Putting the project to bed – what the Stannington Sanatorium project has achieved

Over the course of the two phases of our Wellcome Trust funded project we have catalogued, conserved and digitised over 5000 patient medical files, as well as other records and photographs. In this time we hope we have taken an inaccessible, uncatalogued collection and made it accessible to study. In our final blog we will take a look back at what we have done in that time.

Some of the boxes of files waiting to be conserved early last year

Phase one conserved and digitised 949 discharge books, catalogued these, the patient files and the rest of the collection, and digitised a whopping 14671 radiographs (taken of only 2245 of the patients!). The team also created our online exhibition, our exhibition banners, and attended conferences to publicise the collection. You can read more about the first phase in the team’s final blog here.

The radiographs being digitised

After the Wellcome trust kindly granted more funding for a second phase new team focused on the 4095 patient files, which had been catalogued.

A patient file conserved in its new acid-free cover
A patient file ready to be digitised


We conserved and digitised these, and redacted images were attached to our searchable online database. As they are closed records the names and addresses cannot be released, but this enables those researching the disease to access medical information about the cases for the ‘core’ documents. Here is how these look.

Print screens of the search and reference detail

As we could not digitise the entire files in each case the team decided to upload some examples on Flickr. Though there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ or ‘average’ Stannington file, we tried to choose a few redacted examples of the patient files that gave an impression of the collection as a whole, and the type of documents found within them. You can view these here.

The work began in phase one to raise awareness of the collection has continued. We have continued to blog about our progress and discoveries we have made about the collection, the sanatorium itself, and new collections that relate to it, such as May Brown’s the Atkin family’s photographs. There has been academic interest in research projects using the collection from a number of universities, which we hope to will continue to grow.

Our former colleague Rebecca Cessford is using the collection of radiographs and patient files in her PhD thesis to look at the potential as an aid to diagnose the disease in skeletal remains. You can find out more about her research in the blog she contributed to us on World Tuberculosis Day.

Margaret Wilkinson (right) with Dame Sian Philips at the recording of the play.

We also worked with playwright Margaret Wilkinson, who used the collection and our research to write a radio play for BBC Four’s Writing the Century. The play was based on the experiences of former Stannington Sanatorium nurse Marjorie Wilson. Margaret established the scene with Marjorie’s reminiscences, and used excerpts from letters within the patient files. The play was a great success, and listeners found the performance very moving. You can read more about Margaret’s inspiration in writing the play in the blog she wrote for us, and you can listen to the play through Audioboom.

We hope to continue further interest in the collection by launching an education resource, now available through our website. In this we have laid out a little summary of the disease, history, treatment and the records at Stannington, and what life was like for staff and patients. This can be used as a resource for teachers to dip into in developing lessons, but also for older students to use for themselves.

The exhibition on display at St. Mary’s Church, Stannington.

Recently the team have also set up our collection of banners at St Mary’s church in Stannington, with the Stannington History Group. It was a wonderful finish to the project to see them displayed so close to the sanatorium itself, with locals and visitors finding out more about the story of Stannington Sanatorium. We hope to tour the exhibition more throughout this year.

The project has revealed the rich value of the collection in terms of its research potential, as it contains files with detailed medical information and an excellent radiographic record. However it is also rich in the stories of the staff and patients who were associated with the sanatorium, many of whom have recounted their experiences to us during its course. We feel proud to continue to care for the documents, and feel it is important to continue to raise awareness. Far from this being the end of our research with the collection, this is a beginning of a new and more accessible way of learning from them.

The collection itself is housed at Northumberland Archives, and though a hundred year closure period is still in place (from the date of the document’s creation), former patients and some immediate family can still seek permission to access the patient files. If you are interested in accessing the collection for research purposes (we have statistics on the records as well as the files themselves), are interested in loaning our banners exhibition, or have any other queries about the collection please don’t hesitate to contact us at collections@woodhorn.org.uk

NRO 11036/3, one of May Brown’s photographs

If you are interested to know more please have a look at:

Our online exhibition

Our Flickr sets

Scouting at Stannington

Three Scouts practising map reading on a hospital veranda (ref: NRO 10510/2/2)
Three Scouts practising map reading on a hospital veranda (ref: NRO 10510/2/2)

Children were kept occupied in several ways during their long stays at Stannington, perhaps one of the more unexpected was by being able to join the hospital’s own Scout and Guide groups.

A patient’s stay at the Sanatorium (later Children’s Hospital) normally lasted for several months and often extended into years. Keeping children occupied during this time was an important consideration for the institution’s staff. Outside of attending the on-site school which all children did as soon as their recovery from illness allowed there were several ways the hospital staff kept children busy and entertained during their stays.

To provide children’s evening and weekend activities the sanatorium staff included a Welfare and Recreation Officer. At the start of the 1950s this role was held by Mr Holmes and it was his responsibility to organise and manage activities for the children. In this role he was a member of the Hospital House Committee which met to discuss and oversee the day to day running of the hospital. For each meeting he submitted a report of the various activities he’s arranged in the previous month. In his monthly report for the meeting of August 1950 he noted that:

“I have attended two meetings in conjunction with forming a Scout and Cub section at the Sanatorium. I think this is a helpful scheme for the boys, as some of them are already members of the Boy Scout Movement and if we form a group at the Sanatorium patients leaving would be transferred to Scout Clubs in their own district. …

…I also propose to form a Girl Guide Section.” (HOSP/STAN/1/2/5)

Report on Ralph Readers visit to Stannington in the Morpeth Herald, 29th January 1952
Report on Ralph Reader’s visit to Stannington in the Morpeth Herald, 29th January 1952

By the end of September 1950 four sections had been established; Scouts, Cubs, Guides and Brownies. In January 1952 Ralph Reader, actor, theatre producer and originator of the Scout Gang Show visited to hand the Scouts and cubs their first colours. On this occasion the membership, which totalled 40, including 22 Scouts, assembled on the veranda to receive the colours. Several troop members confined to bed were wheeled out onto the veranda to also be involved in proceedings.

