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The story of the Seychelles Hospital

Built during the early 20th century, it is a decade short of its centennial. TONY MATHIOT tells the story of one of Seychelles’s most cherished iconic colonial edifices.

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In late afternoon of Sunday November 30, 1924, an important event took place in the colony of Seychelles. This was the inauguration of the New Seychelles Hospital at Mont Fleuri by the governor, Sir Joseph Aloysius Byrne (1874-1942). There was a large attendance of the public, which included members of the medical staff. It was the chief medical officer, Dr John Thomas Bradley (1872-1942) who made the reception address in which he dutifully reminded all those present of the vexation, worry and anxiety that had plagued the construction project of the building….”… but the building was derelict, weeds had grown all over the walls that were erected, the money subscribed had all been expended, and the building was in debt.”

Following the ceremony of blessing the hospital, the bishop of the Catholic church, Mgr Justin Gumy (1869-1941) made his address, in French of course… “cet édifice dans ses vastes dimensions, ses superbes vérandas, sa position idéale en ce joli coin de terre de L’Hermitage restera le monument impérissable d’un petit peuple…”

Next, it was the civil chaplain, Rev Buswell (1838-1940) who began his speech with: “ I stand here today in circumstances which, to me at least, have deep meaning and touch great issues in the history of Seychelles..”

Lastly, with the typical panache and aplomb that then characterised British colonial officers during the days of Empire, the fifty-year old governor who was also a Brigadier General told the attentive crowd that “… I imagine you will feel proud in possessing a hospital which I submit is second to none considering the size, the resources and the isolation of this small colony.”  Indeed, the governor was making acknowledgment of a significant fact regarding the accomplishment of an audacious undertaking that had tested his predecessor’s perseverance and epitomized the hope of a small nation of some 25,800 inhabitants. The decision to build a new hospital originated in the aftermath of the First World War (1914-1918). It was a sudden inspiration…
In mid-1919, celebration activities were organised to mark the signing of the Peace Treaty, like they were to be held in all British Colonial Territories.
The total sum collected from public donations amounted to R2,596.70.

On June 10, 1919, during a meeting at Carnegie Hall to discuss the variety of festivities that were to take place on July 17, 18 and 19, the treasurer of the peace celebrations, John Henry Tizard Ellis, who was also the director of education proposed that in the event of any surplus funds left from the peace celebrations, a memorial tablet of those who had died during the war should be erected somewhere in Victoria.

Of the 791 young Seychellois volunteers who had joined the Commonwealth forces in East Africa, 335 men had lost their lives. His proposal was unanimously approved and adopted. Much later, on January 5, 1920, it was decided at a meeting at Government House that the memorial should take the form of a hospital. In fact, it was governor Eustace Edward Twistleton- Wykeham Fiennes (1864-1943) who put the idea forward. He had assumed the administration of Seychelles on July 6, 1918 and shortly after his arrival, his altruistic concern for the welfare of the inhabitants became evident when he initiated the construction of the Fiennes Institute, an old People’s home at Plaisance. Therefore, his idea that a memorial hospital, a medical establishment that would cater to the needs of all the inhabitants be erected, met with hearty agreement.

The unused balance of R488.88 left from the peace celebrations were placed in the Government Savings Bank to the credit of the New Hospital Fund. At that meeting, which was attended by about sixty citizens who were of independent means, a subscription list was circulated and the sum of R7, 500 was raised.

Shortly afterwards, subscription lists were sent to all the districts. Even the catholic Bishop, Mgr George Lachavane (1849-1920) was asked to request his priests “to take the matter up” in their respective parishes. There upon, on the first Sunday of two months, February and March of 1920, there were collections in all churches and chapels. The inhabitants were aware that a new hospital was urgently needed. A small hospital named the St. John of God Hospital which had been built in 1866 and stood on the slope where the National House is now located, was in a pathetic state of dilapidation. Hardly a place where hygienic conditions could prevail. Since most of the inhabitants toiled and slogged on coconut estates and cinnamon plantations for their sustenance, it must have been a great sacrifice for those who contributed even a couple of cents of the pittance that they earned. They gave a little, which was a lot.

