The Belfast Lying-in Hospital (1794-1903) by Lisa Lavery

 

Belfast’s first maternity hospital was established in 1794 due to the efforts of a small group of philanthropists. The aim of the hospital was to aid labouring ‘indigent females’ by providing accommodation, food and medical supervision during childbirth. A meeting was held on 23rd December 1793 and the charity entitled the Humane Female Society for the Relief of Lying-In Women (later the B.L.I.H) was founded. The first patroness of the hospital’s Ladies’ Committee was Lady Harriet Skeffington, Viscountess of Massereene and Martha McTier was elected as the first Secretary ‘to her surprise’.

The Ladies’ Committee of the Lying-in Hospital was crucial not only in its establishment but to the day-to-day running and organisation of the hospital. The first endeavour of the committee was to find a suitable house for the Hospital. In January 1794, the committee applied to rent accommodation from the Belfast Charitable Society (1752) but the request was rejected on the grounds of the house being too crowded. On the 4th January 1794 the ladies had already rented a house in Donegall Street. The hospital was thus initially established at 25 Donegall Street, Belfast. Later the ladies became dissatisfied with the standard of accommodation and in 1828 made the decision to find a new property more suited to the needs of the hospital. This minute book documents this important period in the history of the Lying-in Hospital as the women began a search for a new building to rent and eventually resolved to embark on the construction of a purpose-built hospital.

The new hospital, ‘a commodious building’, was built ‘at the upper-end of Donegall Street’ in 1830 where it remained an active maternity hospital until the early twentieth century.  A contributing factor to this was the Ladies’ Committee’s eventual consent in 1852, after much reluctance, to allow medical students from the new Queen’s College to attend patients and gain experience in the Lying-in Hospital under the tutelage of Dr William Burden, a Professor of Midwifery at the College. The women themselves were uncomfortable with this new development as the concept of students attending labouring women was completely new and innovative to them, though it had been adopted at the Rotunda Hospital in 1773, and they ‘could not see that the teaching of obstetrics must be part of any maternity hospital which served the same area as a medical school’. Interestingly, the Ladies’ Committee proposed relinquishing their control over the running of the hospital to be replaced by a male committee, a suggestion which was initially rejected by the Charitable Society.

The Ladies’ Committee had lost the autonomy that they had previously had as a result of this incident and in 1900 the Charitable Society was concerned that the business relationship between itself and the hospital was not sound and on two occasions served the committee with a notice to quit. Disagreements remained until a final compromise was reached in 1903. It was agreed that the Ladies’ Committee would give up possession of the house and move to new premises in Townsend Street and the Charitable Society was to pay the hospital £1,050 and would be permitted to nominate five patients annually to be treated at the new hospital. This new Maternity Hospital in Townsend Street opened in 1904 and was replaced by the Royal Maternity Hospital in 1933.

The committee hired only three employees to work in the hospital overseeing its daily running and attending to the patients, in order of authority, a housekeeper, midwife and a maidservant. Three doctors, namely Dr Robert Stephenson, Dr McCluney and Dr Thompson, also provided their services to the hospital but seem to have been reserved for complicated cases. Patients were required to produce a ticket on admission which could only be distributed by committee members though subscribers who donated five shillings or more had the authority to recommend patients. On 4 June 1832 it was ruled that only married women were to be admitted to the hospital, a condition that was prevalent in many maternity hospitals during this period and resulted in the exclusion of ‘those most in need of its services’.