Soon after this a Scout and Guide Group Committee was formed to oversee all 4 sections. At their meeting held on the 30th April 1952 Mr Holmes and Mrs Driver, the Scout and Guide leaders, reported on activities which had taken place:

“Two lessons on woodcraft and tracking and 2 scouts were to take their 2nd class badge. Mrs Driver reported that she now had 22 guides… … an expatient had been presented with the Badge of Fortitude at the Sanderson Orthopaedic Hospital and it was agreed that the Secretary write a letter of congratulations.”

 “Arrangements were being made to hold the competition for the Mitford Cup at the sanatorium and it was suggested that the committee might act as host.” (HOSP-STAN 1/2/14)

The Scout Troops posing for a photograph on the steps of a hospital veranda (NRO 10510/3/15)
The Scout Troops posing for a photograph on the steps of a hospital veranda (NRO 10510/3/15)

When it was held the Hospital Scout troop went on to win the Mitford Cup for their skill in knot making, knowledge of scouting law and oral relay skills. The range of activities undertaken by the Scouts carried on and even expanded to include Scout camps held in the grounds of the hospital as long as “Mr Holmes was present the whole time and returned the children to the ward each morning” (HOSP/STAN/1/2/14 9th July 1952).

Later that year Mr Holmes resigned as Welfare and Recreation Officer. In time he was replaced in this role by Mr Pullen and Douglas Johnstone took over as Scout Master. Douglas Johnstone, after his time with the Scouts, would go on to become to the General Secretary of the PCHA, later Children North East, the organisation which half a century earlier had originally built the sanatorium.

Activities carried on including a salvage drive, where used paper, bottles and jars were collected to sell and raise money, but it was decided not to collect bones due to the possibility of encouraging rats! This happened in conjunction with the normal activities of learning skills and gaining badges. In 1952 some scouts were noted in the Welfare and Recreation Officers report as being ready to sit tests for Semaphore and First Aid Badges and one guide had recently taken her Music Lover’s badge and was ready to take her Needlewoman’s Badge test.

Later the Scouts were allowed away from the hospital on troop outings. These included trips to places such as Northumberland National Park and the beaches of Craster, Alnmouth and Boulmer. Pictured below are 6 of the scouts whilst on an outing to Alnmouth in 1961.

Six members of the hospital Scout Troop on a trip to the coast near Alnmouth. (ref: NRO 10510/3/4)

The groups also carried out fundraising activities in addition to their salvage drive, hosting dances and other events. With the money they raised they contributed £40 to the purchase of 5 TVs by the committee which was set up to celebrate the queen’s coronation in 1953. The Girl Guides also contributed to the fundraising efforts which included having a stall at the 1952 sanatorium garden party and raising £22 towards the installation of radio throughout the hospital.

The short history of the Scout Troop at Stannington ended in the autumn of 1962 when Douglas Johnstone, the Scout Master, disbanded the troop. However we know the Guide and Brownie sections continued after this as in the spring of 1964 the hospital recreation hall was refurbished and a timetable drawn up for its use; this included a slot for the Girl Guides on a Monday night between 5pm and 7pm and a slot for the Brownies at the same time on Tuesday nights. Though the scouts only had a relatively short history the troop was just one of many ways we’ve came across in the patient files and other records in which children were kept occupied and entertained during their stays. You can read more about this in an earlier blog post here.

The travels of TB patients – other sanatoria from the Stannington patient files

As shown in our previous blog home visits were not possible for all Tuberculosis patients in the community, and the medical officer therefore looked to sanatoria as a means to both help sufferers and prevent its spread. Sanatoria began as open air resorts for wealthy patients in late nineteenth century Europe, usually located in mountains or spa areas. The idea spread and many were created for different types of clientele, religious groups, companies and even trade unions. However they were run, sanatoria were usually in the countryside, and the presence of pine trees was thought to bring benefit. Covered verandas protected patients from the elements when outdoors, or French windows allowed patients to enjoy fresh air inside. Firm adherence to rules, hygiene, feeding-up, and an increase in movement and work were thought to both improve the patient and prepare their return to health.

The Stannington files have revealed that children were admitted from or to a range of 58 hospitals and sanatoria, as far away as Great Ormond Street. The files show Stannington in the context of the wider tuberculosis movement in the UK and even abroad, as during WWII there were Stannington patients who were refugees and evacuees, who had attended sanatoria and hospitals much further afield. Here we will examine Stannington’s connection with some of the local sanatoria.

A map showing the location of the sanatoria mentioned in the patient files in relation to Stannington Sanatorium.

Barrasford, Northumberland.

Situated on the moors north of Hexham, Barrasford shared much of its history with Stannington. It was funded by the raising of a public subscription, helped by a large donation from an individual, in this case William Watson-Armstrong (later Baron

Read moreThe travels of TB patients – other sanatoria from the Stannington patient files