Graham Thompson, Archives Assistant at the Royal Museums Greenwich, talks about the Dreadnought Seamen’s Hospital and the role it played in London during the 1800-1900s.
The Dreadnought Seamen’s Hospital at Greenwich was the main clinical site of the Seamen’s Hospital Society (now Seafarer’s Hospital Society) and a major part of its patient records came to the National Maritime Museum when it closed in 1986. The extant registers of admissions and discharges are a series of weighty volumes numbered DSH/1 to DSH/46 which, together with the original indexes, can be requested for viewing in the Caird Library reading room at Greenwich.
Online access to the records of patients from 1826-1930 represents a great leap forward in convenience for researchers. What might not be apparent for Ancestry users is that the registers covering the years up to 1870 were created afloat, on three successive converted warships. The Dreadnought Seamen’s Hospital was particularly noteworthy for its strategic presence as a floating hospital on the River Thames, its philanthropic mission in caring for sick and injured seafarers of all nations, and its later specialism in the field of tropical diseases. The wards typically contained patients from diverse countries and ethnic groups, reflecting the international traffic of the port of London. Casualties from local accidents, including women and children, together with wartime military personnel of all branches, also feature in the registers.
Some confusion between the different maritime institutions at Greenwich can be a pitfall in family history research. The Dreadnought Seamen’s Hospital was on the whole dedicated to the relief of civilian seafarers and was distinctly different in character to the Royal Hospital, a branch of the Admiralty that administered pensions exclusively for service personnel. Accommodation for in-pensioners at Greenwich was brought to an end by an enhanced system of naval pensions introduced in the 1860s.
There were noisy shipbuilding yards in the neighbourhood and other ways in which a wooden hulk wasn’t really the best environment for hospital patients. Notes made in the registers convey certain aspects of their living conditions. For example, the record of William Reed, a seaman who apparently fell overboard and drowned after entering the water closet of his ward on 20 December 1831.
There are also some interesting notes on patients expelled for not complying with the rules of the ship. Peter Bowen, an ex-naval seaman, was expelled on 14 January 1832 and made things worse by trying to steal a pair of hospital trousers. The note states that he later appeared before magistrates of Thames Police and was sentenced to a fortnight of imprisonment.
A floating hospital was particularly at risk from infectious diseases such as smallpox and cholera. During the major outbreak of cholera in London in 1831-32, seamen showing the symptoms of diarrhoea, cramps and vomiting were sent straight to an isolation hospital. See for example the record for John Smith, sent to the cholera ship Dover on 11 March 1832. Nevertheless, outbreaks of cholera did occur on the Dreadnought and three victims, including a member of the nursing staff, were buried at Greenwich on 21 November 1832.
The Dreadnought Seamen’s Hospital later transferred from its floating base into the vacant Infirmary of the Royal Hospital (and Somerset Ward). The move of patients was carried out at high water on 13 April 1870. At this time 18 elderly naval veterans, who had been marooned in the Royal Hospital, passed into the care of the Seamen’s Hospital Society. Among them was John Williams, born at South Petherton, Somerset, in about 1780. The register records that he was discharged dead on 6 January 1875 and was victualled for 1728 days.
The Dreadnought buildings survive and are currently wrapped inside a chrysalis, undergoing conversion into a student hub for the University of Greenwich. Meanwhile, the Seafarer’s Hospital Society continues to provide medical services for seafarers at the Dreadnought Unit, based at St Thomas’s Hospital in Lambeth. The original registers and indexes held at the National Maritime Museum cover years up to 1977, but those from 1933-1977 are closed to the public because they contain sensitive personal data which falls under the requirements of the Data Protection Act 1998. In certain cases access may be granted. The archive material also includes outpatients registers from 1957-1964, a sample of clinical records from 1914-1947, and registers of nurses and training records, 1895-1968.
The England, Dreadnought Seamen’s Hospital Admissions and Discharges, 1826-1930 are now available on Ancestry.