in a poignant “living memories” book and play that combine patients’ recollections with those of the dedicated professionals who worked there.

The result is a snapshot of times long gone –before vaccination programmes helped stem the tide of contagious diseases and when the area’s heavy industry brought daily risk to workers – but also an interesting reflection on the kind of hospital services we all receive today.

Surgeons and nurses in Leith Hospital's operating theatre in 1886

Surgeons and nurses in Leith Hospital's operating theatre in 1886

For while few would cast doubt on the huge benefits of modern hospitals with their expertise and technology, many also mourn for the days when medical care – especially when time was of the essence – was just a stone’s throw away.

“Although it closed back in the 1980s, local people still have powerful memories of this much-loved community resource,” says Liz Hare, artistic director of Citadel Arts Group, which tracked down people connected with the hospital as part of the book and play project. “Some people still feel betrayed and angry about the closure.

“Over the summer we’ve been collecting memories from people who were patients, visited or worked or trained there. We’ve now compiled stories and recollections of about 50 people.”

Among those who still mourn the loss of Leith Hospital is retired Dr George Venters, 73, who arrived there in 1963 fresh from university for his first house job. Years later he led the battle to retain some of the facility for the community.

For Dr Venters, below right, the diverse range of services it offered at its peak benefited locals, patients and staff alike. “I took the job for sentimental reasons,” he says. “I’m a Leither, I grew up with the hospital as part of my life: tonsils, adenoids, cuts and bruises. I was 25, fresh from university and Leith was an excellent training hospital. It dealt with a wide range of medical and surgical conditions and had a busy A&E department.

“It shared some consultants with the ERI so there was a high standard of expertise from surgeons who trained us as junior doctors.

“The general surgical ward could have quite complex cases – there could be neurological cases, orthopaedic, gastric. It was the whole range of medical sub specialities. It was fantastic training,” he adds. “The casualty department dealt with fairly heavy trauma from shipyards and there was a fair amount of industry in the area. It should never have been shut down.”

The closure decision sparked outrage. But protests and petitions failed to sway the health board at the time, and the building was sold for £1.65 million and converted into 40 flats. Leith Community Treatment Centre opened in its place in Junction Place offering minor surgery, outpatient services and consultants’ appointments, but not until six years of wrangling had taken place over its development.

Former nurse Grace Nicol, now 75, of Restalrig Terrace, says the hospital played a major role in many lives, including her own.

“My father was in and out a lot, he ended up having the first gastrectomy there,” she recalls. “When I was eight I was a patient too, I had my appendix out. Everyone regarded it as their hospital. My aunt helped raise money for the First World War memorial children’s ward and my mum got to know the nurses so well she’d have them over for tea.”

Like George, she recalls working there and receiving hands-on training across a spectrum of services which she fears many new nurses today struggle to match.

“I don’t think nurses today get the same training as we did,” she reflects. “We only had one day off a week but we worked split shifts, so although we were on 11 hours a day, we had time off in the afternoon. It meant you saw your patients every day and they were in longer, not just overnight and out. So you got to know more about them. Of course, matrons made a difference and ward sisters worked very hard – they were in charge of the ward, it was their responsibility. They had to train the nurses very well. The ward cleaners were thorough – you didn’t dare walk on their clean floor. I was heartbroken when it shut.”

Its closure in 1987 brought to an end 500 years of history which began with 15th-century monks at St Anthony’s Hospital who tended to the area’s sick. In the 18th century, the Humane Society revived sailors and fishermen who would otherwise have drowned in the docks.

Public fundraising helped pay for the Mill Lane hospital, which opened in 1851, and a massive local campaign later raised money for the children’s ward, built as a memorial to Leith’s fallen.

Leith-born novelist and storyteller, and Citadel founder member, Millie Gray, says: “The Leith people had a great pride in this hospital. This was a place they could go to for help. My friend Celia remembers that we always ran to the hospital. When she was knocked down by the tram in 1947 – and eventually her leg was amputated 24 hours later – she was picked up at Taylor Gardens and they ran to the hospital because there were no telephones.”

Millie, of Portobello, adds: “There was a lot of heavy industry and we had a lot of accidents – we’re talking before health and safety. There was poverty and deprivation in those days and lots of the wee scratches, like when my nail got jammed in the door and festered. It was really malnutrition and condemned housing – 40 people could be sharing one lavatory and each family had only access to one cold water tap – that caused a lot of the health problems.”

Peter Laidlaw was just four in 1939 when he arrived at the hospital doors. “Mother had taken me and my three brothers on a visit to my father’s factory, Laidlaw Drew & Co in Tower Street,” he remembers. “We were allowed to run about on our own among the men and their machines. Quite soon I noticed one of the machines had what looked like milk pouring on to hot metal, all steam and noise – fascinating! So I rushed up a wooden stairway, little more than a ladder really, to find mother and take her to see this. Pulling impatiently at her coat I lost my grip and fell backwards down the ladder, through the open bannister and out on to the concrete floor below.”

He was at the hospital within minutes – and didn’t leave again for nearly three weeks. “I had never been away from home before, but there was to be one huge compensation. Sister Edith Boyle was an angel beyond angelic. She was with me whenever I went into the operating theatre and woke me from the anaesthetic. She visited me many times a day and never missed tucking me up at night. Mother visited every day and was greatly comforted by Sister Boyle. The friendship turned into a lifelong one.”

* Leith Hospital Recalled is available, £5 (including P&P) from Liz Hare, Citadel Arts Group, e-mail lizhare@blueyonder.co.uk or 0131-337 8570.

Port’s pioneers

ONE of the more unusual patients at Leith Hospital arrived in July 1940 after the German Luftwaffe brought the battle to the port.

A bomb from a lone German raider struck 8 George Street, killing seven people. The plane was eventually forced down over the Forth by RAF fighters and the pilot, slightly injured, was brought to Leith Hospital.

According to reports, his display of “typical Nazi belligerence” didn’t subside until he was shown the damage he had done in George Street. Informed that the bomb had cost lives, he reportedly shed tears en route to a PoW camp.

Leith Hospital didn’t simply patch up patients. It was the first hospital to allow female doctors to do clinical teaching. Sophia Jex-Blake – founder of the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women – and six colleagues won a battle to graduate in medicine from Edinburgh University but had been refused permission to teach at the Royal Infirmary. They taught at Leith instead.

The intravenous drip was designed by the Leith GP Dr Thomas Latta during the cholera epidemic of 1831-32. And in 1941 the hospital became one of the first to have a specialist hand clinic after Australian surgeon Ben Murray performed pioneering surgery on a boy who had picked up a grenade from Musselburgh beach.