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150 years of the Cuckfield Hospital site

Cuckfield Hospital taken c1980

"The very first requirement in a hospital is that it should do the sick no harm".

Florence Nightingale in 1863

The Union Workhouse

Cuckfield, selected as the centre of the united parishes of Lindfield, Ardingly, Balcombe and Slaugham, saw the start of the Union Workhouse in 1840. By 1845 it was fully operational and consisted of the porters, lodge at the gate, wash houses and the main workhouse as we see it today. Soon the infirmary wards were built behind the workhouse main building and the chapel was built about 1870.

The County Council appointed Guardians - the first Chairman was John Menship Norman. There was also a chaplain, a master in charge and a Mrs Jane Key who was appointed as ’nurse of the sick'. Her salary was £22 per annum plus board. Accommodation for 120 was planned, but conditions were made much worse by overcrowding and the numbers increased to nearly 200 almost immediately.

Vagrancy had increased for various reasons - the Napoleonic Wars had upset the economy and enclosure of the common land resulted in more hardship for the poor. Farmers hired their labourers to cut costs, whereas before the labourers had lived on the farms. They thus lost the ’roof over their heads* and many, in desperate circumstances, became vagrants.

In the Workhouse, the 'able bodied poor' had to work either in local cornmills, or breaking up blocks of stone for use by the Surveyors of the Highways to improve the roads. Stone was brought to the Workhouse and at times paupers worked in the quarry at Whiteman’s Green.

Families were separated on arrival and placed in dormitories. Mental defectives were also kept in the main building. This was their permanent home, but the able bodied vagrants only stayed for one night at a time.

Paupers over 70 years of age were allowed out for 2-3 hours each day, but had to be back in the Workhouse by 4pm. The infirmary wards cared for chronically ill, elderly and long term patients. A ration of gin was allowed for those in dire need - at least that was the original intention!

Generally, conditions and the meagre diet were typical of the times and often woefully inadequate.

Things slowly began to improve when women were able to take a more active role with local government and committee work. This resulted in improved care up to the time of the first World War 1914-18 when the Workhouse became known as the Cuckfield Poor Law Institution. The Queen’s Hall became a hospital for army casualties during the war.

The influenza epidemic of 1918- 20 swept across Europe and left 150,000 dead in Britain alone. A memorial plaque in the chapel tells us that Susan Wilson died of influenza while nursing in the infirmary - she was only 23 years of age.

In 1928 Mr and Mrs Blunden were appointed as Master and Matron, and the workhouse became known as the West Hylands Institution. Mr and Mrs Blunden encouraged the local people of Cuckfield to visit and to take an interest.


I am most grateful to Wyn Rollett who started her long association with Cuckfield Hospital in the ’30s and has helped me very much with her memories.

Wyn recalls seeing the vagrants gathering in the paths surrounding the workhouse, hiding any meagre belongings in the hedges for fear of confiscation and patiently waiting until 6pm when 'Jimmy' the porter allowed them to come in. He checked their names and made sure each one went through to the bath houses behind the porter's lodge where Mr and Mrs Johnson were waiting to scrub and bath each one. The shouts and swearing protests could be heard for quite a distance, but no-one escaped the bath routine. They were then fed and separated into dormitories.

At 8am the following morning the able-bodied started their day’s stint of work - gardening, general cleaning or delivering clean baskets of laundry to the infirmary wards. They then left the workhouse, collected their bits and pieces from the hedges and marched to another workhouse, usually Chailey, now Chailey Heritage.

As a girl, Wyn worked in the infirmary. She recalls the occasion when Mrs Blunden asked her to escort a group of the mentally defective residents of the workhouse down to Cuckfield town for their Saturday treat. This involved a walk around the churchyard and a visit to the newsagent where they spent their pocket money. They always wore thick, distinctive, patterned dresses, black stockings and shoes. Wyn was quite relieved when she could bring her charges safely back to the workhouse - after all, it was supposed to have been her half-day off!

During the '30s the number of vagrants dwindled and West Hylands was upgraded and was now able to care for acutely ill medical cases as well as maternity, children and infectious diseases.

Outbreak of War

At the outbreak of war in 1939 West Hylands became an Emergency Medical Service Hospital and the existing inmates were gradually transferred to large houses in the area including Knowle, Chownes Mead and Little Ashfold in Handcross.

It was a period of change and uncertainty. Wyn was working in the laundry and all the clothes and heavy bed linen was washed on the premises -nothing ’drip-dry’ in those days. After the transfer of patients the laundry service continued. Wyn remembers collecting and delivering the laundry with Mr Viles the van driver making regular visits to the large houses involved.

All London hospitals had to evacuate because of the dangers of bombing and the E.M.S.H. became a sector hospital for Kings College Hospital and Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children. To cope with this influx of staff and patients nine ’temporary’ huts were built and had numbers, not names.

I am greatly indebted to Miss Ruth Simson who kindly took the trouble to send me an account of conditions at Cuckfield during the early years of the war when she worked there as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse.

The newly built huts were occupied by King's College Hospital patients but were used for army casualties. Royal Scots Fusiliers, Newfoundlanders, and dispatch riders with fractured limbs, also a Polish contingent who had unfortunately learnt their English in Gourock, Scotland! The other wards were used for local patients and those bombed out of other hospitals. Some Southlands Hospital (Shoreham) staff and patients were transferred to Cuckfield for safety. There was fear of imminent invasion in 1940-41, the South coast was heavily mined and coastal towns had become restricted zones.

