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VOICES FROM STANNINGTON SANATORIUM – LIZ O’DONNELL
Camp beds on the grass, rolling bandages for the war effort, daily doses of Virol malt, waving to the soldiers, injections with needles like pokers, these were just some of the memories of former patients of The Children’s Sanatorium at Stannington near Morpeth. It had its origins in the Poor Children’s Holiday Association, a Methodist Charity which organised day trips to the seaside for needy children and also provided night shelters for destitute children on Tyneside. They set up Street Vendors’ Clubs in Newcastle and Gateshead with activities such as keep fit and magic lantern projections. It was noticed that many of the children were in poor health with some suffering from TB. Poor housing and cramped conditions were considered the main cause, with most patients coming from towns. Most children contracted it from an adult. There was a great deal of fear and stigma about it and children were often told not to tell anyone about their stay at the sanatorium after they left. This approach led to the first sanatorium in the country especially for children. Proposed in 1904 it was built on land acquired from benefactors.
At a later stage another ward and the Vita Glass Pavilion were added. The latter permitted the transmission of ultra-violet rays from sunshine believed to be essential for improving the health of children with TB. Fresh air and good food were also the main treatment before WW2 for pulmonary TB. The average length of a child’s stay was 3 years during which they would be allowed a visit from their parents only once in 2 months for 3 hours. No siblings could visit.
The miracle drug streptomycin was available for soldiers etc in WW2 but the general public did not have access to it until the 1950’s. It had a massive effect upon the illness and this was the beginning of its virtual eradication. At Stannington there was even an isolation unit (A shed in the woods!) if children contracted an infectious disease such as chickenpox.
Liz interviewed 25 former patients for this project and 5 members of staff. Extensive archives were submitted to Woodhorn Archives, so many that a removal van was needed to transport them. All patient records remain closed for 100 years except in exceptional circumstances. It was interesting to hear that one of the interviewees was contacted through Liz’s previous talk for us when one of our members put her in touch with a former patient.
Many of the individual stories were heartbreaking. Most patients felt it had made it more difficult for them to feel close to their parents after such early and lengthy separation. In one case three young brothers were in the sanatorium but never saw each other. One was strapped to a curved frame and occupied himself rolling bandages for the war effort. Wherever possible the children spent time in the open air, even if this meant wheeling the bed outside. Occasionally older children already working became patients and we saw a photograph of the autograph book of a teenage girl who had to have her leg amputated. It contained a verse in German from a German POW in a nearby camp.
We heard the story of a child who was shocked to discover she had to remain in the sanatorium while her parents went home. She remembered “big needles like pokers”, retained a dislike of milk puddings for the rest of her life and felt abandoned by her parents. Nursing staff had to begin washing the children as early as 4 am when they were still sleeping!
Not all the memories were unhappy ones. Nurses in cloaks carrying lanterns who came round the wards singing carols on Christmas Eve were a happy memory for one little girl. The cast of the Theatre Royal at Newcastle used to visit every year. For a few it created the motivation to train to become a nurse specialising in the treatment of TB.
The sanatorium closed for TB patients in 1953 and then took long term patients, finally closing its doors in 1985. This moving talk finished with a photograph of a Reunion of former Nurses taken very recently.
Liz drew attention to the extensive archives of the sanatorium now held at Woodhorn, which are now being catalogued and will be available to the public, with the exception of Patients’ Records.
The talk demonstrated that Stannington Sanatorium was a world in itself and served an important purpose during its life. Thank goodness it is no longer needed!
Our next meeting will be on Saturday 17 January 10 am at Bell View, Belford and will be a Members’ Forum, topic to be announced.