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Map (1898) showing the location of the Infirmary and surrounding antiquities

Chester has had several hospitals of which the most significant in the history of medicine was possibly the Infirmary (1755-1993). The hospital was founded in 1755 following a bequest by Dr William Stratford, who had died two years earlier. It was funded by public subscriptions, and was free to patients who were recommended by the subscribers. It was originally housed in temporary accommodation in part of Bluecoat School (St John's Hospital). Construction of the permanent building was started in 1758, and was completed in 1761. It was designed by William Yoxall, and the interior was remodelled in 1830 by William Cole, junior. Cooke describes it as follows:

  • "On the west side of the Shambles is Parsons lane or Princes street leading to a pleasant and airy range of building called St Martin's in the Fields opposite to which adjoining to the walls stands in a most delightful and salubrious situation - the Infirmary - a very spacious and elegant building erected in the year 1701 the comfortable retreat of disease and penury from every part of the county the city and North Wales."

Over the years, extensions were built, and by 1902 the hospital had 118 beds. The appellation "Royal" was added in 1914 when George V opened the Albert Wood wing, which contained six new wards. This wing was designed by W. T. and P. H. Lockwood, as was a further extension in 1931. During the 1990s patients were transferred to new facilities provided by the Countess of Chester Hospital, and the infirmary closed. Other than the original building, all the later extensions were demolished in 1998. The original hospital building has been converted into apartments.

An early illustration of the Infirmary.

The land upon which the infirmary later stood was anciently known as Lady Barrow's Hey, Hey being a Saxon name for a field enclosed with hedges. Earlier still, the land was used by the Romans as a graveyard which would have been outside of the city walls prior to their extension in post-Roman times. Many graves were uncovered when the hospital was being built and enlarged. Chester historian Frank Simpson recorded that, in 1858 workmen discovered several Roman tombs, which contained such articles as terra-cotta lamps, clay vessels and coins of the period of Domitian.

The remains were described as follows in Annals of Archaeology and Anthropology (Liverpool, 1914, vol. vi, pp. 121-67) - as referenced by "Roman Britain in 1914", by Professor F. Haverfield

  • Prof. Newstead describes and illustrates fully the thirty-five graves found in 1912-3 in the Infirmary Field, Chester, of which I gave a brief account in my Report for 1913 (p. 14). Save for a few first-century remains in one corner, the graveyard seems to be an inhumation cemetery, used during the second half of the second century—rather an early date for such a cemetery. I do not myself feel much doubt that some at least of the tombstones extracted in 1890-2 from the western half of the North City Wall were taken from this area. They belong to the first and second centuries and suggest (as I pointed out when they were found) that the Wall was built about A.D. 200. That, however, is just the date when the cemetery was closed; the seizure of the tombstones for the construction of the Wall would explain why the Infirmary Field has yielded no tombstones from all its graves. By the kindness of [42] Professors Bosanquet and Newstead I can add some illustrations of the graves themselves, from blocks used for Prof. Newstead's paper. Fig. 17 shows two of the simpler graves, fig. 18, two built with tiles. Fig. 19 illustrates some curious nails found with the bodies.

Why Jenner and not Haygarth?

John Haygarth (1740 – 10 June 1827) - an important 18th-century British physician who discovered new ways to prevent the spread of fever among patients and reduce the mortality rate of smallpox

The eradication of smallpox stands as one of the greatest achievements of medical science. When it was finally achieved in 1977 it was based on three principles:

  • find every case;
  • isolate the infected individual;
  • immunise all their contacts.

These proved to be sufficient to eliminate the disease because the incubation period of 10-14 days after exposure gave time to mount a defence, and because smallpox only spread by very close contact between infectious individuals, or contaminated materials, and susceptible individuals. However, the crucial features of smallpox, and the possibility of eradicating the disease, were not 20th century innovations, they can be traced directly to John Haygarth (1740 – 10 June 1827) an important 18th-century British physician who discovered new ways to prevent the spread of fever among patients and reduce the mortality rate of smallpox. Chester Infirmary hosted John Haygarth from 1767 to 1798.