Great Ormond Street occupied the main workhouse together with the existing maternity ward. The operating theatre was in the old reception room of the workhouse and the clerk’s office became the anaesthetic room.

There were two operating tables in the one theatre but no recovery ward. Patients were escorted back to wards unconscious, covered in rubber sheets and protected by umbrellas during wet weather.

The X-ray department was in what is now the Friend's Shop. Only one patient could be admitted at a time, those waiting for an X-ray had to brave the elements even in snow.

The huts were heated by a central black coal stove and floors were polished almost daily with heavy buffers. There were no curtains, only a few heavy screens, often made from asbestos. Work on the wards was heavy with long hours and severe staff shortages - nursing before the discovery of antibiotics was very different.

The King's College surgeon at the time was a remarkable man - Mr Edmunds, a retired naval surgeon. He took a great interest in the running of his wards, dressings were done daily under his watchful eye. He made little silver spoons (his hobby) for crushing the sulphonamide drugs used at the time. He made staff and patients alike wear gas-masks at various times to prepare them for the possibility of a gas attack by the German airforce. This practice could be quite a hazard, particularly for the nursing staff. Visibility and hearing were considerably restricted and the patients quite naturally dreaded this practice.

All meals, apart from the main meal were prepared on the wards. Rationing was strict, food tended to be rather monotonous. Stores arrived daily in similar looking brown paper sacks. This led to an unfortunate incident one day when scouring powder mixed with water was heated up instead of dried chicken soup. Mercifully as the mixture refused to thicken in the normal way, the error was discovered before this treat was served to the patients!

Dr Farr was in charge of the maternity unit in addition to his GP practice at Marshalls. The children’s ward was always full, with babies being carried down steep stairs and put outside in prams in good weather. There were never enough cots and children who were harnessed into full-sized beds to prevent them falling out.

Many evacuees had dysentery as they had not acquired an immunity to the well water of Rural Sussex,

Admission of all patients tended to be by the bus load. Converted Southdown buses were used and batches of patients, 30 or more at a time would arrive - victims of bombing raids, toddlers who had swallowed shrapnel picked up on the streets of London.

The laundry staff worked flat out to keep supplies of linen and nappies going but there was always a crisis at the weekends when the laundry closed. On one occasion the mains water supply was severed and the only water available was in the laundry department. Drinking water had to be fetched from Cuckfield.

Taken over by the Canadian Military

In 1942 the Canadian Medical Unit took over the hospital. Great Ormond Street children and staff went to Elfinsward and Horsegate House. Kings College patients were transferred to Tower House and Chownesmead. The hospital became known as the 13th Canadian Military General. The ladies of the laundry remained at their post. They were employed by the Canadians and the hospital entered a new and important phase.

The entire hospital was heavily camouflaged for protection from the air.

In fact, the hospital was never bombed but there were some near misses, such as the destruction of the lodge at Borde Hill and the dropping of the first doodle bug below Sparkes Farm. After the war it was confirmed by German pilots that the Cuckfield church spire was used as a marker to help lead them towards London.

Wyn, working with the girls in 'the laundry, was now poping with blue suits, white shirts and red ties worn by wounded servicemen to distinguish them. Regular uniforms and all linen used in the hospital was laundered. The girls worked from 8am until 8pm. The work was very hard as there were heavy machines, presses, rollers, and irons to cope with. There were some compensations, however, and evenings were spent dancing to the Canadian Military Band - usually in one of the huts. There were free drinks, free cigarettes and a marvellous atmosphere was created in spite of - or perhaps because of - the war. The Rose & Crown was kept busy as patients and staff found it was within the limits of the hospital. Life generally hit a new high in Cuckfield. It has never been quite the same since!

After the War

In 1945, after the war, the hospital was handed back to the East Sussex County Council. Some of the 'temporary' huts were used as flats because of the acute shortage of housing. In 1949 a year after the National Health Service was established, the old workhouse became known as CUCKFIELD HOSPITAL.

So many changes have taken place since those days. Medical and surgical care have become more sophisticated and techniques have vastly improved. Cuckfield Hospital has adapted continuously to changing conditions. New departments, theatres, intensive care, accident and physiotherapy departments, the day hospital - to name but a few.

The Maternity Unit deserves a special mention. It has flourished and is famous for its care throughout the region. Staff were winners of the Midwifery Care Award of 1983 - given for skill and care of mother and child and awarded by the Royal College of Midwives, with the cooperation of the Pebble Mill television programme.

So much makes up the fabric of a hospital - management, medical staff, physiotherapists, radiologists, porters, domestic staff, ambulance drivers - all concerned in many ways with caring for the patient. And let’s not forget the League of Friends and the library service who give of their time to help make a hospital stay that much more comfortable.

Cuckfield will always be remembered with affection by many of us - for the friendly and caring atmosphere and for the loyalty of the staff.

Let us hope this unique atmosphere will be 'transplanted' to the new hospital, when Cuckfield faces the biggest change of all in its 150 year history and moves to Haywards Heath.

As for those 'temporary' huts they leave behind - they haven't done badly, have they?

My grateful thanks go particularly to Mrs Wyn Rollett, Miss Ruth Simson, and Miss Maisie Wright for their help and advice in compiling this account.


This was written, by author unknown, in c1991 shortly after the hospital facilities were relocated to the newly built Princess Royal Hospital in Haywards Heath. The old hospital was located in Ardingly Road. The main old building is now divided up as apartments. This account is kept at the Cuckfield Museum archives.

Aerial photo and article contributed by Malcolm Davison.

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