The first providers of organised welfare in the Yorkshire Dales would have been the medieval monastic houses who came to own so much land in the area. The wealthy didn’t worry about not being able to work and could always afford to pay for medical care at home, but the poor relied on charity. Tradition has it that Palmer Flatt Hotel near Aysgarth Falls stands on the site of a medieval monastic hospice where pilgrims returning from the Holy Land were cared for. These pilgrims often carried palm leaves back with them as mementoes hence the name. At Bolton Priory the remains of the 15th century monastic infirmary have been incorporated into a later building.
The Dissolution of the monasteries left a gap in the provision of welfare to the poor. Beggars and vagrants were treated with hostility and might end up in the village stocks. Many of these can still be seen in the Dales, for example on the village greens of Bainbridge and Threshfield. Sometimes private benefactors set up almshouses for the relief of their local poor. Beamsley Hospital was founded as an almshouse in 1593 by Margaret the Countess of Cumberland and completed by her daughter Lady Anne Clifford about 60 years later. By the end of the 16th century, the government had to accept that private charity was never going to be sufficient and a compulsory tax called the poor-rate was introduced. The so-called ‘Old’ Poor Laws, introduced in Elizabethan times put the organisation of this system in the hands of township communities in the North of England. They were obliged to appoint an Overseer for the Poor who collected the poor-rate and had to find work for the able-bodied and manage a poorhouse or almshouse for those who could not. The place where you were born became very important, since it was here that you would be cared for if you became too ill or old to work. In the Dales, local benefactors continued to play a vital role in supporting these activities. Fountaine’s Hospital was endowed by local man made good, Richard Fountaine, in 1721. It was built to house 6 poor men and women of the parish of Linton and also had a chapel where they could pray for their benefactor’s soul.
By the mid-18th century a number of parish poorhouses had been established in the Yorkshire Dales. Usually the poor were ‘farmed’ by a contractor employed by the parish and this became increasingly expensive to support. The Gilbert Union Act of 1782 aimed to organise poor relief on a countywide basis with parishes being organised into ‘unions’. The Bainbridge Gilbert Union was formed in 1812. Bainbridge workhouse was one of only a handful of Gilbert Union workhouses in the country. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was much more successful. It aimed to prevent the able-bodied from abusing the system by setting up workhouses that were designed to be the very last resort. Poor Law Unions were set up to manage the new parish workhouses, which were run under an extremely harsh regime. Each Union covered several parishes. The Richmond Poor Law Union covered 46 parishes. Reeth’s original parish workhouse was built in 1753 and became part of the Richmond Poor Law Union in 1837. It became a separate Poor Law Union in 1840 owing to its remoteness and a new building was bought. The Reeth Union workhouse accommodated 60 residents. The Sedbergh Union workhouse housed the same number of inmates but was purpose built in classical style in 1857.
Life in the union workhouse could be very unpleasant and the poor who fell ill but could not afford a doctor often turned to the village apothecary for treatment. Grassington’s 19th century apothecary John Crowther was to become a well-respected historian and conducted some of the first investigations of archaeological sites in the area. The site of his apothecary’s shop in Grassington is marked with an inscription.
Several hospitals were built in the Yorkshire Dales but all for specialised purposes. Before the advent of antibiotics, highly infectious diseases such as diphtheria and scarlet fever were treated by isolating patients. Harden Isolation Hospital near Austwick was built in 1905-08 and is still substantially intact. A rather less grand affair was erected in 1909 by a local doctor’s assistant to house his two daughters who were infected with Scarlet Fever. The wooden isolation hut was situated in a field near Aysgarth. It was then transferred with additions to Bainbridge by Dr Will Pickles the medical officer for Aysgarth Rural District Council. Here Scarlet Fever patients were kept in isolation for long periods of time. Dr Pickles was able to study the progress of the infection and he went on to become a highly respected epidemiologist.
Grassington Hospital was built as a sanatorium for Bradford Corporation in 1915-19. Inner city patients suffering from tuberculosis were brought here to recover in the pure Dales air. It later became a psychiatric hospital for the elderly.
The 20th century finally saw the end of workhouses and charitable hospitals for the poor with the establishment of the National Health Service. Today the medical needs of the Yorkshire Dales are served by a variety of GP run medical centres, some purpose built as in Hawes, others in converted buildings such as Grassington. The area has also become a popular retirement spot and a number of care homes for the elderly have been established, for example Threshfield Court which is partly housed in the old Threshfield Station hotel, the Wilson Arms.
Botheroyd, Eric (1998) ‘Hospital Field: The Streptococcus, the Doctor and the Hospital’ Now Then No 7 pp10-11
Chadwick, Anthony (1996) Settle and Sedbergh Workhouses Ripon: Ripon Museum Trust
Hastings, P (1996) Bainbridge and Leyburn Workhouses Ripon: Ripon Workhouse Trust
Morrison, Kathryn (1999) The Workhouse Swindon: English Heritage
www.institutions.org.uk/index.html – web site with information on a range of historical British institutions including hospitals and workhouses
www.workhouses.org.uk – web site full of information about the history of poor laws and workhouses in Britain