The Hamadryad hospital ship

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Visitors to Cardiff in the early 1890s would have been amazed to see three old wooden warships moored in various parts of the docks area. These were not museum pieces or historical artefacts, they were working ships, all of them carrying out useful tasks almost 100 years after they first went down the slipways.

The Thisbe was Cardiff's gospel or chapel ship. Run by the Missions to Seamen, she was moored in East Bute Dock from 1860 until she was finally towed away for breaking in 1892.

The second “woodenwall” was the Havannah, an industrial training ship laid up on the mud close to Penarth Road. She offered care and industrial training to semi-delinquent boys and ran until 1905.

The third and by far the most famous of the three ships was the Hamadryad. The brainchild of Dr Henry Paine, medical officer of health for Cardiff from 1855 until 1887, the Hamadryad was the port's Seaman's Hospital. Dr Paine was very concerned about sailors bringing infectious diseases like cholera, smallpox and typhoid into the docks from where they might spread into Cardiff itself and was very vocal in his comments on the condition of houses in the docks area.

At a public meeting in March 1866 it was proposed that a receiving house or a hospital ship be brought to the docks. It was hardly a unanimous decision as many felt extending the new infirmary on Newport Road would be a better option. But the proposal for a hospital ship was agreed, and the Admiralty offered to loan the old frigate Hamadryad as the base for the establishment.

The Hamadryad was brought from Devonport – where she was lying, awaiting breaking – and duly converted into a hospital ship. It cost £2,791, a charge of £160 being made for the tow from Devonport to Cardiff, and nearly £1,500 for the conversion itself. As well as beds and wards for patients, accommodation was also provided for a medical superintendent, a matron and a number of nurses.

Rat Island

Originally moored in East Bute Dock, the Hamadryad was soon moved to a patch of land, waste ground, donated by the Marquis of Bute. Ominously, it was called Rat Island. Alterations complete, the Hamadryad opened as a hospital on 1 November 1866 with Mr Vavasour as the first medical superintendent.

In the first year of operations over 400 patients were treated, most of them from ships in Cardiff Dock but some from places such as Swansea and Barry. Over the years of her existence thousands of sailors – and people from the immediate locality – were helped.

The hospital ship was funded by a levy of two shillings per 100 tons of shipping using the docks, paid to shipping agents or the captains themselves. So successful was the enterprise that by 1871 a wooden annexe had been built on the river bank alongside the ship to take excess patients.

No women policy

Sailors of all nationalities were treated in the hospital, either as day patients or as full admissions. In 1897 Dr Hughes, the medical superintendent at the time, reported that 379 people had been admitted while many more had been treated as casualties and day patients. Interestingly, while men of all nations were admitted, no women were allowed – and neither was anyone suffering from scabies or lice.

After admission all patients were given a bath and a haircut and were then issued with hospital clothing. It was a practice that continued right up into the 20th century.

The Hamadryad was already old when she was first loaned by the Admiralty. By the closing years of the 19th century it was clear that she was well past her prime and so, to mark the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria, it was decided to create a permanent seaman's hospital close to the mooring site of the original ship. This opened on 29 June 1905.

Hamadryad Hospital was opned in June 1905

With the Hamadryad now totally obsolete it was time to send her to the ship breakers. And so, many tons of ballast (pig iron and stone) was removed from her hold and a channel was excavated to allow the old ship access to the sea. Then she was towed away by the tugs Frank Stanley and Stormcock, first to the Roath Basin and then to Appledore where she was finally broken up.

The Hamadryad Hospital continued its work once the old ship had gone. The name was retained and it continued to run until 2002.

The Hamadryad, like the two other wooden warships in Cardiff, was hardly the most hygenic of environments, particularly for men who might be grievously ill. But it was, at least, an attempt at providing care and treatment in a century that was notoriously cavalier with things like the health of ordinary working men. And for that, if nothing more, she deserves recognition.

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