A look back at the old fever hospital

THIS week local author, Doreen McBride, takes a look at Banbridge’s old fever hospital:

Jason Diamond told me that Banbridge’s fever hospital, Spelga House was situated at the back of the site on Hospital Road, which runs from Ballygowan Road past the new Group surgery and the Polyclinic.

After the fever hospital closed Spelga House was used to house geriatric patients. I am grateful to Margaret Stevenson for providing photographs, taken by her deceased aunt, Effie McMeekin, of a garden party held in its grounds. As you can see it was a beautiful building and it is ironic to think of a people walking and enjoying a garden party in in the old workhouse grounds where so many destitute people suffered and died. Spelga Fold occupies the site once held by Spelga House

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Local historian Angela Dillon shared her Granny Bell’s memories of being in Spelga House as young child with scarlet fever.

“Granny Bell was born in the 1880s and died in 1961. Obviously she was not alive at the time of the famine but the regime she recalled would have been the same although the hospital was not as crowded. However, Granny Bell said conditions were awful and here were a lot of inmates.

“On admission you were given a good scrub in a bath containing Jeye’s Fluid which made your skin smart. When I was a child I once washed my dog in Jeyes Fluid and the poor thing got such a bad rash he had to be taken to the vet!

“Children were housed in the same wards as old people. Granny Bell did not like the the old people because they were cross.

“Patients with diphtheria were separated from those with scarlet fever. Most of the diphtheria patients died.

“Children with scarlet fever were allowed out into the fresh air to play. Granny Bell said they used to stand in the playground and goggle as tiny coffins were carried across the grounds going from the diphtheria wards to the morgue.

“Angela Dillon herself had scarlet fever and was admitted to Spelga Hospital in the 1940s. At this time there were few inmates but her experiences were similar to Granny Bell’s. She, like her grandmother remembers seeing small children’s coffins being taken to the morgue. She said that did not strike the children as having any particular significance. You never thought that you were going to die and you didn’t know who was in the coffin. She also had a bath in Jeye’s fluid and so did I! I was very young when I had suspected Scarlett fever and was rushed into Haypark Fever Hospital off the Ormeau Road in Belfast.

“My Mother told the nurse I had had a bath earlier in the night. Nurse said a rule was a rule and she would bath me. She was very rough and I screamed so she said she’d give me something to cry about and thumped me!

“After my bath I was taken into a large room and dumped into a cot. I was left alone. I thought I‘d been abandoned. My parents visited every day and could see me through a small window set in the door. Sister said if I saw them I would be upset and want to go home! I refused to eat and became so run down one of the glands under my left arm went septic. Nurse was cross and scolded as she dressed it saying it was my own fault because I wouldn’t eat! I was frightened because I thought my arm would fall off.

“My parents said afterwards it broke their hearts watching me cry my heart out and they brought me my favourite toy, a cuddly rabbit.

“Angela was better off than me. She was allowed out to play outside with other children. Her Aunt Minnie came to a ditch at the edge of the hospital grounds and threw sweets to her. Her parents sent her her favourite toy, a doll. They were told the doll would be destroyed when she was discharged but thought it would provide comfort and they would buy her another one. Poor Angela says she never cared for any other doll as much and I mourned the loss of my dear rabbit. Afterwards my parents said if they had been told what would happen they would never have brought my rabbit to the hospital.

“Eventually an older girl was put into the cot beside me. She got smacked for climbing out of her cot to give me a cuddle. Unfortunately she had nits so I went home with head lice!”

Banbridge Fever Hospital appears to have been much more kindly than what I experienced in Haypark. It was many years ago but the memory still makes me feel almost like crying. What did those poor abandoned souls feel in the past when they had no hope of escape?