One of the major setbacks for the National Health Service since it was formed in 1948 has been the closure of smaller medical units such as cottage hospitals in favour of centralisation.
The decision to phase them out means that patients must now travel long distances for treatment to larger towns and cities, which cater for thousands rather than hundreds, with commensurately longer waiting times.
Bourne Hospital should have been celebrating its centenary this year, but it was closed in 1998 and since then the buildings have been demolished and the site occupied by housing.
Patients who once enjoyed a friendly neighbourhood medical service on their own doorstep are now sent to Peterborough City Hospital 17 miles away, or sometimes even further to Cambridge and Leicester, depending on bed and staff availability.
Closure was not a popular decision and the people of Bourne fought a two-year campaign to save it, even sending a deputation to Westminster.
The hospital was well used from the time it opened in 1915 until it closed 83 years later. Although originally intended for patients suffering from infectious diseases, the scope and facilities were soon extended to embrace the wider community.
This included a tuberculosis pavilion within the grounds which was completed in 1925 and was then regarded as one of the finest buildings of its kind in the country. During the first seven years of its existence, 224 patients were admitted and it was later converted entirely for the treatment of chest conditions.
Smallpox cases, however, were excluded and in November, 1930, an arrangement was entered into with the Peterborough Corporation to send such patients to their isolation hospital at Fengate.
It was through this early co-operation that the present system of health administration for Bourne sprang up and, although geographically in Lincolnshire, the hospital was taken over in 1949 by the Peterborough Area Health Authority, which also controlled the Stamford and Rutland Hospital.
While Bourne Hospital was open, this system operated to the disadvantage of local residents who were often sent for advanced treatment to Peterborough ... while patients from Peterborough were sent to Bourne.
By 1965, Bourne Hospital was being run as a medical and surgical unit with 53 beds, two consultants and a medical officer, a matron, nine day and night nursing staff, four kitchen workers and a porter.
There was also a chest X-ray unit which was used by the town and district, and a domiciliary nursing service, consisting of two sisters trained in midwifery, ante and post-natal work, a health visitor and a medical officer of health, attending to around 60 cases a year and making 200 visits each month. The service was also responsible for clinics specialising in the eyes, orthopaedics, remedial and relaxation therapy and child welfare.
Plans to close the hospital were first revealed during a review of health services in Lincolnshire in October 1996.
The decision was greeted with disbelief, prompting the formation of the Save Bourne Hospital Action Group and by December, 8,000 signatures had been collected on a protest petition at a time when the population of Bourne was a mere 9,958 (1991 census) which was handed in to the Government, followed by a 24-hour vigil outside the hospital.
But behind the scenes the battle was already lost. A 12-strong deputation was sent to Whitehall, where our MP Quentin Davies arranged a meeting with the Minister himself. The party from Bourne included councillors, doctors, former patients and residents who travelled to London to put their case direct to the Secretary of State for Health in the Labour Government, Frank Dobson. He refused to reverse the decision and the hospital closed on October 1, 1998.
The mayor, councillor Don Fisher, described the decision as “a bitter blow” for the health of residents in the town. “The hospital has been close to the hearts of the people of Bourne,” he said. “There have not been any satisfactory reasons given why it should be closed and our vigorous opposition has been ignored, together with repeated assurances that the hospital’s future was secure.”
MP Quentin Davies said: “The closure is a desperately sad day. Bourne Hospital has created an atmosphere of friendliness and care for local people when they fell ill and it has been a scaring thought to know that it is all coming to an end.”
Sister Sandra Baker, who spoke on behalf of staff, thanked everyone who had supported the hospital by giving their time and money in the fight to keep it open.
“We have worked well with our local doctors and that has been one of our strengths”, she said. “It is unfortunate that the closure is breaking up such a very good team.”
The Local newspaper had also campaigned against the closure. A hard-hitting editorial said: “Residents have greeted the news with outrage and disbelief that despite a spirited campaign for the best part of two years, nothing could be done to spare the axe. The hospital has played a central role in our community and few among us do not know someone who has been cared for there by a dedicated and highly-skilled staff.”
The Government’s decision was irrevocable. The Friends of Bourne Hospital held a final meeting on August 26, after almost 50 years, and on September 22, Mr Quentin Davies and local councillors made a farewell visit to the hospital, which was already being run down. The action group disbanded and a thanksgiving service held at the Abbey Church remembered the contribution Bourne Hospital had made to the community. Bourne had lost its hospital and it would not be coming back.
What then are we to learn from this sorry episode in our history? Firstly, that the people cannot succeed against a determined bureaucracy and secondly, that the National Health Service is not as safe in Government hands as they would have us believe, no matter which party is in power.
A PORTRAIT OF BOURNE is the definitive history of the town and is available on CD-ROM. An order form may be downloaded from the Bourne website at www.bourne-lincs.org.uk.