On My Doorstep – Part Six


Brompton Hospital Sanatorium, Frimley

Out on the Old Bisley Road is a former NHS site called the Ridgewood Centre which has been sold off (natch) and is being developed into a housing estate. Originally, though, it was the site of the Frimley Sanatorium, an offshoot of what was then prosaically called the Hospital for Consumption and Diseases of the Chest, Brompton or Brompton Hospital, for short.

Tuberculosis was (and still is) a nasty disease affecting predominantly the lungs and spread by bacteria transmitted from one person to another. I remember the TB injection I was subjected to as a child was a horrible one but, so far, it has worked and it was cruelty to be kind. But a hundred years ago there was no effective preventative measure and squalid, crowded and often insanitary living conditions meant that the chances of catching the disease were high. If you were lucky to survive, the recuperation was long and tedious.

The treatment at the Frimley Sanatorium, under the auspices of its first Medical Superintendent, Dr Marcus Patterson, was revolutionary, albeit ill-conceived. On opening, in 1905, the boast was that “this and similar Institutions will still fulfil an essential purpose even should the advance of medical science lead to the discovery of some agent more directly affecting the activity of the organism of the disease”.

The fundamental principle behind the treatment was that it was no use the patients, predominantly from the working class, lying about feeling sorry for themselves. Instead, they should be up and about and through regulated exercise they would build up a resistance to the bacteria the disease had released into their bloodstream, so-called auto-inoculation. And so a regime of graded exercise was developed. As Patterson said, “idleness, the ennui and the economic waste which are too often the reproach of Sanatoria have no place at Frimley”.

On admission, the patients would have a period of absolute bed rest and once they showed some signs of improvement, they would be “encouraged” to walk the grounds until considered fit to be deployed for work. They would be detailed to maintain the grounds, mow the lawns, grow and harvest vegetables. There was even a pig farm. One of the first tasks accomplished by the patients was the construction of a reservoir.

Possibly a more helpful aspect to the treatment was exposure to fresh air. The specially constructed building with four wings in an X shape had large windows and balconies which were always open. One of the maxims that ruled sanatorium life was “You will never beat T.B if you can’t stand a draught”.  And there were rules and rules. Although the sanatorium accepted male and female patients, males were preferred and the sexes were segregated, only meeting at carefully stage-managed mixes. Disobedient patients were threatened with discharge. Visiting was carefully regulated and timetables governing all activities were implemented.

Even on discharge you couldn’t escape big brother. The erstwhile patient was handed a leaflet recommending appropriate occupations (outside) and living conditions (uncrowded and south facing) and home décor (no heavy curtains or ornaments).

Despite the proud boast, more effective preventative measures and treatment regimes, particularly antibiotics, meant that there was little call for the Sanatorium’s tuberculosis-related services by the 1960s and so it converted into a convalescent until its closure in the 1980s. It then became a centre for dealing with mental illness until the developers came calling.