Llanelli Hospital 1867

Llanelli, like many Victorian towns in the middle of the 19th century, suffered from the ravages of cholera. It was prevalent in 1849, but in 1866 it returned with a vengeance. Between July 14th and August 25th a total of 164 of the town's inhabitants had succumbed to the spread of this deadly disease.[1]Despite the efforts of the Local Board of Health the town was in a very insanitary condition. A report on the state of Llanelli by Dr Hunter in May1866 paints a very grim picture ...

An unusually large proportion of the houses in both town and hamlets are working-men's cottages and of these some are mere cabins of the smallest and meanest sort. One or two rows have been in latter years subdivided longitudinally into double the number of back-to-backs, and in at least one populous group nearly all the houses are formed by the conversion of a row of Smithies...

The people are necessarily crowded in such houses as these, for families of an ordinary size have often but one bedroom. Lodgers must here and there be received, for of registered common lodging houses there were only two, but that overcrowding did not reach the crying intensity met with in Eastern Wales was proved by the absence of beds from any of the kitchens, except in a few cases where there was but one room for the whole use of a small family...

As in all mining places privies were very few, and there were properties altogether without them, but when I inspected such as there were I found they were seldom used, and I saw in some a contrivance I never saw elsewhere – a pot or bucket was hung just within the privy seat, so that each tenant could remove his dung to the garden [or was as equally common] to a store, where with that of the pigsties it remained until it could be sold to a farmer or a neighbour who had a garden...

There was very little untidiness, ordure [manure] was not lying about the paths through idleness, but it was deliberately planted, as a matter of business wherever it could be made to go.[2]

In effect, the people of Llanelli were collecting, storing and then selling off their manure and that of their pigs to those people who were paying for it i.e. farmers, small holders and local potato growers. The report was also very critical of the town's drains and sewers.

Although the drainage appeared to work well on the rising ground, on the lower flat ground the outflow of sewerage was severely diminished. Dr Hunter concluded his report indicating that the serious causes of illness in the town was due to all the manure lying about and the poor flushing and clearing of the main sewers and drains. He recommended that there should be one public depot for manure on dry ground to the east of the town and commented adversely on the keeping of pigs in close proximity to the cottages. (It must be remembered, that the famous Dr John Snow's 'infected water theory' had not yet become accepted as the cause of Cholera) [3]

Earlier In January of 1866 a letter had appeared in the Llanelly Guardian signed by an anonymous "Member of the Board of Health" calling for the establishment of a hospital in Llanelli. This plea was heeded, because on 24th May 1866, the 'Board' subsequently wrote to T. Taylor, the Permanent Secretary to the General Board of Health in Whitehall, London, for permission to raise money from the General District Rate ... towards the providing a Hospital or Building for the reception of persons labouring under Cholera or other contagious diseases and for sick diseased or wounded persons or for persons suffering any permanent or natural infirmity...[4]

It seems that the reply was in the negative, for at a meeting of the Local Board of Health held at the old Town Hall in Hall Street, on Sat 4 August 1866, they deemed it desirable to retain a 'House of Refuge' in Kings Square and 'Mr James', house near the Station' which had been used by the Llanelly Union Workhouse as a fever hospital. [5]

There had been an early Fever Hospital next to the Wern National School, which probably consisted of part of the old 'Poor Houses' or 'Alms Houses'. These were taken over by the Llanelly Union Workhouse in May 1848. Their present-day location would be near Cwrt Elusendy. [6]

In the meantime some of the local gentry of Llanelli had set up a charity that was known as The Llanelly Cholera Relief and Village Hospital Fund. Within a year this fund had raised sufficient monies to provide the town with the desired need, because at the first Annual Meeting of the Committee held at the old Town Hall, on Friday 6 September 1867, it was announced that £73 had been spent on providing 'Medical Assistants', blankets and 'house-to-house' visitors during the cholera epidemic.

This action drew the attention of the public to the plight of the poor and affected community which in turn, attracted more funds leaving the charity with a surplus of enough monies to lease a detached block of three cottages on Bigyn Hill for 21 years, at a rent of £30 a year. A further cost of £107 17s 4d [£107.86] was expended in converting and furnishing these cottages to be used as a village hospital. They had also secured the services of 'an efficient trained nurse' at an annual salary of £20 a year. Mr R Glascodine announced that the committee... have the pleasure of reporting that the Hospital is now prepared to the reception of patients. The accommodation will be sufficient for eight; at present three are ready for use...

The Hospital Committee at the time of its opening was; Messrs. W. Rosser, R. Nevill, W. Thomas, R. Glascodine, C. W. Nevill, C. N. Broom, S. Samuel, J. Randell, J. S. Tregoning and the Reverends D. Williams D. M. Evans, and D. E. Williams. [7]

In his 'Old Llanelly' the historian John Innes states that the location of this hospital was 'half way up Bigyn Hill' which is confirmed by Harry Davies' in his 'Looking Around Llanelli'. A search through some of the old maps in the Llanelli Reference Library's collection indicate that these houses are still extant and are the first three houses in Bigyn Park Terrace. The first two properties are marked as 'Hospital'. The third was the abode of the Matron. The houses were probably chosen because of their elevated position and at that time, they were isolated from the main part of the town. It has been reported that they were originally roofed in thatch.

