Health scandal at Hanwell
Ophthalmia, a severe infection of the eye that can cause blindness, was very prevalent in Hanwell. It was brought to the workhouse by infected pauper children who were malnourished and living in crowded conditions. The worst outbreak in the school occurred in 1862 when 686 children out of 1,162 had the disease – several of them losing their sight. A separate infirmary was built, but in 1874 Mr Nettleship, an inspector of the metropolitan schools, reported that Hanwell was exceptionally bad. As a result iron huts were built as isolation wards.
Despite the fact that by 1888, 2,649 children had been isolated in the iron huts, the problem persisted. It became a national scandal with the matter being tabled in the House of Commons. Finally the school’s managers agreed to build an ophthalmic school with accommodation for 400 cases at a cost of £30,000. It was built south- east of the main school on an 11-acre area enclosed by a six-foot wooden fence and consisted of several corrugated iron buildings containing 15 wards. There were separate buildings for the nurses’ quarters, schoolrooms, kitchens and dining halls. Here the affected children would live and continue their education until they were well. In fact the Ophthalmic School, later called Park School, took in children from all 27 London unions, not just those at Hanwell, the greatest number coming from Southwark.
Ten years later, control of the disease had so improved that only 39 out of 272 cases of ophthalmia came from the Hanwell school and out of all those discharged, only in two instances was there a relapse.