Sheffield's Heritage Open Days 2018: 'Think of all the people who worked here, and the patients': Archive tells the story of our hospitals

In a low-key building at Sheffield's Northern General Hospital, a fascinating archive is kept that charts the journey of our health service and the strides made in medicine over the past 200 years.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 22nd August 2018, 1:52 pm
Updated Monday, 3rd September 2018, 3:31 pm
Dr Mike Collins with a bust of one of the hospitals' founding fathers. Picture: Chris Etchells
Dr Mike Collins with a bust of one of the hospitals' founding fathers. Picture: Chris Etchells

Old surgical instruments, evocative photographs and important artefacts have been preserved for the future, in a store maintained by a seven-strong group of retired NHS staff.

"It's all there to show the rich history of Sheffield hospitals - and it tells us how we've got to where we are today," says Dr Mike Collins, a former consultant radiologist who helps to look after the collection.

Dr Mike Collins with a bust of one of the hospitals' founding fathers. Picture: Chris Etchells

He pauses to explain the significance of a tray on which several small objects are laid out - a toy soldier, buttons and teeth among them.

"These are foreign bodies removed from people's lungs in the 1940s and 50s by one of the surgeons in Sheffield," says Mike, picking up a device once used to extract the stray matter, all swallowed by unfortunate patients.

Once the items had been identified on X-ray, a long metal tube with a light source attached would be inserted down the windpipe - at one end is a scissor-like mechanism, and at the other is a tiny trap. "It did work," says Mike, testing it a few times. "You grabbed the foreign body and then brought the whole lot out."

He agrees that, although the tool looks barbaric, it wasn't meant to be - it was simply the only thing doctors had to work with. "Whereas now, this would all be flexible with fibre optics. It'd be much thinner as well."

Dr Mike Collins with the emergency amputation kit. Picture: Chris Etchells

Likewise, a little box presented to a GP in Barnsley who worked with miners in the 1940s contains further wince-inducing implements - a blade, a silver hammer and a number of compact knives needed to perform emergency amputations. "I'm not sure it was ever used," says Mike. "You'd have to cut the bone as well, of course."

The archive will open for tours on the next two Saturdays as part of Sheffield's Heritage Open Days, the annual festival that is offering more than 100 free events this month.

Exhibits survive thanks to Dr Harold Swan, a consultant haematologist who died in 2011 and initiated the Sheffield Hospitals History Group's collection in the 1970s. The pieces relate to institutions that have long since closed - such as the General Infirmary, Sheffield's first hospital which opened in 1797, and the workhouse at Fir Vale - as well as today's sites, primarily the Northern General and Royal Hallamshire. Group members give talks and put items in safe places around the modern Sheffield Teaching Hospitals campus; hence why visitors passing through a corridor in the Northern General are prone to stumble across an iron lung used by children at the former Lodge Moor Hospital.

Mike says the archive began with a series of marble busts that needed saving when the first hospitals closed. The grand sculptures depict the founding fathers of the Infirmary and the now-demolished Royal Hospital in the city centre, including brewer and benefactor Thomas Rawson, and poet James Montgomery. One, of Dr John Browne who set up the Infirmary, was carved by a young Francis Chantrey, who went on to become the go-to British portrait sculptor of the Regency era.

The fad for busts was 'common in all cities', Mike remarks. "It probably cost a lot of money."

When the Sheffield hospitals merged in the early 2000s the group was given a permanent location, comprising an archive room, a storage area and workshop.

Looking around the collection quickly becomes absorbing. There is a pair of boots worn by a woman at the grim-sounding workhouse, beside the 'scrubbers' times' - a detailed record of the people who had to clean the floors there. The workhouse - now the Northern's clock tower building - started in 1881 and officially closed in 1920, though 'inmates' really stayed for much longer because they had nowhere else to go.

Also preserved is a cache of nurses' badges, an array of home remedies, the infirmary's bell and an odd model for people learning obstetrics. Carved out of a tree trunk, it was supposed to represent a 'small round' woman's abdomen.

Mike is particularly keen to describe the workings of a wooden operating table, dating from the early 19th century. It looks deeply uncomfortable and has a ratchet system allowing the patient's head - or feet - to be lowered or raised. Two slits were cut into the table to allow for 'spillages' to drain away. "It's fairly primitive, isn't it," Mike murmurs.

Nearby is a charity collection tin that raises an important point - the first hospitals were 'voluntary' and not publicly funded, as the NHS was still generations away. "All the money had to be donated and there were boxes around the city," says Mike.

Even the long table in the middle of the archive room has a tale. It turns out Mike was seated at it during his successful job interview for the consultant radiologist's position in 1984. "You can probably see marks of perspiration."

For Mike, the archive offers a chance for reflection. "You look at the rich heritage of Sheffield and you think of all the people who worked here, and the patients. You also think of some big discoveries."

One of the first uses of insulin was in Sheffield, he says - the patient was industrialist Sir Stuart Goodwin, who was diagnosed with diabetes in his 20s and later had a fountain and a university sports centre named in his honour. "He was at death's door, but the family had quite a bit of money and heard about insulin which was just discovered in Canada. They got some over to Sheffield, he was treated and lived a long life. And became an important benefactor as a result."

The city was at the forefront of administering penicillin, and in 1955 cardiac surgeon Judson Chesterman carried out one of the first ever heart valve operations at the Northern General.

Heritage Open Days are 'fantastic', Mike says. "We're really looking forward to showing off our collection, and trying to get people interested in the heritage rather than thinking of how it is today. A lot of this is pre-NHS, when there was very little money about."

Visitors should take note, however - the group doesn't keep medical records, so people shouldn't expect to find very specific documents about their relatives. "We haven't got lists of people who were admitted in 1927," says Mike.

Tours happen at 10.30am, 12.30pm and 2.30pm on September 8 and 15. Visit to book or email [email protected] for details. The event is unsuitable for children. Heritage Open Days happen from September 6-9, and 13-16. Visit for listings.

See The Star tomorrow for a feature about the past and future of Attercliffe.