A month before opening, permission was approved by the Llanelly Board of Health to connect the building to the main water supply pipe. This for many years consisted of a single outside tap, a considerable luxury in those days. It must be remembered that it was not long since the town's reservoir at Trebeddrod had come into operation and many people were still using the town wells. [8]

According to Harry Davies the first head of this establishment was the Matron, 27 year old Isabella H. Letcher, daughter of Isaiah & Mary Letcher, of New Road, Llanelli. (Davies) Her father was a 'Colliery Agent' and a man of influence in the town.

A year following the opening of the hospital, an advert appeared in the local press 'A Nurse Wanted' offering a salary £7 10s [£7.50] per annum with board, lodge and training. One wonders what training these nurses had. It was only a short time since the ending of the Crimean War in1856, when there were some great advances in the field of nursing as promulgated by the famous Florence Nightingale. Where did they do their training? There were local infirmaries at Swansea and Carmarthen. Or were the people of Llanelli fortunate to have someone trained at St Thomas' Hospital in London, where there was an early nursing school?

As well as the cholera victims there were casualties. In December 1868, Thomas Morris from the nearby district of the 'Wern' was employed in breaking rocks near the railway line by the New Dock when he was run over by the 11:45 train from Llanelli to Pontardulais. He sustained two fractured legs and severe head injuries. Morris was taken to the Bigyn Hospital but unfortunately, he died shortly afterwards. A brief 'snap shot' in time taken from the 1871 Census Returns shows us that the patients then were William Williams and David James both stone masons. Also there was William Davies, a railway stoker, William Thomas a sailor, and Rees Watkins a gardener. Looking after them was the Matron, Eliza Smith and Nurse Hanna Richards. They were helped by their servant Emma Beard. I think we can assume that Emma's work was not very pleasant. [9]

The Matron, Eliza Smith was the wife of Dr John Smith and the servant was Emma Beard.  Both were from Lydney in Gloucester. It is likely that they came to work in Llanelli following the death of Dr Smith. Eliza was Matron of Llanelli Village Hospital for ten years and later lived at 10 Robinson Street Llanelli. She died on May 25th 1885 at the age of 76, in Pittsburgh. [10]

Although the hospital had a commanding view of the town and sea, it may not have been as salubrious a position as thought for such an establishment, because it was subject to the pollutive smoke and fumes emanating from the large number of industries that surrounded the town, such as the Llanelli Pottery and the Copperworks with its 'stac fawr' [large chimney] to the south, which was meant to carry the fumes well above Bigyn Hill! [11] However within 2 months of opening The Llanelly Guardian was highly critical of the village hospital ...

This is an important question, but involving no difficulty in calling fourth a candid reply. We have a miniature one on the Biggn,[sic] under the auspices of the Board of Health, managed by a Committee of respectable Tradesmen, and affording accommodation for a dozen or more patients. But if we look to the size of our town, growing and spreading with the strength of a giant, with a population outnumbering 17,000, we may safely conclude we have no adequate building sufficient to meet the wants of the sick, the infirm, and the helpless. We have no large establishment independent of the Biggin [sic] dwarf, where they can be lodged and nursed...
The editorial continued and compared the small village hospital in Llanelli with the 'spacious' infirmary at Carmarthen and called for a much larger hospital to care for the people of Llanelli who, because of the nature of their employment, were liable to accidents both 'night and day'. It also proposed the more suitable site of 'Mount Pleasant' it being the healthier place for such an establishment.

On October 18th 1884 the foundation stone of a new hospital was laid at the top Marble Hall Road paving the way for a new era in the medical treatment of casualties and the sick of Llanelli [12]

I am grateful for the assistance rendered by Kathryn Edwards and staff of the Llanelli Reference Library, particularly in searches of Census Returns and the appropriate documents. L.J.

This Welsh poem about the hospital by Lliedfab appeared in the Llanelly Mercury, 2 March 1916

Hen Yspitty Llanelli.
Yspitty ar hen yspotyn, - uchel,
Iachus mynydd gribyn;
Anedd deg I nodddi dyn,
A hyglod iach feddyglyn.

The Old Llanelli Hospital
A hospital on an old spot – on a high,
And healthy mountain top
A fair home to nurture man
And wholesome illustrious medicine (mead poss. in the medicinal sense?)

Translation. By Dafydd Roberts

Notes & Citations
[1] LCG 30 Aug 1866
[2] LC 5176
[3] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography - Dr John Snow
[4] LC1858
[5] LCG Aug 1866
[6] LC 8966 & Old Llanelly Innes p 135
[7] South Wales Press 12 Sept 1867 [NLW Copy]
[8] 'Looking Around Llanelli' p 119 Harry Davies
[9] 1851 & 1871 Census Returns, Llanelly 'Village Hospital' & LG 3 Dec 1868
[10] LG 18 June 1885. Obituary
[11] LS 10 Sept 1938 p1 c7 ''Asterisks" & The Environmental Impact of Industrialisation in South Wales in the Nineteenth Century: 'Copper Smoke' and the Llanelli Copper Company. Newell and Watts 1996
[12] LG 5 December 1867 'Editorial' & Llanelli Chronicle p184 by. G Hughes

Llanelly & County Guardian
Llanelli Chronicle by. G Hughes
'Looking Around Llanelli' Harry Davies
The South Wales Press