Ottery St Mary and Distict Hospital

By Graham Ward

I thought I would follow up articles in the last two editions of the Journal of the Heritage Society relating to the Hospital by mentioning some of the personalities associated with medical and associated services in the town since its formation, and to include mention of the dental services, pharmacies and St. John Ambulance.  I am very conscious that this not be a particularly scholarly contribution but it intended to record information that is not collated anywhere else, and may possibly be of interest in years to come. There is very little in the way of hard and recorded fact prior to the inception of the National Health Service and a great deal of the minimal information relating to those times, is largely from personal recollection.

The Hospital

The title of the previous contributions included the word “Cottage”. This was entirely appropriate until the second half of the twentieth century. As you will have read, the hospital, in line with many others of the time, started in a cottage with one or two people nursing a very few patients. In recent years however, the standard of care, the diagnostic capabilities and available treatments take medical care practised in even small hospitals well into the technological age and immeasurably beyond the kind of care associated with the earlier times. It is now recognised that the earlier title should be dropped.

There is no record of any change to the layout of the hospital until the 1960s when two small day rooms were added to the southern aspects of the main wards. At the time of the queen’s Jubilee celebrations in 1977, the staff sitting room was altered to become a much larger day room for patients with an adjoining dining room.

The nearby physiotherapy building was constructed in 1954, with a substantial contribution from the community it served. This was enlarged to provide a waiting area in 1968 when Mr Reg Eveleigh was chairman of the League of Friends and Dr. Ward Appeal chairman.  In 1986 a completely new and extensive unit was built, offering much improved facilities again with considerable voluntary support.

By 1990 it was very evident that the general layout of the hospital did not match up to what was required for current medical and nursing practice. Consideration was given to upgrading on the then current site but it was recognised that this would produce an expensive and half hearted solution. Eventually, Mr Graham Brown donated land to the west of the town below the King s School and the Health Authority developed the site for a completely new hospital. The League of Friends again launched an appeal and raised over £300,000 (over 10%) towards the cost. Thirty-one beds were provided including a special 6 bedded unit for the elderly mentally ill. The new hospital was commissioned in March 1995 and officially opened by the Rt. Hon. Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health on 

The work of the hospital changed over the years. In the beginning it was mainly nursing care and the medical staff would undertake some surgery, many, the lancing of abscesses. In 1922 a report said that 97 patients were treated of whom 28 were accident cases. Fifty four operations were performed and there were 166 out-patients. The hospital was “intended for the benefit of poor persons suffering from accidents or non-infectious disease, who cannot be efficiently attended to in the own homes.” Hospital rules added “Cases of mental disorder, consumption or chronic disease cannot be received, nor any child under the age of four, except in case of accident.” Visitors were allowed on only three days a week and patients fit enough were expected to assist in household work at the hospital.

In 1956 the five children beds were re-located to Axminster and Lyme Regis and the ward was used as an additional women’s ward. From the start of the National Health Service in 1948, surgery was performed by Mr Gairdner, Consultant General surgeon at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital once a month, and Mr. Derek Jefferies with Dr John Powell as anaesthetist would undertake gynaecological procedures. General surgery stopped in 1962 and the other surgery about 1970. In the following years the operating theatre was adapted to become the casualty room, the anaesthetic room became the office and the former office provided a much needed 1 or 2 bedded room for terminally ill patients.

The medical officers to the hospital were always the general practitioners working in the town and this continues to be the case. Patients however could be admitted from anywhere.

Matrons to the hospital were well known personalities in the town. From 1914 to 1922 Miss Barter was in charge before leaving for another post but died shortly after from a cancer. In 1938 Miss St. Clair Mayne arrived and stayed for 16 years until her retirement. She was replaced by Miss Mary Keegan, staying until 1975. Following Miss Keegan’s retirement there was a succession of senior nurses in charge but without the title ‘Matron’, a term that was by that time considered to be inappropriate.

From Miss Elliott’s time until 1948, the financing of the hospital depended on endowments and subscriptions. In 1922 anyone who subscribed 10 shillings (50p) a year was entitled to be admitted. When an in-patient a charge of 25p a week was levied. Administration of the hospital was undertaken by a local committee until the NHS began at which time a House Committee, responsible to the Devon Health Committee was in charge. By 1960 the House Committee had been abandoned. Those who had given much time included Capt. Cusack of Cornhill House, Capt. Weller from Wiggaton, Mr Ivor Tucker, farmer, dairyman, and one time Ottery St. Mary Town Council chairman, and Mr John Whitham, senior partner in the solicitor’s firm of Mossop and Whitham. Mr W.D. McClymont was chairman of the Comforts Fund (the predecessor of the League of Friends). Subsequent control was exercised from Honiton or Exeter with first of all Miss Helier as secretary followed by Mr Haw, and then Mr Anderson with his assistant Mr George Brown. Overall responsibility moved from the Devon Health Authority, to Exeter Health Authority, to the Exeter Community Trust, to the East Devon Primary Care Trust in 2000.

