Monday, 15 August 2022

History of Reading Society

AT the March meeting, which was also the society’s annual meeting, Lionel Williams gave a detailed and sometimes entertaining overview of hospital services in Reading.

Lionel came to Reading as chief medical photographer at the Royal Berkshire Hospital and is now secretary of the Berkshire Medical Heritage Centre.

Medical services began with the foundation of Reading Abbey in 1121 and the abbey’s infirmary probably came into its own during the Black Death of 1348.

Thereafter hospitals were almost unknown outside London but voluntary hospitals funded by public subscription began in the 18th century and Oxford’s Radcliffe Infirmary (1770) was one fruit of this.

In Reading, a first step in improvement in the town’s health came with the founding of the Reading Dispensary in 1802, serving the “poorer classes of society”.

Then in 1836 Lord Sidmouth gave land for the construction of a hospital.

The foundation stone was laid in the following year and in 1839 the Royal Berkshire Hospital opened its doors with 50 beds, having cost £9,000.

The new hospital’s early record was not very encouraging, as 50 per cent of patients died during surgery. Happily, this percentage decreased with the introduction of anaesthetics in the late 1840s.

In the course of the 19th century the hospital expanded with the addition of two wings and the facilities were also enhanced by the addition of a library and chapel.

Compared with 18 operations in 1844, by 1882 the number had increased to 92. A further advance was the acquisition of X-ray equipment in 1899.

In 1941, a little after its centenary, the Royal Berks had 413 beds and a mortality rate of only 1.4 per cent.

Mr Williams also referred to other hospital developments within Reading, notably the Battle Hospital (formerly the Union Workhouse), Prospect Park Hospital and Blagrave Hospital, Tilehurst. Expansion continued during the 20th century until in 2005 with the closure of Battle and its replacement by the Battle Block at the Royal Berks.

Most in-patient healthcare in Reading is now on the Royal Berks site, which extends a quarter of a mile from north to south.

Finally, we were treated to two fascinating videos, the first relating the adventures of the hospital’s first clock, which was stolen but later turned up at an auction house after a replica had been made by Caversham clockmaker David Card.

The other, entitled “The Battle to Beat Polio”, included fascinating sequences of the iron lung, donated by Lord Nuffield, in use and songwriter Michael Flanders receiving treatment.

Vicki Chesterman

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