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Prior to the arrival of the National Health Service in 1948, doctors charged patients a fee for treating them. Many people could not afford these fees and had to rely on traditional herbal remedies to ease their ills. The main illnesses in Chesham during the 18th and 19th centuries seem to have been cholera and typhoid. Caused by poor living conditions, tainted water and raw sewage, these illnesses broke out into epidemics time and time again in the town.
In 1833, a number of Chesham business men started an association specifically to help poorer members of the community with fees for doctors’ services and drugs. In 1869, Chesham Cottage Hospital was built on land donated by Lord Chesham and was the first hospital of its kind to open in south Bucks. By this time, the regular outbreaks of disease were becoming more severe – in 1871 both the vicar of the Parish Church and the local physician died from typhoid along with a large number of townsfolk. This led ultimately to the provision of piped water and sewers which replaced the tainted wells and polluted river water which had been used previously. An isolation hospital was built – originally at Chesham Hospital but later moved to Chesham Vale which opened when necessary and took in cases of illnesses such as scarlet fever.
Influenza epidemics also affected the town. In 1892 a major epidemic led to a significant increase in mortality, and the Spanish flu in 1918 led to the death of Father Madden, priest in charge of the local Catholic church and numerous others. Schools had to be closed because teaching staff were too ill to attend and doctors’ surgeries were staying open until 10 and 11 o’clock at night such was the demand for medical services.
The Cottage Hospital was funded entirely by charitable donations and in the 1920s and 1930s used to hold a Carnival to raise funds. In 1922 it was decided to start a workers’ donation scheme. All those who lived and worked in the town paid 1d. a week via their employer to cover any health needs they might have, and residents working outside of the town paid direct. This scheme only stopped when the National Health Service came into being. The hospital was closed in 2004 and was superseded by the Chess Medical Centre in Berkhamsted Road.
Did you know Chesham used to have its own isolation hospital to prevent epidemics? Read more about that in our Chesham’s lost isolation hospital blog.