A Brief History of Frenchay Hospital

The name "Frenchay" is probably a corruption of "Fromeshaw", although the spelling of the word has changed over the centuries. In 1257 it was recorded as "Fromscawe"; in 1397 "Froomshaw" was current and in 1436 "Fremshawe" was in use. The Winterbourne Register occasionally uses "Frenchhay", with two "h"s. The river Frome, of course, still runs from near Winterbourne to the City centre.

The land on which the hospital now stands has grown over the years. Prior to 1780 the original tenure was owned by a FitzHerbert Yeoman. Around about 1780 the tenure changed hands, possibly several times and the final transaction included an apparently incomplete house. This house was added to over the next century until, in 1890, a stable block was completed. The whole complex, including house and about 70 acres of land was finally sold to the Corporation of Bristol in 1921; for the next ten years it then became a children's TB hospital - Frenchay Park Sanatorium. In the late 1920s it became clear that the house was too small for all its patients and so, in 1931, five purpose designed buildings were built, two ward pavilions, a treatment block, an admissions and observation block and a school. The estate so remained until 1940, but did also include a farm which grew food for the children. Contemporary photos clearly show sheep and goats grazing on the land, as well as cultivated rows of vegetables. Chickens were also reared, along with the occasional pig. Visitors were only allowed on Sundays. Such was the length of stay of some of the children (5 or more years was not uncommon) that, as well as the necessary school, the sanatorium also had its own Wolf cub pack, to be followed very soon after by its own Brownie, Guide and Scout packs.

In the late 1930s the Government feared that there would not be enough hospital beds to house the estimated casualties should the expected war break out. In consequence one of a national series of emergency hospital was planned for the estate, with construction starting in mid 1940 or so. Eventually a ramp of 15 wards and supporting facilities were built, only to remain empty because the number of casualties was fewer than had been feared. In the meantime the children remained in their buildings. The USA entered the war in December 1941 and personnel started to arrive in Britain in the spring of 1942. As a form of reverse "Lease Lend" the emergency buildings were handed over to the US military and the first US troops arrived at the hospital in May 1942. They, and later groups, arranged for the facilities to be doubled in size, resulting in two ramps of 15 wards and supporting departments. The Americans stayed until August 1945, when the whole of the site, including all the US equipment, was handed to the British, the children having stayed in their part of the estate for the entire time; the children continued there until about 1948, when they were moved elsewhere.

Frenchay Hospital, circa 1943: source: University of Michigan

In 1946 a thoracic surgeon, Ronald Belsey, moved in from Kewstoke hospital, near Weston-super-Mare, to be followed by a neurosurgeon, George Alexander in 1948 and a plastic surgeon, Geoffrey FitzGibbon in 1949. Since that time the hospital, its staff and its reputation have grown, with a major re-development starting in 1986, resulting in the attractive new buildings which can be seen at the top of the Lime Tree Drive, the splendid alley of trees leading up to the original house, now beautifully restored as the Trust HQ.

Incidentally, at some stage in the late 1940s the back ramp wards were renumbered. To this day the old numbers can still be identified on the door posts of some. Some old US signs are also still just visible around the place. It's worth exploring!

Insignia uncovered during demolition of old US gymnasium: July 2000

Frenchay Hospital 1994: source: Dawn White, Frenchay Hospital Medical Illustration Dept.

If you would like to know more about the hospital's history see Local History