Happy birthday Harry Leslie Smith – an unreliable witness to history

I am a great admirer of Harry Leslie Smith’s (HLS) generation, not least because my Dad is just less than a year older than him and spent the war fighting the Japanese in Burma as an artilleryman with the 17th Indian Division.

I do not usually see tweets from HLS because the Twitter minders than run his account on behalf of his publisher have blocked me. I suspect it is because I have more than once called out HLS for being an unreliable witness to history.

It was Jeremy Corbyn’s tweet this morning that pushed birthday greetings and some video of HLS into my consciousness. The first few moments of the video set up HLS’s big claim.

I was born in 1923 in Barnsley. Back then there was no social health care.

I don’t wish to be unkind to an otherwise admirable man on his birthday but this is false and if HLS has any knowledge of Barnsley he must know this to be false. Note that HLS does not claim that “social” health care was patchy or inadequate.  He says there was none. None has a very specific meaning and HLS’s claim is nonsense.  At the time there were five hospitals in Barnsley and they were all “social” in as much as none of them were private enterprises. Four were local authority run and one was a charity hospital.

The NHS is a great boon to our nation but it was built on the considerable infrastructure that was already in place, indeed no substantial hospital building was done until the 1960s, and a culture of extensive provision of not-for-profit healthcare that was already in existence.

I already knew that there were a number of hospitals in Barnsley in 1923 but today I was finally goaded into documenting the five that I have found:

Beckett Hospital, Church Lane, Barnsley

According this National Archives catalogue description:

The charitable institution originally known as the Beckett Dispensary was founded by trust deed dated 28 August 1862 by John Staniforth Beckett, whose endowment of £5,000 was to provide free medical and surgical assistance to Barnsley inhabitants too poor to afford it. No-one was eligible whose family earned over 18s. a week, unless the family numbered more than six; nor was any servant, apprentice or person in receipt of parish relief eligible.

By c.1940 the hospital (known locally as ‘the miners’ hospital’) dealt principally with surgical emergencies and provided 154 beds. Surgeons from Sheffield visited weekly.

Recommendations in the mid 1950s had urged that a new hospital (later known as Barnsley District General Hospital), to be developed on the St Helen Hospital site, should provide orthopaedic, out-patient and casualty departments, and that the Beckett Hospital should be used mainly for the chronic sick, possibly with psychiatric treatment units. When eventually completed, the new hospital was effectively a merger between the facilities formerly provided by the Beckett Hospital and the St Helen Hospital. Services in the original Beckett Hospital buildings were scaled down further and the hospital closed on 13 August 1977; the buildings were demolished two years later.

So the Beckett was a charity hospital that dated back to 1862 and was taken over by the NHS in 1948 and then disposed of but not until the 1970s when Barnsley Hospital was built.

Kendray Hospital, Doncaster Road, Barnsley

According this National Archives catalogue description:

Kendray Fever Hospital opened in 1890. Following an outbreak of smallpox in 1887, the next year Mrs Ann Alderson, daughter of Francis Kendray, had donated £4,000 to buy a site for an infectious diseases hospital for Barnsley. The foundation stone was ceremoniously laid in March 1889 and on 27 February 1890 the hospital, in Stairfoot, was formally handed over to the town of Barnsley. It was later known as Kendray Isolation Hospital.

After the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948, the Hospital from c. 1950 began to cater for geriatric patients and the bed complement increased to 144 in 1958 to provide accommodation for the chronic sick. In 1965 the treatment of infectious diseases was discontinued (those cases being taken on by Barnsley District General Hospital) as it became a hospital solely for geriatric patients with the addition, from 1974, of the mentally ill.

In 1981 Barnsley Area Health Authority approved a scheme to prioritise provision of facilities at the hospital for long-term and elderly mental illness. In the 1982 redevelopment, four wards were provided for these cases and upon their completion the old Lambert and Children& apos;s Ward (Isolation Block) and the Round Block (originally for smallpox cases) were demolished. Kendray Hospital is now (2006) the centre of Mental Health Services for the Older Person in Barnsley.