In 1774, as part of a census Haygarth administered in Chester, he asked residents about their medical history. From this information he concluded that fever patients should be separated from others and his discovery that only a tiny fraction of the population of Chester had never had smallpox led him to focus his energy on prevention. He wrote up these findings in a paper, "Observations on the Population and Diseases of Chester". In 1778 Haygarth helped found "A Society for Promoting General Inoculation at Stated Periods and Preventing Natural Smallpox in Chester"; the group advocated inoculation, an unpopular position at the time, and tried to educate the populace so as to avoid casual contraction of the disease. This attempted to persuade those too poor to participate in a general inoculation by paying a reward. After some debate, the Society’s donors agreed that the inducement should be 5 shillings for the first child, 3 shillings for the second, and 1 shilling for each succeeding child, to compensate the parents for the time and trouble involved in looking after their inoculated children. An additional 5 shillings would be paid to the inoculator for his services, but the doctors of Chester united in refusing this fee and agreed to provide the operation for no charge.

A rather grim map showing the positions of Roman Graves relative to the Infirmary.

Inoculation differs from vaccination. In inoculation the subject is infected with the disease itself, whereas in vaccination a "safe" material is used. Two forms of the disease of Smallpox were recognised, now known to be due to two strains of the Variola virus. Those contracting Variola Minor had a greatly reduced risk of death – 1–2% – compared to those contracting Variola Major with 30% mortality. Thus inoculation with Variola Minor greatly reduced the chances of dying. Inoculation was already a standard practice, but involved serious risks. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu observed smallpox inoculation during her stay in the Ottoman Empire, writing detailed accounts of the practice in her letters, and enthusiastically promoted the procedure in England upon her return in 1718. Voltaire, writing of this, estimates that at this time 60% of the population caught smallpox and 20% of the population died of it.] Voltaire also states that the Circassians used the inoculation from times immemorial, and the custom may have been borrowed by the Turks from the Circassians.

Although Haygarth advocated a general inoculation every two years and wanted to encourage the well off to postpone their own treatment until then, the poor would not co-operate. ‘In Cross-gun entry in Forrest Street the inhabitants deliberately spread the disease’ by exposing their children to an infected child. Families did not take up the reward for following the rules for prevention for several reasons. Despite the good intentions of the Society, many remained ignorant of the existence of a financial benefit, or were put off by the fact that it was only paid after the disease had completely cleared, and it often took several weeks before the virus had run through a whole family. Also, the inspector wasn’t particularly welcome or efficient. Often he turned up several days after the pocks appeared and by then it was too late for the family to observe the rules even if they had wanted to. The only real success for Haygarth’s inoculation scheme was to prevent smallpox spreading through the Workhouse. Other towns, such as Leeds and Liverpool, adopted the Society's methods. They were assisted by Haygarth's "Inquiry how to Prevent the Small Pox (1784)" which included statistical calculations supported by John Dawson. The book was translated into French and German and made Haygarth an internationally-known figure. Haygarth further elaborated his ideas in "Sketch of a plan to exterminate the casual small pox from Great Britain and to introduce general inoculation" (1793). Unfortunately, the plan to inspect homes and provide general inoculation was resisted in the increasingly conservative 1790s

Another early illustration of the Infirmary.

In 1765, Dr John Fewster published a paper in the London Medical Society entitled "Cow pox and its ability to prevent smallpox", but he did not pursue the subject further. In the years following 1770, at least five investigators in England and Germany (Sevel, Jensen, Jesty 1774, Rendell, Plett 1791) successfully tested a cowpox vaccine in humans against smallpox. For example, Dorset farmer Benjamin Jesty successfully vaccinated and presumably induced immunity with cowpox in his wife and two children during a smallpox epidemic in 1774, but it was not until Edward Jenner's work some 20 years later that the procedure became widely understood. Indeed, Jenner may have been aware of Jesty's procedures and success. Noting the common observation that milkmaids were generally immune to smallpox, Jenner postulated that the pus in the blisters that milkmaids received from cowpox (a disease similar to smallpox, but much less virulent) protected them from smallpox. On 14 May 1796, Jenner tested his hypothesis by inoculating James Phipps, an eight-year-old boy who was the son of Jenner's gardener. He scraped pus from cowpox blisters on the hands of Sarah Nelmes, a milkmaid who had caught cowpox from a cow called Blossom, (whose hide now hangs on the wall of the St George's medical school library in Tooting). Phipps was the 17th case described in Jenner's first paper on vaccination.


As befits the "most haunted city" - when the Royal Infirmary was still standing, the ghost of "Soldier Mackenzie" was well known. He was reputed to be a Scottish soldier admitted with serious wounds during the 1914-18 war. He died of his wounds, and is said to have been buried in a hospital shroud instead of his uniform. As a consequence, he is believed to be carrying out an eternal search for his missing uniform.

A panoramic view of Infirmary building - now converted into housing.

sources and links