New light on Lewes tin building

hospital SUS-140620-175439001
hospital SUS-140620-175439001

Fresh light has been shed on the intriguing history of a modest-looking old tin building.

It featured in a photograph on the Looking Back page of the Sussex Express on June 13.

Showing a group of nurses and gentlemen, together with a patient lying in a bed in the open air, the location was believed to be South Street in Lewes.

And its purpose was identified as possibly a hospital dating from the time of the Great War.

Not so on either count said eagle-eyed reader Bob Elliston, the author of Lewes at War.

He said the building was indeed a hospital, but not a military one. It was built as the local council’s panic response to an outbreak of smallpox in London in 1900.

The only treatment was isolation to prevent the disease from spreading and the prefabricated building was erected in the chalk pits at Offham.

Mr Elliston said it was located in the lesser pit at the south side of the great pit – where The Chalk Pit Inn stands today.

Its siting caused an outcry in the village and at Hamsey, downwind of the hospital, because residents feared the infection could spread to them.

Conditions were spartan: earth closets, no electricity and open fires. Local benefactor Mr J. Every later supplied up-to-date heaters.

The building was staffed by three nurses and water was delivered in a cart by gravity from the hill above.

The smallpox outbreak was contained in the capital and the hospital was given a new role in treating patients suffering from tuberculosis.

It actually stood empty during the First World War, only making news when some local youths appeared in court for throwing stones and breaking windows. In 1919 the hospital was dismantled and re-erected at the Convent Field in Lewes, becoming the home of two ex-servicemen and their families and thus the town’s first council houses.

The old building finished its days as a groundsman’s store about 10 years ago, said Mr Elliston.