Westminster Memorial Hospital, Shaftesbury

A short history.

Opened in 1874, Westminster Memorial Cottage Hospital – as it was then known – was built in memory of Richard Grosvenor, 2nd Marquess of Westminster, who had died in 1869 at Fonthill and whose family then owned large parts of the town and surrounding area. It was built on land donated by his wife, Lady Elizabeth Leveson-Gower, the Dowager Marchioness of Westminster who became the hospital’s first patron, and his daughter Lady Theodora Grosvenor, who laid the foundation stone* on 25 May 1871.

The philanthropist Lord Grosvenor in memory of whom Shaftesbury hospital (above) was opened in 1874. The cannon in the foreground is a relic of the Crimea War.

Designed by J B Corby of Stamford, Lincolnshire, and constructed by a Shaftesbury builder, C J Miles, for the sum of £1,430, the hospital finally opened to its first six patients after its formal inauguration by George Moberly, Bishop of Salisbury, on 16 March 1874.

At its opening the hospital was the first proper facility for the treatment of the sick of Shaftesbury for more than 300 years, the last having been the infirmary of the Benedictine abbey for women (the ruins now off Park Walk) closed in 1539 at the Dissolution of the Monastries ordered by Henry VIII. An infirmary had opened at Shaftesbury workhouse in 1840 but it was only for inmates of the workhouse, known as Alcester House, who were those unfortunates entirely dependent on parish charity.

According to the Dorset county archives in Dorchester, ownership of the property was originally vested in “three trustees chosen by and from the subscribers.” Subscribers made all the appointments and ran the ‘Committee of Management’ that operated effectively much like a modern trust or charitable company. Citizens could become subscribers who donated £25, paid an annual subscription of at least £5 and ten people paying one guinea a year.

Extract from the 1871 ‘Rules of the Westminster Memorial Cottage Hospital, Shaftesbury’ held in the Dorset county archive in Dorchester.

The funding of the hospital’s beds in its early days was from income from a £2000 endowment fund provided by the Grosvenor family and through a subscription of a guinea a year or a lifetime payment of £20. As the extract above shows, despite being specifically for the poor of the parish treatment was not free. Patients had to pay a weekly fee of between two and eight shillings for treatment provided by local family doctors with a matron managing the nursing staff. Anyone too poor to pay could only get treatment if admitted to the local workhouse infirmary in Underhill (this building existed until finally demolished in 1949). Between 1539 and 1840 the poor of the town had no care other than that provided by charity.

Some 40 patuents were admitted to the hospital in its first year and over the next two decades that number increased to average just over 50 a year. But with increasing demand came the need for expansion and the next move to increase the size of the hospital came in 1907 when Lady Grosvenor’s daughter, Theodora, who had laid the foundation stone in 1871, paid for the addition of an operating theatre in memory of her mother the Dowager Marchioness who had died in 1892. With double lantern windows in the ceiling, it became the lightest room in the building and is still in use today, although no longer the lightest room and no longer as an operating theatre.

The 20th century story

Further developments followed in rapid succession thereafter: central heating in 1909, the latest X-ray equipment in 1919, a telephone in 1923, a further building extension in 1930, opened by the Duke of Somerset, an out-patients department in 1938, opened by Lord Shaftesbury, and in 1948 a separate maternity unit at Castle Hill House in Bimport.

But funding was a growing problem from the start of the 20th century. From 1910 and until 1923 a major funder of the increasingly financially hard-pressed hospital was Shaftesbury Carnival Committee, occasionally supported by Gillingham’s carnival committee from where patients also came to be treated.

But in 1924, with problems growing, a new management structure was put in place that affiliated itself with the Salisbury General Infirmary. And in 1928 the Shaftesbury Hospital League – today known as the Hospital League of Friends – was formed to further help with fund-raising. Both moves were of major benefit and the hospital continued successfully, including in 1938 again asserting its wish to be linked with Salisbury hospital.

But everything changed in 1948 when, on 5 July, the hospital was taken over by the new National Health Service. Its status as a private voluntary medical facility for 74 years, supported entirely by public contributions, ended and its assets and all its funds were taken over to the state.

Though still run by a local committee, the hospital was now controlled by a regional hospital board for the south west and development stalled for more than 20 years until in 1971 a new eight-bed octagonal ward with uplifting views over the Blackmore Vale was added (below). A chapel of rest with stained glass windows by local artist Henry Haig soon followed.

Photo courtesy Dorset Life

Thereafter, largely due to the funding efforts of the League of Friends, improvements followed thick and fast with the result that today, in 2017, Shaftesbury hospital is one of the most efficient and successful community hospitals in Dorset.

*Fascinating historical fact – and a mystery: Few people know that buried underneath the hospital’s original foundation stone is a bottle containing a copy of The Times newspaper of 25 May 1871 with a parchment with a short inscription marking the event and those taking part by the then mayor W. K. Fricker. The only problem is – no one can find out where the stone actually is!

Compiled by Richard Thomas from source material supplied by Westminster Memorial Hospital and Lester Dibben,
Shaftesbury & District Task Force, January 2017.