The land that lies to the west of the estate I grew up on, has long been in service to the poor and the infirm. A workhouse stood on the site from the late 1700s and had the dubious fame of being the focus of a Lancet campaign, in 1867, condemning the poor state of the nation's workhouse infirmaries. The Lancet described the institution as "a perfect marvel of bad construction for any purpose" - and their assessment went downhill from there. Choice words were reserved for the late master of the workhouse, one James Sargeant, a "despotic" individual, apparently (and also Jeremy Corbyn's great-great grandfather). This colourful picture was painted on the testimony of the medical officer (who had served concurrently with Mr Sergeant and then stepped into his shoes). Perhaps it served him, to labour the former master's supposedly tyrannical reign, in order to absolve himself of any responsibility for the dire conditions. Or perhaps Sergeant really was that bad. Subsequent to the campaign, improvements and additions were made to the workhouse, including the addition of two infirmary blocks.
The improving fortunes of the town's unwell were perhaps cemented when, at the turn of the century, Florence Nightingale took an interest in the welfare of the town's poor, after spending time with her aunt, who lived locally. She made a gift of a travelling Holy Communion set to the town's workhouse infirmary "For the use of the Nurses and Patients at Farnham Hospital from Florence Nightingale of the Crimea" and, no doubt, left the intangible gift of inspiration and a commitment to "do the sick no harm".
One of the striking laments of the scathing Lancet article was the assignment of only a single nurse to the piteous workhouse infirmary ward ("a good and skilful woman, but not capable of ubiquity"). Fast-forward more than 100 years and my mother, also a "good and skilful" nurse, was smoothing crisp bed linen into the neat pleats and tucks of a hospital corner, in the same building illuminated by the Lady of the Lamp. I remember her uniform: a prim, cotton dress with a revere collar, elasticated belt and a pristine, white origami paper hat, securely pinned to her blonde hair with kirby grips. The shiny, chrome upside watch pinned to her front implied the rigour and precision her profession demanded. One winter, she acquired a long navy woollen cape, lined in red and it comforted me to think of her strong, small frame wrapped in it, as she hurried across to work in the dark of the early morning.
The border between the hospital grounds and our estate was delineated by the narrow, rough asphalt of a footpath we called Piggy Lane, although it is not marked as such on maps. The footpath ran parallel to our road and more-or-less followed the course of an underground, ancient stream originating in the park to the north and reappearing, above ground, at the old 17th century mill nestled at the rear of our estate.
The hospital buildings were clustered to the west of its grounds. To the south lay extensive lawns and some stands of rangy pines, planted in rows. There was also a decaying tennis court with an uneven, pock-marked surface and sagging nets ridden with holes, like a spider's web poked by a child's stick. For children seeking play opportunities, the grounds provided a welcome extension to the dull polygons of grass which dotted our estate. We would occasionally hit a ball over the decrepit tennis nets, failing to anticipate its wild bounces as it ricocheted off a pothole in the hard surface. We climbed the thin branches of the pines, skinning our legs as we skidded down the rough bark, and sat on the dry, packed earth at their roots, gossiping and inhaling the green, resinaceous scent of pine. Daisy chains were made on the sunny, southern lawn which was also perfectly pitched for log rolls.
There was no formal access to the hospital from our road, but a break in the railings aided those seeking short cuts, and a well-established desire line was visible from the breach, pointing towards the town centre. From time to time, in a futile gesture, the break would be closed off with diamond mesh, only for it be swiftly broken down and the short cut reinstated by persons unknown. As children, our parents counselled against climbing the railings to gain access to the grassy expanse, particularly after the death of a teenager who slipped and impaled himself on the iron finials, an event which both horrified and fascinated us young residents.
I knew the inner workings of the hospital, too, being a frequent visitor to the Outpatients' Department, usually for hearing tests. My childhood was punctuated by long waits here, for the doctor or audiologist, relieved only by custard creams and sips of orange squash from thin, plastic cups which I held gingerly, for fear of forcing the contents out with my ill-calibrated, childish grasp. These treats were purchased for a small sum from the WRVS kiosk - a collection of consonants which intrigued me, although I never thought to ask what they stood for.
My earliest memory of a hearing test is being sat on my mother's lap with a bone conduction device digging into the smooth spot behind my ear and large headphones clamped over my head. I had been instructed to drop a shape into a wooden box each time I heard a tone. The tests seem to go on forever. In later years, I would enter the isolation booth by myself, the audiologist locking the door by means of a rotating wheel lock ("like on a submarine" I thought, each time). I'd be alone in the dead atmosphere of the felt-lined box, intent on the red button and the chirps and warbles in my ear. Afterwards, we would sit across the desk from the brusque but friendly ENT doctors, adorned with their sinister Victorian head mirrors (for funnelling light into orifices) as they deciphered the audiogram's blue circles and red crosses and planned our next steps.
Early in the 2000s, a break in continuity was threatened, when the hospital faced closure. A passionate public campaign against the proposal succeeded and a new, (though smaller) facility was built, alongside the inevitable new residential development. The "pitiable spectacle" of the workhouse infirmary is a ghost. This bland and functional new building ensures that the land continues to bear those "good and skilful" nurses who look their patients in the eye and tend to them, with cool hands and warm hearts.
I thoroughly recommend reading the damning 1867 Lancet report on the Farnham workhouse and infirmary, which must count as one of the worst of very bad reviews. The report slates the President of the Poor-law board for “…”lying beside [his] nectar” like the most careless of heathen gods”, and concludes that the workhouse was “a reproach to England - a scandal and a curse to a country which calls itself civilised and Christian!”.
Want to read more? Have you seen a budgie, post-1990?