General Medical Services

At the start of the twentieth century Drs Johnson and Pontin were the general practitioners in the town working independently. Dr Johnson lived in Raleigh House in Mill Street, selling his practice and house to Dr Frank Sidebotham in 1922. the following year Dr Pontin sold his practice and his house, Ridegeway House, to Frank Sidebotham’s brother-in-law Ralph Traill. It was considered necessary to have a third doctor and Dr Esmond “Teddy” Micklem was invited to join the group practice. All three had been students together at Guys Hospital and later were torpedoed in the same troopship on the way to Mesopotamia.

Dr Jimmy Sidebotham joined the practice in 1949 and then Dr Neill Micklem when Frank Sidebotham died in 1954. At that time the vast majority of general practitioners worked alone but through the friendship and relationships the Ottery St Mary practice functioned as a group for organisational purposes though each doctor had a consulting room at their own house and each dispensed. From 1926 until 1935, Dr Sidebotham conducted a surgery from part of a railway carriage parked between the river bridge and the station, in the grounds of the gas works. From then and until the new surgery was completed, patients were seen at the house of Mrs Selley between Raleigh House and the factory. In 1955 they achieved a very remarkable development by building a group surgery in the corner of Ralph Traill’s garden identified as 74 Sandhill Street. It was even more remarkable by virtue of having a section devoted to dental surgery, something almost unheard of at the time.

In 1963 Dr Ward joined the practice on the retirement of Neil Micklem. His thoughts on the way ahead coincided with those of Dr Parkyn, Deputy Medical Oficer for Devon and the Dr Joe Lyons, the chief Medical Officer for Devon, and Devon’s first Health Centre was established; there was only a handful of such centres in the whole country and mainly in urban areas. In 1964 the dental surgeons wanted to give up their Ottery practice and sell their part of the Sandhill Street premises. This part of the building was bought by the County Council who extended the building for their nurses and midwife, to be followed by chiropodists and mental welfare officers and also added a much needed waiting room for the doctors. This standard of care is now common across the country. In 1970 the practice became associated with the Instituter of Biometry and Community Medicine in Exeter to develop a computerised system for medical notes in general practice. The medical interests locally were led by Dr Bradshaw-Smith. The system proved an outstanding success and was the world leader for many years before becoming a standard way of recording information.

By 1982 five doctors were in the partnership and the Sandhill Street surgery was far too small for the increasing work to be done. The local population hadincreased from 6,500 in 1963 to 10,000. A site was found on the Land of Canaan where the doctors financed and built new premises from which time three extensions have been made to cope with continue numbers of  patients, more technical medical diagnostics and treatments, and greater administrative demands. Today nine doctors practice together for a population of 15,000.

General Dental Services

The training of dentists before 1921 was largely undertaken in the dental surgery by an experienced colleague teaching a new member of the profession. Subsequently, the modern system of a full time course in a Dental Hospital leading to a diploma and later a degree became the norm.

Locally there was a dental practice at 10 Broad Street, Ottery St Mary, in the mid 1920’s owned by Mr Bernice Martyr. He saw both private and panel patients there until June 1928 when he sold the practice. His successor, Mr Wilfred John Selley used the Broad Street base as a branch surgery to his Exeter practice. In those days, dental hygiene was generally very poor, fluoridation was unheard of so that even young adults occasionally had all their teeth extracted and full dentures fitter. Sometimes these procedures wwere carried out in the kitchens of farms.

In the early1950’s his son Wilfred G Selley and Hywell Griffiths joined the practice, each partner travelling to Ottery one day each week. In 1955 they joined the doctors in building a new surgery in Sandhill Street, but with the increasing demands in Exeter, they withdrew from Ottery St Mary in 1963. There then followed a short period when no dentist practised in the town and patients had to travel to Sidmouth or Exeter.

The situation improved in 1966 when Ray Stevens moved from Wembley in order to reduce his working house. However he soon found that he was busier than in his London practice and he appointed Mike Sims as his partner practising from new premises in Yonder Street. This building had been built by a local builder, Alan Gosling, whose son Peter, a dental technician, opened a dental laboratory on the first floor.

In 1973 a third dentist, Neil Bray was appointed followed by John Pilsworth in 1978 on Ray Steven’s retirement. Simon Russell has succeeded John Pilsworth and John Makin has taken over from Mike Sims.