HM the Queen performed the opening ceremony in 1965
Hospital Secretary James Campbell looks on as the Queen is welcomed to Vale of Leven Hospital by the Matron and Cllr Matthew Bissett.
By Bill Heaney
Health is wealth. It may be an old saying, but we hear it almost every day of our far too short lives. “How are you” is the first question we ask each other, whether we are in the house, the street, the bus or the bike or the office. Good health is extremely important to us and our friends and family, far more important than the cash in our wallets. Try telling that though to people swilling down pints of beer, stuffing themselves on a large curry and chips, drinking cheap wine and spirits and cans of fizzy stuff – and taking illegal drugs and smoking into the bargain.
Hold on however before you conclude that this is a yet another article written by one of the ubiquitous Health Police. Please stop, don’t turn away. I am not here to lecture you about what you eat, obesity, alcoholism or heart and lung disease, but it would be no bad idea (for you) if you paid a little more attention and gave these important matters a nod in passing at least. They are all killers. You don’t want to end up in a coffin in the back of a hearse and be consigned to an early grave now, do you, even if the view from Garshake is outstanding? You would have to be daft to want to die or “pass away” as they have it nowadays even if you do receive a lovely funeral in our brand-new Dumbarton Cemetery.
However, it is not just irresponsible people who die unnecessarily in West Dunbartonshire and South Argyll. It is also people who do not have reasonable access to hospitals and health services which are supposed to be free at the point of access and provided by the NHS. That is why this community is so angry that the health services once provided here have, if not quite “passed away,” are fighting for their life. The fine-sounding words of comfort and cure proffered to the public by the government and the thoroughly discredited Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board are not worth the prescription they are written on.
They will not save the Vale of Leven Hospital unless they produce a medicine which contains more finance on the staffing, services and structure there. Our community has been robbed of its health services, deconstructed limb from limb by avaricious accountants who know nothing about medicine and everything about money and are out to please their political bosses as well as fill their own ample boots. If you think this criticism’s a bit harsh then please be patient while I reveal what we once had in this community after the NHS was formed in 1948 and what we have now. I have been looking through some of the old correspondence of the late James Campbell, who was the Hospital Secretary at the Vale, which had the distinction of being the first hospital to be completed in Britain under the NHS Act passed by parliament. The politicians and pen pushers of today should pay close attention to Mr Campbell’s mission statement, which put people first. In a speech in the Queen’s Hotel in 1969, he told Helensburgh Rotary Club – “One could say that the (health) board is looking after the interests of two groups of people. First – and most important – is the patient for whom, after all, the service was designed, to see that he is getting the best we can provide in the way of healing, care and comfort. Secondly, to satisfy the taxpayer through the Treasury that his money is being used as efficiently and economically as possible.”
Vale of Leven Hospital was the first hospital in the UK to be completed under the new National Health Service, which celebrates its 70th birthday next week.
Mr Campbell had few administrative staff, no computers, scarce resources and cramped offices. He was not an empire builder with a medical degree and a smart suit or a politician with one eye on the ballot box whenever he took a decision. Jimmy Campbell was a man of the people. Vale of Leven Hospital cost just £1 million in 1952 and was completed in 1955 when the hospital was opened to patients. It was built because Glasgow was considered too far away and inconvenient for patients. It still is. The hospital had 156 beds, 76 surgical beds in three wards, 26 gynaecological beds in another ward and 52 medical beds in Wards three and four. There were two operating theatres, physiotherapy and X-ray departments, a laboratory and pharmacy which served all the hospitals in the area, including parts of Argyll, plus a laundry service which served the same area. The nurses’ home was linked to the hospital by a fly-over bridge and had accommodation for 72 nurses. There were plans to expand and create a 100-bed care of the elderly unit and an 80-bed maternity hospital.
The total number of staff employed in the hospital was 300 with 130 nurses, 110 domestic staff and 50 other categories of auxiliaries and clerical staff making up the numbers. In addition, all the small local hospitals were still up and running with the maternities at Overtoun and Braeholm, Dumbarton Cottage Hospital, the Victoria Infirmary in Helensburgh, the Henry Brock in Alexandria and the Joint Hospital on Cardross Road. The NHS was a godsend for the old Lennox county. Mr Campbell said: “From the patient’s point of view there are more hospital beds. There is no doubt that the NHS has been instrumental in removing anxiety from the individual about the cost of treatment and sickness.” Poor food and furnishings were replaced in most hospitals and central heating was installed to replace open coal fires in wards. The hospital regime for patients and visitors became less formal, the food was better and some comfort was provided in the Out-Patients Department where, even then, the waiting times were unacceptable and inexplicable. Mr Campbell said: “Why patients have to wait up to two hours and more before seeing a doctor is beyond my comprehension, and while most hospitals have replaced the old hard wooden benches with comfortable chairs and so on, I feel that more must be done to reduce the actual waiting time.”
Some things never change but at least Mr Campbell’s generation got rid of what he called the “barbaric” practise of waking in-patients up at 6am to a “more civilised” time. Junior doctors would have had much more to complain about before the NHS because the truth is that most of the consultants took the lion’s share of the cash available. Most young doctors lived in penury because they were considered to be merely trainees.
Radio Lennox was the name of the hospital radio station at Vale of Leven. Familiar faces including Sam Graham, the Douglas twins and Nairn McArthur with Matron Miss MacDonald.
No wonder many greedy senior doctors were opposed to the introduction of the NHS. Old customs and practices continued for many years and hospitals became more and more valued both by the communities they served, the patients who were treated and the staff who worked in them. Her Majesty the Queen thought the Vale of Leven was such a good hospital that she insisted on seeing round it when she came to Dumbarton on a Royal Visit in June, 1965. She told the VIPs who gathered at the hospital for a garden party in the grounds it was a wonderful facility as she sipped a welcome cup of tea. It cost seven shillings and sixpence to provide a delicious spread for each of the 350 people who attended the function and £50 to hire the marquee and tents. The glorious menu included cocktail sausages, filled rolls, chicken and ham bouchees, three kinds of salad, salmon sandwiches and other delicious fillings. Gateaux, meringues, strawberries and cream and ice cream were to hand for those who wished to have pudding. The icing on the cake though would have been if HM had asked the Health Board to keep the Vale open for a hundred years, which now seems most unlikely, although she agreed with Nicola Sturgeon’s recent forecast that the Queensferry Crossing will last that length of time.
On that same day, the Queen performed the official opening of the County Council offices at Garshake where, at that time, there were so many good things happening in local government in Dunbartonshire, including the planning of the Erskine Bridge. Industry was booming right across the county and the captains of industry, the great and the good and the young people in uniformed organisations, lined up on Dumbarton Common to meet the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, who also enjoyed a sail on the Maid of the Loch. What would the Queen think now of what the health boards and local authorities have done for West Dunbartonshire and Argyll over the past 50 years?
- This article is an extract from Two Minutes Silence, Bill Heaney’s most recent book about the Lennox, Scotland’s red rose county, and the life and work of the people of West Dunbartonshire and South Argyll. The book is available in the Books section of The Dumbarton Democrat at democratonline.net