The Victorian Isolation Hospital

Nov 23, 02:59 PM

This history trail audio is narrated by the poet Michael Rosen, with script researched by Helen Weinstein and the team at Historyworks. This recording is part of a series of Cambridge history trails which have lyrics inspired by 'history beneath our feat' performed by local schoolchildren, with poems by the top poet Michael Rosen and songs by the funny team at CBBC's songwriters commissioned by Historyworks. To find more trails and further information, go to

The Industrial Revolution that swept across Cambridge in the Victorian era brought many changes to the city. As the population rose, people began living in small houses without baths, toilets or clean running water. In these cramped streets, some people even threw their sewage out of the window, or into the river. This created a massive increase in sicknesses and diseases in each neighbourhood, which the authorities struggled to control. Believing that infection was carried in the bad smells known as ‘miasmas’, doctors founded the Isolation Hospital in the fields way out of town to take people away from these poisonous odours. The concept of germs existed in the late Victrorian era, but the majority of scientists didn’t believe this. Anningston, the Medical Officer for Health for Cambridge, was unsure about the germ theory preferring to believe instead that diseases were indeed the result of bad smells or ‘miasmas’. This, it was believed, explained why diseases were more common in the unsanitary areas of town that stank. By isolating a patient from the bad odours it was believed they would be cured.

Right up until the end of the Victorian era, rivers in Cambridge were were essentially open sewers because the Sewage Pumping Station wasn’t build until 1894. Illnesses such cholera, typhus, measles, and scarlet fever were common but it new cases of smallpox, as well as an increasing number of cases of diarrhoea in infants that prompted the building of the Isolation hospital in 1885.

At the Hospital, there was a separate block for each disease, and strict hygiene rules to stop patients getting another illness – you didn’t want smallpox AND scarlet fever!

The hospital was formed of seven separate wings radiating out from a central hub, each wing for a different infectious disease. Within each wing were two wards, one for women and one for men. The wards were spaced 40 feet apart and there were strict instructions for moving between wards, to avoid spreading infection. There was also a set amount of space around each bed to encourage the movement of fresh air, as, according to the miasma theory, fresh air would cure the disease.

As the understanding of diseases changed and germ theory started to become more accepted, isolation became less important and the uses of the hospital altered. During the First World War it was used as the place where men signed up to the army, to fight in the war; and the smallpox wing was suggested as a place for German Prisoners of War, although there is no evidence that it was ever used as such. The hospital was also used to house refugees from Serbia, fleeing the conflict there with Austria-Hungary. They had travelled 1,500 miles to get to Cambridge.

Today the hospital is part of the NHS. It is known as Brookfields Hospital and has a specialist area for old people, and because Cambridge has grown so much since Victorian times the hospital is no long in fields far out of town but near the end of bustling Mill Road.

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