Vivian Lyn Hughes Autobiography: Dinorwic Quarries Hospital – Part 1
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The working environments in the slate quarries were very hazardous with accidents a frequent occurrence. The first Penrhyn Quarry Hospital opened in 1825 and was located in Mount Street, Bangor — some six miles away from the quarry. Casualties were most likely transported to the hospital in horse-drawn wagons on the quarry tramway. So that injured quarrymen could receive more immediate medical attention, a replacement hospital was built at the quarry itself in 1840. This initially had 20 beds and continued to admit inpatients until 1931. The hospital closed in 1967.
There were three other quarry hospitals in NW Wales: Oakeley Quarries at Blaenau Ffestiniog, opened 1848; Dinorwic, opened 1860; and Llechwedd, opened 1888. The quarry hospitals provided Britain’s first occupational health service and were partly funded by the workers’ monthly subscriptions to their respective quarry benefit clubs.
Hamilton Alder Roberts — one of the nation’s fastest surgeons, able to perform a mid-thigh leg amputation in less than 60 seconds — was the first full-time doctor at Penrhyn Quarry Hospital. In 1846, the use of ether as an anaesthetic was first demonstrated by William Morton, a Boston dentist. The following year Roberts amputated the leg of an injured quarryman anaesthetised with ether — the first successful operation with anaesthesia in NW Wales. With his involvement in several acrimonious disputes, Roberts’ career was marked by some controversy. The quarry benefit club took over the running of the hospital from the quarry managers in 1875 and, even though it contravened the club’s own rules, appointed an unqualified, but nevertheless well regarded, bonesetter as Roberts’ assistant. Incensed, Roberts involved the British Medical Association, which threatened the club with legal action. Later that year, after 35 years in the post, Roberts resigned over the issue.
My father, Griffith Samuel Hughes, joined the Quarry Hospital staff as an apprentice in 1904. working with Dr. Mills Roberts and Dr. J. Morris other and two nurses. There were 3,000 men worked in the quarry. It was the biggest slate quarry in the world and they exported to a vast array of countries, including some in the southern hemisphere. They had their own dock facilities at Port Dinorwic for onward shipment throughout the world.
1876, was fully functional and they carried out all types of operations, only using chloroform as an anaesthetic. Considering the seriousness of some operations, such as leg amputations, not one case of septicaemia was ever reported right up to 1959 when my father carried out his last treatment on a quarryman’s eye. There was also a time when they carried out post mortems on site but I presume this ceased when the Bangor Hospital was able to take over this function. The staff comprised a sister (matron) and nurses. There was a strict code of conduct for both the staff and patients and the nurses and doctors were expected to treat the patients with courtesy and understanding. The whole ethos was based on common-sense. A nurse was not expected to have a portfolio of academic certificates but to possess natural human warmth, which was transmitted to the patients, and to give comfort. Injuries in the quarries were frequent and often severe. There were no health and safety laws in those days as we have become accustomed to today. Again common sense prevailed and, as an example of this, we often see, in old quarry photographs, men wearing bowler hats. They used to buy these hats a size too large and fill them with paper so that they protected the head from falling rocks, etc.
My parents married in 1920 in Belgium and came to live in Llanberis. They eventually moved to a house, called Beech Bank. During the time my father lived in the village, he used to row across Lake Padarn to the hospital. The hospital had its own boat house. There was a room next to the surgery called the Consulting Room. I do not believe any consultations took place there after my parents moved into the hospital in 1934. It became my father’s office. There was no telephone in the hospital except for a direct line to the Quarry Office. The telephone was a wooden contraption screwed to the wall and situated in the consulting room. To contact the Quarry Office you had to turn the black handle on its right three times. The telephone was used mostly to call the quarry ambulance to take serious cases to the Bangor Hospital.
I was born on the 1st January 1939 and lived on and off at the Quarry Hospital until 1967.
Home was part of a fully functioning Quarry Hospital. As a child I remember injured quarrymen arriving throughout the day and sometimes there would be up to 30 men in the waiting room. I used to visit them to have a chat and even at that young age I was shocked at some of the wounds I saw, but also amazed at the calmness and stoicism shown by these men who were often in considerable pain. Some, especially in winter, had to walk miles. It must be remembered that the quarry face went up to about 2000 feet – a long way to come down and the weather in winter became quite nasty more often than not.
My mother often brought in cups of tea to warm them up. She was always very concerned for their welfare. In addition to her efforts to make the hospital welcoming, she and some friends decided to set up an old people’s club for retired quarrymen and their wives. Some of the other ladies involved in the club were Mrs Ivor Jones (Chief Quarry Engineer’s wife), Mrs Meira Bryn Hughes, Mrs Davies (whose husband owned the Snowdon Garage), the two Wakeham sisters (owners of the Prince of Wales Hotel and the local cinema) and a host of other willing volunteers. The Club was first opened in the centre of Llanberis in a rented house. Books were provided by asking people around the village for donations. Afternoon teas were laid on with the committee providing sandwiches, cakes, etc. Later, coach trips were organised to places like Llandudno and occasional concerts in the Church Hall were arranged.
Eventually it was decided to build a proper Club House on the way out of Llanberis, just south of the Snowden Railway. They raised the required capital and the club was officially opened about 1950 and Sir Michael Duff (owner of the quarries) was made president.
I can remember meeting retired quarrymen and they used to show me the various scars where my father had stitched and repaired limbs. As they had been treated by him on numerous occasions, some had lived with their scars. Some scars representing old wounds on a single man often covered a period of twenty years or so. He had also treated wounds spanning three or four generations of one family and had known, in one case, their great grandfather.
One Old Ex-Quarryman, Derrick Jones, showing stitches on his thumb put in by my father.
As a child I loved to travel to Port Dinorwic on the quarry train in the guard’s van. I used to have to get a slip from the local manager (Quarry Office) which gave permission for me to travel on the train. The distance was six miles and six furlongs. Read the full story in part 2 of 4, a true record growing up the a Quarry Hospital and early school days.