Wallingford Museum’s special 2020 exhibition about Wallingford’s hospitals opened for just two weeks in March before ‘lockdown’. As the Museum has been unable to re-open yet, this month I decided to share with you the story of Wallingford’s Cottage Hospital (a predecessor of our current hospital), not knowing that an unusual new snippet of related information was about to emerge!

The story begins in 1876 when Miss Mary Morrell rented two cottages to use as a tiny hospital, with hopes of raising money to establish a bigger purpose-built Cottage Hospital. A successful public subscription was subsequently launched (rather like today’s crowdfunding) and Mr Henry Hawkins generously donated a site next to the Almshouses in Reading Road. The new building opened in 1881 as the ‘Morrell Cottage Hospital’, named in memory of Mary Morrell, who sadly died shortly before it was ready.

The new hospital had seven beds, accommodating patients who had severe but non-infectious illnesses or had had accidents. There was also an out-patient department, with a trained nurse supplied by the Royal Berkshire Hospital.

By the early 1920s, the successful Morrell Cottage Hospital was clearly too small for the town and district, so Sir John Wormald of The Springs, North Stoke, donated a site for a new hospital off the Reading Road next to the athletic ground. Money was again sought through subscriptions and events, which included a raffle for a car donated by William Morris, the Oxford car manufacturer, and many other smaller efforts. Events were often publicised in the Berks and Oxon Advertiser, the forerunner of today’s Herald.

Very recently I received an interesting email enquiry from Sue Mark, who hoped to learn more about a most unusual hospital fund-raising event. Sue wrote: ‘My grandmother, Miss Madge Belmont was an escapologist - an established performer of the period and one of very few female performers. Her speciality was escaping from a straight-jacket whilst suspended upside down above the stage. She is believed to be the first person in Britain to achieve this, and a few years before Houdini did it! She was known as the ‘Handcuff Queen’, as getting out of handcuffs was part of her act.’

Sue sent two newspaper reports from November 1922 telling the story of the Wallingford event, which raised over £4 for the hospital!

Within a few years sufficient money was raised for a new hospital building. It was opened in July 1929 at a ceremony featuring the famous local singer, Dame Clara Butt, who performed a rousing song! The new hospital had cost £8,500 and provided 16 beds and two private wards; the building is still part of today’s medical centre.

The old Morrell building became the Wallingford Police Station until demolished in the 1950s for a ‘modern’ police building. Now new houses fill the old site next to the Almshouses.

(Many thanks to Sue Mark, and if anyone can shed more light on her grandmother Madge Belmont, or the Rex film Company for whom she worked, please contact judy@piepowder.co.uk)