The institution most Dubliners hoped to avoid
Glimpses into life at a Dublin ‘Lock’ hospital were rare. But it was best avoided, that much was well known
The Westmoreland Lock Hospital was an institution that Dubliners hoped never to enter. Relocated to Townsend Street in 1792 to treat widespread venereal disease, it stood until the 1950s on the site.
Only females were admitted from 1819. Some were prostitutes. Syphilis and gonorrhoea were rife in the 19th century, particularly among soldiers. However, unlike Cork, Cobh and the Curragh, Dublin never came under the jurisdiction of the Contagious Diseases Acts, which allowed any woman suspected of being a prostitute in the vicinity of a garrison to be checked for disease and kept without consent at a “Lock Hospital”.
Pregnant women gave birth here and many infected infants died. Treatments were lengthy and, until the introduction of penicillin in the 1940s, included mercury or arsenic-based cures. Funded by a State grant, and occasionally by the War Office, the hospital continued to operate for almost the first century of this paper’s lifetime, with thousands of women and children passing through its doors.
Readers, however, received very little insight into its workings, or its patients.
Here are just a few glimpses into life at “The Lock”.
Apr, 1863: The Board of Superintendence of the Dublin Hospitals reports: “The laundry portion of the establishment acts as a penitentiary.”
Apr, 1873: The board’s annual report: “The walls and ceilings . . . could not be white-washed, cocoa-nut mattresses could not be supplied in place of straw for bedding, and the dilapidated roof could not be repaired owing to the want of means.”
Jan, 1878: A report from the Army Medical Officer notes: “Venereal disease is very prevalent, especially in the Dublin garrison . . . it is to be regretted that the funds of the Lock Hospital are only adequate for the maintenance of a portion of this invaluable institution in working order.”
Mar, 1878: A report of the board remarks: “One feature of the Westmoreland Lock Hospital which we particularly admire is the utilisation of the labour of the patients, combining as it does the advantages of a reformatory system with those of a well-regulated strictly managed hospital.”
Nov, 1885: The Hospitals Commission hears evidence from visiting physician Dr Fitzgibbon that, many patients “frequently left while they were very bad” because of the restrictions under which they were placed. “One of these was that all letters were opened and read . . . ”
The doctor told the commission he was in favour of the separate accommodation for Roman Catholics and Protestants being done away with. “At present, numbers of the Roman Catholic women of the better social position, so to speak, said they were Protestants in order to get into the Protestant ward. This they did in order to be separated from the lower class women and also for the purpose of avoiding the priest.”
Jul, 1887: A young inmate of the hospital, Anne Evans, is charged with attempted suicide. Resident physician Dr Donnelly told the court he had given the patient a bottle containing opium to cure a toothache, “but instead of applying it to that purpose the prisoner had drunk the contents”.
Apr, 1912: A local government inquiry is held into a complaint from Joseph Holland that his seriously ill wife had been transferred by ambulance to the Lock Hospital instead of the Mater. “Here in spite of her protests, she had to submit to the usual routine imposed on the ordinary patients of that institution, which included a forced and unnecessary cold bath.”
Jun, 1913: Homeless woman Margaret Reilly is charged with murdering her twomonth-old child. “Nurse Woodhouse, of the Westmoreland Lock Hospital, gave evidence the clothes the child was wearing were given to it at the hospital. Constable Crowley stated that when the prisoner was arrested she stated that her husband gave her no money, and she threw the child into the Liffey after leaving the Lock . . . ”
Dublin’s Westmoreland Lock Hospital.