International Museum Day: 30 Objects – Glasgow’s Town Hospital

18 May 2017

For International Museum Day on 18 May our Head of Collections, Alice, has chosen her top 30 objects from Mount Stuart’s Collections which we’ll bring to you throughout the Month. Ranging from books, furniture, silver-work, paintings and documentation from hundreds of years of Stuart family life, this barely scratches the surface of our Collections so make sure to plan your visit and experience it for yourself!

Some of the most fascinating items in our collection are the pamphlets which were widely used during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to disseminate information and to further political or religious movements. They were also used to report on the progress of organisations created to look after huge numbers of people that fell through the gaps before a national system of social welfare.

Once pamphlet like this in our collection is ‘A short Account of the Town’s Hospital in Glasgow’ published in 1737. This is not a hospital that we would understand it today but was more of a poorhouse for those who were laid low through poverty. The introduction makes this plain

‘The several corporations or societies  in Glasgow who have the management of the public charity funds after mature deliberation, resolved to erect a large hospital, for the regular maintenance and employment of their Poor; being greatly encouraged to take this method by the excellent effects of it in many other places where it has been found that 200 wisely employed this way has afforded a better maintenance of the Poor than 300 or 400 distributed in pensions to the same numbers living either in separate cottages or in a wandering condition.’

To be admitted to the hospital you had to have resided in Glasgow for at least three years or be in genuine medical distress in which case you would be admitted until you were well enough to be returned  to ‘the places where they are known, and ought to be maintained’. Doctors and surgeons would give their time and medicine for free as part of their training.

The need was clear as when the hospital opened on the 15th of November in 1733 a considerable number ‘of the most destitute sort’ began to crowd in and by February 1734 there were 97 people living there and by February 1737 there were 243; 20 old men, 64 old women, 92 boys and 61 girls.

The purpose of the hospital ‘was intended not only for the comfortable subsistence of the Poor, but also for promoting Christian knowledge, and true piety.  Alongside twice daily religious services the children were also educated and trained in a skill such as spinning or in many cases the picking of oakum. This a material used in shipbuilding and was made from the picked out strands of old rope; a common form of work in the Victorian workhouses and prisons.

The life you would lead here was in many ways reminiscent of a prison with bells rang at 6 for everyone young and old to rise and perhaps repugnant sounding to us but lifesaving to many the following unappetizing menus. The strides made since the introduction of the welfare state is an acknowledgement that those in poverty should be living rather than simply surviving and is such an asset to the United Kingdom.