Dartford Hospital Histories

Hospital Farm

Whether the MAB deliberately set out to farm is not clear; perhaps they got into it by accident because a portion of Marsh Street Farm without buildings would have been of no use to the vendor and, land being cheap, the Board was not inclined to quibble over a few extra acres. Whatever the thinking, it was not till 1905 that the surplus land was fully farmed by the Board; and Dr Ricketts the Medical Superintendent (MS) claimed that it was he who persuaded the Board to do so. Doubtless the delay till 1905 was occasioned by the fact that a smallpox epidemic raged till 1904 and the MAB and MS had their hands full with building and treating 10,000 cases respectively.

The wage scale laid down in 1905 was exclusive to Joyce Green, probably because a farm in a smallpox hospital was unique. Top of the scale came the Bailiff (working) who got ’30s per week, rising by 1s to 33s – with the unfurnished cottage, coals, milk and vegetables’. At the bottom end was the labourer with 21s per week and no perks; but I dare say some of the vegetables fell off the farm cart!

The Thames occasionally overflowed its banks, as it did in 1897. Such an occurrence does not seem to have worried the MAB or Dr Ricketts, and the heavy sewage pollution of the brackish water may have been, unwittingly, a fertile bonus. In old documents these marshes were called ‘salt marshes’, so it likely salt-tolerant strains of grass and osiers predominated.

After 1897 the banks were raised somewhat and they were not breached again until 1953 when the water reached the North Gate of Joyce Green.

The whole estate was soon fenced off against human intrusion but less quickly internally, so cows peering through the ward windows was a possibility, especially as cows were used to graze the grass of the airing compounds beside each ward, the ground being too rough for a mower.

This must have raised the question could cows get smallpox from humans? Dr Ricketts certainly had it in mind when in 1904 he was granted a vivisection licence to investigate the causes of smallpox.

He planned to use a range of animals, but his scheme came to nought because smallpox was then fast-fading from the London scene (there was no other major epidemic until the late 1920’s/early 1930’s and that was the milder Variola Minor, with had a low death rate).

The Joyce Green Hospital formed an island in the middle of its farm. At first the cows could graze freely until in July 1906, the accountant became concerned lest this amounted to farming operations and therefore rateable. Accordingly the buildings were fenced off so that the outer zone of land could be grazed rate-free.

What were the problems of working such a farm? The problems of co-existence with smallpox came early as Steward Moule found out in 1900. He tried to load a consignment of hay on to barges tied to the pier at Long Reach, built for the ambulance steamers bringing patients from London; but Dr Ricketts was not having it, anxious no doubt not to create a precedent whereby smallpox patients and haywains might be jostling for space on a small pier.

Pears, plums and apples grew in abundance in the orchard. In 1908, to prevent the livestock from nibbling the bark, they purchased 400 tree guards – which gives a good idea of the number of trees, but some of course may have been ornamental.

From 1911 to 1917 the MS’s farm reports are minimal, stating with Dr Ricketts’ illness, his replacement by Dr A F Cameron, and of course the outbreak of war in 1914. The farm role in the wartime food production can be gauged by Dr Cameron’s report in March 1917. ‘The Farm Hostel has been taken over by the Women’s Farm and Garden Union’. When it closed in 1919 and he records that ‘it fulfilled its purpose admirably and tided the farm over its most difficult period’.

A 1917 a directive by the MAB to keep as many pigs as possible met with a discouraging response. ‘I find the refuse from the hospital is not sufficient for feeding pigs. There is hardly any refuse from the wards and what comes from the messroom is used for the poultry.’

Thereafter Dr Cameron’s farm reports occur regularly and following are some edited summaries:

January 1918. Cows. Mr Kersey (Wye College) notes that there have been a few cases of abortion and suggests the heifers should be given preventative inoculation.

October 1918. ‘One of the cows has been attacked by Tuberculosis of the udder’. No mention of Tuberculin testing and the end of the war is not mentioned.

June 1919. ‘Temporary Labourer Joyce is now engaged in the orchard in spraying the fruit trees. I think it would be expedient to retain his services for cutting out and grafting of which there is much to be done after the fruit season is over. Joyce is over age for the permanent staff.’

December 1919. Milk supply. ‘Average supply is about 33 gallons, hardly sufficient for our requirements. The quality is low. In fact the average is hardly up to the legal standard.’

Annual Report 1922. The dairy herd is in good condition, only one case of definite tuberculosis and no case of abortion. 25 calves born, 65 pigs slaughtered for use. About 500 fowls produced 22,946 eggs, 62 turkeys reared but 8 died. He gave no financial assessment but the position was not as rosy as the report suggested.

Annual Report 1923. The crops generally were below average except hay at 126 tons and the crop of pears was very poor. He does not say why the crop was poor but in October 1924 he questioned the future of the Orchard and suggested that an expert from Malling be obtained. The advice given was not recorded but cannot of been favourable as in 1928 there is no mention of fruit.

December 1928. The pigs are unsuccessful this year with an outbreak of swine fever.

The change of ownership in 1930 from the MAB to London County Council made no obvious difference to the farm policy. But it was Dr Mitman, Dr Cameron’s successor as MS who had to report another outbreak of swine fever. The poultry farm was showing a loss with egg production falling.

Once again war cast a fog over the farm. In wartime food production is more important than balancing the books so there was no price tag on the performance. Thereafter the farm struggled on for another 20 years under the NHS and another outbreak of swine fever in the 1950s may have been the last straw.

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