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A CENTURY OF CARING: The St Margaret's Hospital Story
by Peter Allen

Part Three: The pioneering role of St Margaret’s Hospital

This is the last of three articles celebrating a Century of Caring on the Great Barr Hall Estate.

During the 1920s and 30s the rigorous implementation of the Mental Deficiency Act led to the certification of large numbers of defectives across the nation. Establishments similar to Great Barr Park Colony, intended solely for the training of high-grade mental defectives, were forced to take low-grade defectives, so-called idiots and imbeciles, to relieve the overload.

Following enactment of the Local Government Act (1929), which brought the Poor Law era to a close, the colony was vested by the Minister of Health in the Councils of the County Boroughs of Walsall and West Bromwich. It was managed by a Joint Board until brought within the National Health Service in July 1948. It was henceforth known as St. Margaret’s Hospital.

Public scrutiny of the colony was actively encouraged. From 1933, the colony was thrown open each year in June or July for a splendid garden fete. This tradition continued right through to closure. In 1939, a staggering 2,500 people attended the event. The day concluded with dancing to the strains of the colonists’ dance orchestra.

Just prior to the Second World War, a further eleven homes, in a 'dignified phase of Georgian architecture,' were erected on land several hundred yards to the north-west of the established colony to relieve overcrowding. These extensions, known simply as 'the male side', effectively segregated the sexes. Much of the site work was undertaken by colonists under the supervision of the Clerk of Works.

These new buildings, formally opened in May 1938 by the Earl of Harrowby, increased accommodation to 1355 beds. The colony was now the fourth largest in the country. According to Walsall's retiring Town Clerk it was "…in size, economy, and efficient administration, the finest in the kingdom".

Life at Great Barr Park Colony was severely disrupted by hostilities. Many staff were drafted into the Forces; those remaining were further burdened by the added responsibility of providing an Emergency Medical Scheme (EMS) hospital of 350 beds from existing facilities. It was centred on Williams Home and adjacent buildings and required 54 staff to deal with numerous civilian evacuees, air-raid victims and military casualties. Many of the services were provided by the colony personnel, who relished the opportunity to support the war effort. Over six years, 3130 civilian and military patients were treated for a wide variety of surgical and medical conditions.

A national call to "Dig for Victory" resulted in a total of 112 acres being turned over to agriculture. The colony was nearly self-sufficient in many commodities. Farming activities were carried on into peace-time: in 1947, the Medical Superintendent could report that 18,442 lb of pork, 1077 lb of offal and 1576 lb of lamb and mutton had been produced for colony use. Enough potatoes had been grown for the whole year, and there had been a sizeable crop of wheat, oats and barley. There were still sheep, poultry, goats and 137 pigs in January 1950.

By the middle of the last century large institutions for the learning disabled had run their course. Increased affluence and vastly more sophisticated social care systems had opened up new possibilities. Staff at enlightened hospitals, like St Margaret’s, acknowledged this climate of optimism and were changing the system step-wise from within. Public opinion, ironically the same force which brought about mental deficiency institutions in the first place, helped create the critical mass which obliged governments to make available long-overdue funding for care in the community.

Throughout its history St Margaret"s Hospital commanded respect as a leader in the care of the learning disabled. Services were continually under review and many innovations and pioneering measures were introduced over the years. Although the hospital formally closed in March 1997, a special unit caring for a small number of high-dependency residents still exists on the estate.

The era of institutionalised systems of care for the learning disabled does not require defending: it was of its time and can stand on its own record. As originally conceived, training colonies gave purpose and direction to the lives of many mental defectives who were failing in a society which had neither the resources nor the infrastructure to provide community care. These specialised institutions never reached full potential: they were thwarted by chronic underfunding and the unreasonable demands put upon them.

It was my privilege to spend nearly twenty years as a biomedical scientist at St Margaret's Hospital. I witnessed at first-hand the selfless devotion shown by so many of the nursing staff to their charges. Several nurses spent the whole of their working lives, in one or two cases exceeding fifty years, at this very special place. That says it all.

Let me sign off with the words of Mr Ridley, Chief Male Nurse of St Margaret"s Hospital in the early 1960s:

"Within ten minutes of entering this Hospital the Visitor is able to sense without any lingering doubt that this is a happy Hospital. What is it that creates this almost tangible atmosphere? One often comes across it in unlikely places, even in hospitals with an inheritance of old inconvenient buildings that smack of the past history of "chilly charity and poor law" to live down. It is certainly not dependant on streamline buildings, expert planning, up-to-the-minute equipment, or vast numbers of staff. But it is the Staff themselves who create the happiness; cheerful kindly people, all of them with their various tasks, who serve ungrudgingly whatever the difficulties, convinced that this is a worthwhile job."

My extended chapter entitled Mental deficiency institutions: have the obitiuaries been fair and balanced? in Learning Disability Nursing Practice (Quay Books, 2009) gives a detailed history of St Margaret's Hospital and its antecedents.

You can contact the author, Peter Allen, at for more information.

This article is Copyright Peter Allen, Chair of the Barr and Aston Local History Society

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