The community of immigrants were eager to contribute, and they gave so generously. The Indian residents donated a total sum of R3,655. Jivan Jetha (1879-1949), a wealthy Indian trader of Victoria, personally donated R1,000. An awesome sum at that time, considering that the annual salary of a police sergeant was R720 and that of a messenger was R288.

The firm Adam Moosa gave R550. The Chinese community gave R626. La sociéte de L’Ile Silhouette gave R100. One hundred and thirty nine residents of La Digue gave a total sum of R90.47, while 15 Praslin residents gave R10.60. Governor Fiennes judiciously realised that funds raised locally would not be sufficient so he appealed to various colonial organisations, and quite a few responded generously.

The British Red Cross Society gave R30,000. The British India Steam Navigation Company gave R5,000. The Eastern South African Telegraph Company gave R376 and Mauritius, of which Seychelles had been a dependency until 1903, gave R10,000. As for the governor of the East African Protectorate to whom Fiennes also appealed for funds “in view of the number of men from this colony who served in the Labour contingent in East Agrica…”, he had to regretfully disappoint him. This was because insufficient funds had as yet been collected for the East Africa War memorial which rendered it unreasonable to issue an appeal to construct the Seychelles Hospital. However, he promised to instruct the District Commissioner of Nairobi to advise all employers of Seychellois workers to inform them of the need to contribute to the construction of the memorial Hospital in memory of their fellow country-men.

The site chosen to build the hospital was at Hermitage, and it was acquired from its owner, Adolphe Emmerez de Charmoy (1875-1940), at an approximate cost of R10, 000. Emmerez de Charmoy, who was an unofficial member of the Legislative council, also donated R1,050 to the hospital fund. Plans and estimates of the hospital project were prepared by the ailing superintendent of Public Works, Leon Xavier Le Vieux. These were not blue printed plans and elaborate technical drawings befitting the architectural scale of the proposed edifice. They were simple sketches and preliminary calculations which were open to revision due to lack of actual price of materials. In March of 1920, work commended and on June 12, governor Fiennes laid the corner stone. After blasting work, foundations and basements were prepared and building operations began.

In January of 1921, a notice appeared in the Seychelles Government Gazette requesting tenders for the supply of 1,000 cases of time per month for the construction of the New Hospital. Meanwhile, subscription lists were still being circulated. The governor and his wife made a donation of £30 (R450 – one pound being then equivalent to R15).

Proceeds amounting to R100 were collected from film shows aboard a French Warship Bellatrix.

In May of 1921, a new superintendent of public works was appointed. He was Major Harold Kenworthy (1873-1952) who saw active service in the First World War with the Royal Engineers, serving in France, Belgium and Italy from 1915 to 1920. When he arrived, work was in excellent progress since prison labour was used in the construction of the foundations. By then, the total amount of money raised by public subscription was R68,837.50. In Kenworthy’s opinion the estimate cost of completing the hospital could not possibly be less than R277,000.

By August of 1921, the sum of R57,353.89 had been expanded, and the cost of materials ordered through the Crown Agents was estimated to be R149,184. Since Fiennes could not renege on his promise to construct the hospital without expenditure from public funds, the insurmountable odds that he faced filled him with much perturbation and concern. Moreover, many land owners in the south of Mahé had expressed their opposition to the building of a new hospital with the angry concern that the inhabitants would be surtaxed for its upkeep.

In his desperate attempt to raise more funds, the governor had argued the idea of having a government lottery, in his telegram to the secretary of state for the colonies, Alfred Milner (1854-1925), but the latter disapproved categorically… “Unable to approve as proposal is contrary to standing policy of secretary of state…” At the end of August, all work was stopped.

During that time, the colony of Seychelles was in the throes of a hookworm epidemic. Tuberculosis and leprosy were also prevalent. Most inhabitants did not have access to medical facilities. The grim probability that alas Seychelles would not have its modern hospital gradually became more likely. In December of 1921, the Crown Agents informed Fiennes that the colonies account was overdrawn to the extent of £4,848 and that the crown agents were prepared to make advances up to £10,000 in all, to liquidate the overdraft and to meet further expenditure. Since there was no question of letting the unfinished hospital to deteriorate, the proposal was a great relief, even if it meant the gradual annual repayment of the advance, with the interest.

