Deep in the basement of the university’s Riverside campus, formerly County Hall, is the faculty of Health and Social care museum. The museum, which is only open once a month is run by a small team of dedicated volunteers and contains curiosities from the worlds of medicine, nursing, midwifery and social care.
I was given a guided tour by one of the volunteers who pointed some of the key exhibits in this unique and largely unseen collection. The first collection of items were saved by staff at the West Cheshire Hospital (variously named over the years, the County Lunatic Asylum, the Deva Asylum etc). Nurses and staff salvaged items from being thrown away and the items were housed at Moston Hospital nurse training school in the 1960s. The collection was moved to various locations before transferring to Riverside in 2008. Over the years more and more items have been added, via donations from nurses and GP practices. In 2012 the museum opened with 101 objects.
A letter from nursing pioneer, Florence Nightingale is one of the first exhibits in the museum, which is all housed within 2 small but packed rooms. The letter sent from the Crimea , where Florence was treating the wounded, is to the family of a soldier who died in the Crimean war (1853- 56).
A wide range of surgical equipment is on show, and is often a point of interest for student nurse visitors. You can see hip replacements, nursing examination papers from the 1930s , hospital badges, Obstetric equipment, syringes and gas masks. A vintage thermometer from the pre “health and safety” era , as well as a 1900s steamer were of particular interest. Steam was used as a treatment for whooping cough and asthma I was told.
The child’s cot was from an age when children were previously hospitalised for years due to diseases like Polio. Polio doesn’t exist now due to immunisation and in modern Britain , due to much improved assessments and treatments, the average time spent by a child in hospital is 24 hours.
A reuseable coffin from the asylum is a stark reminder of generational poverty and is another of the key exhibits. There is a large part of the museum devoted to life and treatment within the West Cheshire hospital. in 1829, it was founded as the County Lunatic Asylum. The hospital has a dark image for many, with ex nurse and writer Stan Murphy commenting in his book on the history of the hospital: “To some the asylums of the 19th century represent a darker period in mental health care, with involuntary incarcerations, dubious treatments and abuse of patients’ rights.” However, he notes that there was also a legacy of “progressive institutional treatments and philosophies.. that were the beginning of a revolution in mental health care”.
At its height in the 1930s the hospital housed over 1800 patients. The hospital was a community in itself, with its own farm, gas works, and church. Patients themselves were able to work in the laundry, and the main hall housed a variety of activities for patients.
It was fascinating to see an ECT (Electroconvulsive therapy) machine. The controversial technique of using electric shocks to treat mental illness, is well known due to depictions in films such as One flew over the cuckoos nest, and Requiem for a dream. As drug treatment developed the technique was used less and less, but is still being used in the UK today.
Alongside the medical equipment is a fascinating collection of artefacts such as signage, keys to the wards and staff records and posters. With the hospital closed in 2005 and later demolished, this collection is an important link to our past.
Also on show are items relating to the history of social work. A timeline follows the development of care from the Poor Law of 1601 up to the present day. You can view documents and journals from the NSPCC and other charities with a detailed history of the various legislation passed over the years.
A newer addition to the museum is a second room which focuses on medical care since world war one. The treatment of a soldier returning from the war is followed, with a focus on emergency treatment. A piece of shrapnel is on display. alongside a bandage winder- bandages of the period were washed and reused after use, not thrown away like they are today. Visitors can also get a look at medical treatment of the 1920s with a mock up of a country medical practice, as well as a look at home grown remedies: goosefat and brown paper a great treatment for coughs and asthma they say.
The staff on duty told me that the museum gets few visitors , largely due to its location and limited opening hours. This is a great shame as the collection is very interesting and well displayed, and looked after by people who care about it, many of whom are former medical staff. I was told that tourists walking the walls sometimes visit after seeing the signs outside , but it appears to be unknown to most Cestrians. The museum opens on the first Wednesday of each month from 1-4pm but can open on request for large groups by arrangement.
Seek out this hidden gem, its a brilliant museum.
“The Best is yet to be” Stan Murphy 2004 CC publishing