Northumberland and Durham Family History Group

Liz O’Donnell gave a talk on Voices from Stannington Sanatorium at the latest meeting of the Northumberland and Durham Family History Society’s North Northumberland Group.

Camp beds on the grass, rolling bandages for the war effort, daily doses of Virol malt, waving to the soldiers, injections with needles like pokers, these were just some of the memories of former patients of The Children’s Sanatorium at Stannington, near Morpeth.

It had its origins in the Poor Children’s Holiday Association, a Methodist charity which organised day trips to the seaside for needy children and also provided night shelters for destitute children on Tyneside.

It was noticed that many of the children were in poor health with some suffering from TB.

Poor housing and cramped conditions were considered the main cause. Most children contracted it from an adult.

There was a great deal of fear and stigma about it and children were often told not to tell anyone about their stay at the sanatorium after they left.

This approach led to the first sanatorium in the country especially for children. Proposed in 1904, it was built on land acquired from benefactors.

At a later stage, another ward and the Vita Glass Pavilion were added. The latter permitted the transmission of ultra-violet rays from sunshine believed to be essential for improving the health of children with TB.

Fresh air and good food were also the main treatment before the Second World War for pulmonary TB.

The average length of a child’s stay was three years during which they would be allowed a visit from their parents only once in two months for three hours.

At Stannington there was even an isolation unit (a shed in the woods) if children contracted an infectious disease such as chickenpox.

Liz interviewed 25 former patients for this project and five members of staff. Extensive archives were submitted to Woodhorn Archives, so many that a removal van was needed to transport them.

Many of the individual stories were heartbreaking. In one case three young brothers were in the sanatorium but never saw each other.

Wherever possible the children spent time in the open air, even if this meant wheeling the bed outside.

We heard the story of a child who was shocked to discover she had to remain in the sanatorium while her parents went home.

She remembered big needles like pokers, retained a dislike of milk puddings for the rest of her life and felt abandoned by her parents.

Nursing staff had to begin washing the children as early as 4am when they were still sleeping.

Not all the memories were unhappy ones. Nurses in cloaks carrying lanterns who came round the wards singing carols on Christmas Eve were a happy memory for one little girl.

The cast of the Theatre Royal at Newcastle used to visit every year. For a few it created the motivation to train to become a nurse specialising in the treatment of TB.

The sanatorium closed for TB patients in 1953 and then took long-term patients, finally closing its doors in 1985.

This moving talk finished with a photograph of a reunion of former nurses taken very recently.

The talk demonstrated that Stannington Sanatorium was a world in itself and served an important purpose during its life. Thank goodness it is no longer needed.

Our next meeting will be on Saturday, January 17, at 10am at Bell View, Belford, and will be a members’ forum, topic to be announced.