Lothian Hospital Histories

Western General Hospital

The Western General Hospital has its origins in the poorhouse for the parish of St. Cuthbert's. At one time paupers of the parish were maintained on the poor fund, later augmented by a tally on beer and the issue by the parish of licences to beg. No accommodation was provided. In 1744 it was decided to remedy this by building a poorhouse. It was not until 1761 that the poorhouse was opened on the site of the present Caledonian Hotel. The institution included a school where orphans could be taught a trade or craft.

In 1863 the City's Medical Officer of Health, Henry Littlejohn, found that this poorhouse was in an insanitary condition and ordered improvements to be made. In Edinburgh at that time there were three poorhouses - Canongate, St. Cuthbert's and Craiglockhart. It was suggested that the two former institutions should be combined. St. Cuthbert's resisted the suggestion, and in 1868 opened a new poorhouse on land purchased from the Fettes Trust.  The new building was known as Craigleith Hospital and Poorhouse. It continued to serve the needs of the parish's paupers until 1914 when the hospital was taken over by the Army and used for the treatment of Forces casualties.

In 1929 the Local Government (Scotland) Act was passed, becoming operative on 16 May 1930. This Act discontinued the parish councils and transferred their poorhouses and poorlaw hospitals to the counties and large burghs. It also empowered these authorities to upgrade the former poorlaw hospitals and make them available to the general public. Edinburgh Town Council took over Craigleith Hospital among others. A scheme of renovation and improvement was begun, the aim being to equip and staff it as a fully efficient teaching hospital. As a municipal hospital Craigleith changed its name to the Western General Hospital with 280 beds now available. In 1933 it was provided with a residence for 12 medical students, and in 1936 a nurses' home was built.

A high proportion of the patients referred to the municipal hospitals were the chronically sick and aged. The local authority was legally empowered to charge patients for their accomodation and treatment. Members of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh's (RIE) League of Subscribers were admitted free from 1945, their maintenance being paid out of RIE funds.

In 1941, as a result of World War II, many members of the Polish army found their way to Britain. Among them were some medical specialists from Polish medical schools, and a number of medical students. On 24 February 1941 the President of the Polish Republic, then in exile in London, issued a decree officially instituting the Polish School of Medicine at Edinburgh, and on the same day Edinburgh University signed an agreement with the exiled Polish government. Part of the Western General, with 120 beds, was set apart as the Polish, or "Paderewski", Hospital. After 1945 the school was no longer needed as Polish universities were able to re-open. The last students from it graduated in 1949.

The Western has never been a general hospital in the same sense as, say, the RIE. It has rather built up a number of specialist units such as the coronary and gastro-intestinal units. It also has the regional units for radiotherapy and neurosurgery.

In 1948 the Western became part of the Edinburgh Northern Hospitals group of the South Eastern Regional Hospital Board, coming in turn under the control of the North Lothian District of Lothian Health Board in 1974. In 1986 it formed part of the Royal Victoria, Western and Northern General Unit of Lothian Health Board. At this time departments of Leith Hospital began to be transferred to it as Leith was closed down. In 1994 the Western became a NHS Trust hospital, and is now part of Lothian University Hospitals NHS Trust.

Western General Hospital records