The Kendray Hospital is an active NHS site to this day. The site provided by a charity donation and sustained by the town, was nationalised in 1948.

Lundwood Hospital, Lund Lane Barnsley

According this National Archives catalogue description (scroll down to the end):

Lundwood Hospital was also originally run by Barnsley Corporation. It opened early in 1900 as a smallpox hospital. When it passed to the Ministry of Health in 1948 it ceased to be used as an isolation hospital and instead focused on geriatric care. It was closed on 30 September 1974, after remaining patients had been transferred to Mount Vernon Hospital, and was demolished in 1977.

This piece from the Yorkshire Post talks about the hospital’s role treating small pox in 1947. So this hospital was likely in use for this purpose continuously and would have been functioning in 1923 when HLS was born. The reference to “Cudworth’s public vaccinator” underlines the fact that there were extensive public campaigns before the NHS.

Because of concerns about small pox the hospital was torched as a part of the demolition process in 1977.

So here was a municipal hospital nationalised in 1948.

Mount Vernon Hospital, Mount Vernon Road, Barnsley

According this National Archives catalogue description:

The hospital was officially opened as a sanatorium on 18 May 1915 in the house that had been the home of Samuel and Fanny Cooper.

In 1945 it was described as a poor quality sanatorium unit providing ‘an old type ward block and some chalets’ to accommodate 53 patients. The administrative quarters were in an old mansion. In 1960/61 certain old buildings were demolished and the site redeveloped to accommodate 90 chronic sick mainly geriatric patients. The first patients were admitted to the new premises on 15 October 1961; the official opening, performed by the Princess Royal, took place on on 22 November 1961.

New wards were opened in 1974 and patients from Lundwood and Kendray Hospitals were transferred there in September 1974. Barnsley Health Authority approved the closure of two wards in the hospital in March 2002.

So this site was a TB sanatorium before the war and it passed from the local council to the NHS in 1948.  Now the NHS intends to sell the land.

St Helen’s Hospital, Gawber Road, Barnsley

According to this National Archives catalogue description:

St Helen Hospital (later the site of Barnsley District General Hospital – from 2005 known as Barnsley Hospital -) has its origin in the infirmary wards of Barnsley workhouse. Barnsley Poor Law Union was formed in early 1850 but the town workhouse in St Mary’s Place remained in use until new, purpose-built premises, designed by Yorkshire architects Henry Lockwood and William Mawson, were built in 1852 in Gawber Road. Additions to the infirmary accommodation were made in 1875 but it was not until 1883 that a large, detached pavilion-plan infirmary was completed, following proposals first mooted in 1868. Management was in the hands of the Board of Guardians until 1930.

Following the Local Government Act of 1929 and the subsequent abolition of the poor law administration in 1930, the infirmary wards passed to the Public Assistance Committee of West Riding County Council, and were then appropriated for use as the town’s hospital. It was known as Barnsley Municipal Hospital (on occasion Barnsley Municipal Institution) until 1935. The new name of St Helen Hospital (or St Helen’s Hospital) was introduced from that date. In the 1940s the hospital was largely used for the chronic sick, but some major surgery was undertaken as were maternity work and acute and general medical work. The accommodation was spacious, and there was room for further development on the site.

So here we have a municipal hospital that started off life as a workhouse infirmary but was turned into a “large, detached pavilion-plan infirmary” in 1883.  The site later became the modern Barnsley Hospital.  But it wasn’t until the 1970s, some 30 odd years after the formation of the NHS, that the NHS decided that the health infrastructure, already in place at the time of HLS’s birth should be replaced by a modern district general hospital.


I am sure people will follow the links I have provided and respond to me pointing out the inadequacies of these five hospitals. All I would say is that the current Barnsley Hospital was put up in the 1970s, some 30 years after the advent of the NHS. Either the provision in Barnsley was awful and the NHS took 30 years to re-provide it or it was quite respectable, and was quite respectable when HLS was born.

Has no-one from Barnsley ever spelled out for HLS the rich heritage of pre-war health provision that Barnsley enjoyed? Or does HLS simply prefer his narrative of half remembered family stories to the facts?

This entry was posted in National politics. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *