Healthy history

Leeds General Infirmary 1950s.
Leeds General Infirmary 1950s.
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In 1767 Leeds’s population was around 17,000 and several prominent townspeople considered it vital to establish an infirmary.

Disease – cholera, dysentery and typhoid – was rife and the mortality rate very high. This was particularly evident amongst the working classes all huddled together in tight rows of cottages where occupants often shared a single privy and obtained water from highly polluted sources.

Leeds General Infirmary'Casualty waiting room 1967

Leeds General Infirmary'Casualty waiting room 1967

An infirmary was opened in house off Kirkgate, on October 2, 1767. It was rented from Andrew Wilson at £6 per annum. One of the founders was eminent surgeon William Hey who allegedly improved his skills and knowledge by dissecting criminals executed at York.

Three patients were initially admitted at Kirkgate, the hospital staff including three surgeons, two doctors and a matron, who was employed at £10 per year. By 1768, in-patient and out-patients numbers were rising considerably, enough for land to be acquired near the Mixed Cloth Hall (near what became City Square) for a new infirmary building.

Designed by John Carr of Horbury, the structure was erected at cost of £4,599, and opened in Infirmary Street, on March 1, 1771. The Leeds Intelligencer of March 5 1771 reported: “Last Friday, the new General Infirmary in this town, dedicated to mercy and Christian charity was opened, to the great joy of every benevolent heart; on which pleasing occasion, the lower ranks of people testified their gratitude by ringing of bells; and every other demonstration of joy was shown by those of superior rank in all parts of the town, on the certain prospect of the many advantages that will accrue from it in future, to thousands, who without such an institutions might have lingered in pain and misery, and probably have perished at last for want of proper (attention)”.

The building was extended in 1782, a third floor added in 1786 and a top storey built in 1792 to meet the demands of the rapidly increasing population and accidents occurring from heavy industrialisation of the area. Eventually demolished in 1893, all that remains is a single stone pillar behind the Metropole Hotel.

Leeds Infirmary Brotherton wing, courtesy Leeds Library

Leeds Infirmary Brotherton wing, courtesy Leeds Library

Steps had been taken to establish a new, much larger, infirmary during the 1860s. A site was selected on the rising ground in Great George Street, and a committee selected Gilbert Scott RA as architect.

The foundation stone was laid by J. Kitson, chairman of the Building Committee, on March 29, 1864. In the autumn of 1866, when it was approaching completion, the ten galleries branching from the central hall suggested they would be most suitable for an exhibition of paintings and works of ornamental art before the hospital opened. Contributions came from Queen Victoria, allowing items to be included from the royal collections. The exhibition and building was to be opened by the Prince of Wales.

There were 40,000 more people resident within the Leeds borders than in 1858. Leeds was one of the most rapidly growing towns in the country, having increased from 38,017 houses and 172,258 inhabitants in 1851, to 46,168 houses and 207,138 inhabitants in 1861, but in 1868 it was estimated there were about 55,000 houses and upwards of 240,000 people in the borough. There were a great number of cloth mills and dyehouses, immense forges and iron works, flax mills, tanneries, and machine-making establishments.

No wonder then, there was a need for a new hospital.

Demonstrating the new apparatus at Leeds General Infirmary. 1970.

Demonstrating the new apparatus at Leeds General Infirmary. 1970.

The Prince of Wales’s arrival in Leeds from Temple Newsam on May 19, 1868 was greeted with loud cheering crowds. Once all the formalities were out of the way inside the building the Prince said: “I thank you for the kind welcome you have offered me. Representing on this occasion Her Majesty the Queen, who has been pleased to intimate to me her desire that I should preside for her at the opening of the noble building which does so much honour to Leeds,”

The new General Infirmary was designed on the ‘pavilion’ system and the various blocks of the building were in the Italian Gothic style. They were embellished by the addition of polished granite shafts. The building and its facilities had cost in excess of £120,000 and a large proportion was raised through subscriptions.

Accommodation was provided for the reception of 300 patients, being double that of the existing infirmary.

A range of new buildings designed by G. Corson architect, as an addition to the Leeds General Infirmary in Great George Street, were opened on June 28, 1892 by Sir A. Fairburn, High Sheriff of Yorkshire. The new structures included a large out-patients’ waiting hall and dispensary with consulting rooms; a pathology department and additions to the nursing home. This entailed an outlay of upwards of £42,000.

Leeds General Infirmary children's ward c 1901, reproduced courtesy of Leeds Library.

Leeds General Infirmary children's ward c 1901, reproduced courtesy of Leeds Library.

Further additions to the infirmary took place during the 20th century, including the King Edward Memorial extension scheme completed during 1922 and the Brotherton Wing, ready for occupation in 1940. Finance for the Portland stone wing, was contributed by Charles Frederick Ratcliffe Brotherton, chairman of the chemical manufacturing firm of Brotherton & Co. The semi-circular open balconies were designed so patients could get fresh air. Other significant hospital additions were the Clarendon Wing and Jubilee Wing.

Leeds General Infirmary continues to provide health care. The hospital has a landing pad for the Yorkshire Air Ambulance and thousands of flights have brought patients from across the region and beyond to be treated at the Leeds Major Trauma Centre, the second largest in the UK. In 2012 teams at the site, in the hand and plastic units, performed the UK’s first successful double hand transplants .

Leeds General Infirmary Ward 8. Leeds Library

Leeds General Infirmary Ward 8. Leeds Library

Leeds old Infirmary demolition 1890s, courtesy of Leeds Library.

Leeds old Infirmary demolition 1890s, courtesy of Leeds Library.