PortCities London

The Dreadnought Seamen's hospital

Sickness and disease
 

Sailors' illnesses

The sailor and the quack doctor (caricature).
View full size imageThe sailor and the quack doctor (caricature). © NMM

Seamen arriving at the doors of the ‘Dreadnought’ suffered from these illnesses and more:

  • Broken bones
  • Dysentery
  • Typhoid
  • Ulcers
  • Wounds
  • Rheumatism
  • Venereal diseases

 Accidents on board ships and in local dockyards happened frequently and the hospital had to do its fair share of wound dressing and bone setting.

Sailors suffered from a range of illnesses, some brought about by the hard life at sea, others simply from old age. They often reported symptoms of rheumatism, ulcers and bronchitis.

Infectious diseases such as typhoid and cholera often affected seamen, together with more general fevers and various tropical infections. And, of course, the notorious lifestyle of seamen once ashore led to many cases of sexually transmitted diseases.

Convalescence and welfare

Dreadnought Seaman's Hospital, Greenwich.
View full size imageA ward, Dreadnought Seaman's Hospital, Greenwich. © NMM
Treating the sick was just the beginning of the hospital’s work. From its beginnings the society had always aimed to provide assistance with recovery, convalescence and welfare.

When seamen were discharged from the hospital they were frequently provided with a new suit of clothes, although the society did sometimes complain about the expense of this activity.

Many seamen were discharged simply as ‘cured’, others were ordered to convalesce either onshore, on their ship, or were given a free passage back to their home port.

After the First World War the society opened its first convalescent home at Cudham in Kent. A major sanatorium for seamen who had tuberculosis (TB) was built in Hampshire in 1921.

Cholera and scurvy

Greenwich and the Dreadnought.
View full size imageGreenwich and the Dreadnought. © NMM

The hospital and its medical staff played their part in tackling two particular 19th-century diseases. On the Thames they confronted cholera, while more generally they did a lot to eradicate scurvy.

During the great cholera epidemic of 1832 a smaller vessel, the Dover, was temporarily moored alongside the Dreadnought  to serve as an isolation ‘ward’. This policy was repeated successfully during later outbreaks of the disease.

Scurvy was a particular problem for the hospital, which frequently pressured the Government to take action. The disease could be prevented by issuing seamen with lime juice, but many employers failed to take this simple action. The society helped establish regulations in 1867 that forced employers to provide suitable lime juice to their crews. This led to the elimination of scurvy from British ships.

The community's hospital

Dreadnought Hospital Greenwich.
View full size imageOne of the wards, Dreadnought Hospital, Greenwich. © NMM
The hospital would never turn away an urgent case. Both seamen and members of the local port community were welcomed by the hospital at a time of crisis.

Such crises could range from minor cuts and bruises to fatal injuries. For example, the hospital records show that tragically in May 1878 a 3-year-old boy died shortly after arriving at the hospital with serious burns.

On a larger scale, during the construction of the Blackwall Tunnel in the 1890s, the ‘Dreadnought’ found itself acting as an unofficial first aid post for all those labourers injured during the building works. The building company Pearson acknowledged that support later by helping to raise £400 towards the hospital’s funds.





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