Dalkeith Fever Hospital …………… how Dalkeith dealt with pandemics and disease 

History Dalkeith fever hospital

As you leave Dalkeith on the A68, there is a turning on the right for the village of Whitehill and you catch sight of a group of buildings which seem to be business units ………….. but with all old buildings in Dalkeith they have a past and stories of their own to tell.

In times to come the year 2020 will become synonymous with the Corona Virus pandemic and the isolation period known as ‘lockdown’. However, pandemics and periods of isolation have been recorded throughout history. In the 19th century, scarlet fever was a feared disease, causing devastating pandemics with high mortality. Young children with scarlet fever were kept in isolation and fever hospitals for weeks, their toys and bed linen burned for fear of spreading the infection, and glass screens kept between them and visiting parents. However, scarlet fever is no longer as virulent as it was even 80 years ago – there are many reasons for this including the development of antibiotics and the introduction of the NHS.

In 1867 the Public Health (Scotland) Act gave power to local authorities to make provision for the treatment of infectious diseases during periods of epidemics. Other diseases which raged through the population included Diptheria, Smallpox and Typhoid. Midlothian addressed this by opening three fever hospitals in Dalkeith, Gorebridge and Loanhead. The original Dalkeith Fever Hospital is now a private residence and the River Esk flows nearby. In its edition of 26 September 1912, the Dalkeith Advertiser reported that the caretaker of the Dalkeith Fever Hospital, Mr Turnbull, was about to sit down to his supper one evening when suddenly he heard disturbing noises coming from the River Esk. With Joseph Borthwick by his side, the two men discovered a male in the river who seemed to be trying to drown himself. The male tried to fight the two men off but they managed to overpower him and march him to the nearby police station. It was discovered that the male came from Kelso but he was certified insane by two medical practitioners and taken to Rosslynlee Asylum that very night. The male was not thankful for being rescued as said he would ‘do it again given half a chance’.

Another incident to occur at the Fever Hospital was when a man was sent erroneously to the hospital with what the doctor thought was typhoid fever but was in fact only pneumonia!! Writing in the Dalkeith Advertiser, the Medical Officer detailed the whole incident but seemed more concerned that the patient had spent an unnecessary night in the hospital costing £7 to the rate payer and that ammonia had been used when there was no cause for it!! Remember there was no NHS at that time!

Dalkeith Town Council minutes for October 1910 reveal that amended plans for the new fever hospital to be located at Whitehill were discussed and Dr Mitchell, the Convenor of the Public Health Committee said that the Committee had approved these. Baillie Brown stated that the Council were very much indebted to the Public Health Committee. Whitehill was a natural site as it was on the outskirts of the town which was an ideal for a fever hospital – the site was a gift for the people of Dalkeith from the Duke of Buccleuch.

The Dalkeith Advertiser of 14 September 1911 reported that the architectural team for the infectious diseases hospital for the Burgh of Dalkeith had been appointed. Mr Alexander Murray Hardie was on the architects’ team and he operated from his home at Avon Grove, 22 Muirpark, Dalkeith. Local tradesmen such Mr A Neil of Dalkeith was contracted for joinery work, Mr R Dodds as plumber and Mr Stewart as plasterer. The contractors started excavations on 10 August but nothing could be done about actual building until there was a supply of water. Mr T Doughty reported that the track had been cut and the pipes were in – a water supply was to be made available with a week.

But not everyone was happy!!! Mr Penman of Newmills wrote a letter of complaint that his offer for the joinery work had not been accepted but he had heard nothing officially. He wrote the he was surprised his tender had been rejected because he understood it had been the lowest at £977 41 51. The Provost explained that the accepted tender was a little lower than his and the Council had agreed to this one and they could not go back on their agreement

The hospital was opened in 1912 and a local newspaper carried this advertisement in November 1912:
‘WANTED by the Dalkeith Town Council, a capable middle-aged woman to assist in the Dalkeith Fever Hospital. Apply at one to James L McDougall, Sanitary Inspector’. How sexist and ageist is that!

Thanks as always to Craig Statham for allowing me to use an original postcard of the hospital which he owns.