Caution: Patients at work!

This week’s blog focusses on the slightly unusual practice of patients doing work in hospital premises, sometimes to help with the running or funding of the establishment. In the majority of cases these were patients who had either mental illness or chronic physical illness, but still who had a good enough measure of health and strength to do work with adequate support and rest.

To prevent the spread of tuberculosis in Edinburgh and allow for the treatment and rehabilitation of sufferers, the ‘Edinburgh Scheme’ was put into action during the early 20th century. For the Scheme the majority of patients were treated in the Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH), the most serious cases were sent to the City Hospital in Colinton Mains and patients who were recovering were sent to Polton Farm Colony which was linked with the RVH in 1910.  As the patients’ condition improved they became able to do limited amounts of exercise, although they remained infectious, and as part of their rehabilitation were put to work at a variety of tasks on and around the Colony grounds. Photographic evidence shows that the patients were involved in such activities as growing seed potatoes and flowers, tending to pigs, woodcutting, gardening and road building. The image shows patients at work around the main building and was published in the Report on the Evolution and Development of Public Health Administration in the City of Edinburgh 1865-1919 (LHB16/2/1).

Another establishment where patients were regularly encouraged to do gainful employment was the Royal Edinburgh Hospital. Being directed to do practical tasks has often been used as 'occupational therapy', even though the term may not have been used in earlier eras. There are examples of patients mentioned in the casebooks in the 19thcentury who were formerly tailors by trade and continued to make clothing during their stay in hospital. LHSA also holds a number of photographs from the 1960s and 1970s showing patients at work. Types of duties recorded include poultry farming, woodwork, pottery making and production line work on children’s toys. It is not always clear, however which tasks were used to earn income and which were purely therapeutic. The image shows a patient adding finishing touches to a wooden rocking horse during the 1960s.
A patient decorates a rocking horse in the Royal Edinburgh Hospital during the 1960s (P/PL7/P/043)