Early in 1922, the Legislative Council debated over the question of revising the original plans but the idea was quashed. The foundations had already been constructed, all the walls raised over 10 feet in height, and the 54 steel columns already received were cast to fit the original design. Up to then, R165,802.60 had been expended on materials and wages. It was clear then that the completion of the hospital would have to be met from government funds.  Kenworthy’s estimate was that the total cost of the new hospital building would be R269,000, which was virtually R200,000 more than the sum collected from public subscription. For 16 months, the unfinished structure stood in forlorn dereliction, overgrown with weeds. This provoked denunciatory criticism and complaints from some inhabitants of Victoria who saw the bare walls as a fiasco of an audacious scheme.

On September 26, 1922, Fiennes’s successor Sir Joseph Aloysius Byrne assumed the administration of the colony. He was soon exchanging lengthy dispatches with Downing Street, regarding the completion of the hospital.

Work recommenced on February 16, 1923. In May, yet another notice in the government gazette asked for the supply of 8,800 cases of lime at the rate of 300 cases per week. Some twenty months later, a huge and magnificent building became the object of admiration at Hermitage. A splendid creation of exquisite geometry; the iron work pattern of the balcony, the wafer-white masonry walls and the arched doorways.  A marvelous achievement.

An edifice. It consisted of a main frontage with wings on either side. The upper story of the south wing was the resident surgeon’s quarters.

The upper story of the north wing was the maternity section. Large, spacious verandahs attached to each wing imparted a lofty appearance to the building. There were four wards. Two 1st class wards (A and B), a second class ward and a third class ward making a total of 84 beds. There was a modern theatre with over head lighting. Two Coleman lamps giving 1,200 candle power provided illumination for nocturnal operations. There were five bathrooms. Two for male and three for female patients. These consisted of basins and lavatories were tubs that were used as receivers. These were changed twice daily.

The completion of the hospital had cost R99,898.14 which meant that the total cost of the construction of the Seychelles Hospital was R265,700.

Eight hundred and eighty-five (885) casks of cement were used (R26,550). One thousand eight hundred and seventy-five (1,875) corrugated iron sheets for roofs, ridges, rain gutters and downpipes (R8,000). Timber was obtained locally. 4,526ft of capucin, 3,259ft of bois rouge and 2,085ft of casuarinas (R1,236. 95) … it was indeed a monumental undertaking that must have attested to Kenworthy’s dogged determination.  He must have felt pleasurable satisfaction when he handed the hospital over to the medical department. During the final stages of its construction, he had to supervise various other ongoing PWD work throughout Mahé, such as the painting of Government House, the renovation of the Victoria Market, the building of five bridges on Praslin and a road from Baie Ternay to Anse Souillac.

Now that he had a modern medical establishment at his disposal, John Thomas Bradley, who had been appointed chief medical officer on June 23, 1923 was eager to reorganise the medical department so that the inhabitants could have access to an excellent health service. Born of Anglo-Irish descent, he had arrived in Seychelles in 1901 at thirty-one years old. During the many years that he spent here, the inhabitants had learned to appreciate his scrupulous character and strong resolve. He had an endearing disposition that all who became acquainted with him developed an affectionate veneration for their ‘Dr. Bradley’. Having decided to make Seychelles his home, he had the colony’s health at heart.

Since the new hospital had a maternity section, the old maternity home that was located separately, from the hospital in Victoria, at the exact site were the MS Complex Building now stands, was closed on December 13. In the maternity section there were 16 beds in the 3rd class, 6 in the 2nd class and 2 in the 1st class.
There were various outhouses including a boiler house and a kitchen with a range able to cook for 100 patients.

The grounds of the hospital were salubriously resplendent. It was in fact Harold Kenworthy’s wife who designed and laid out the ornamental gardens of flowers and shrubs at the entrance where there was a fountain surrounded by rockery in which seats were provided. The quadrangle in the centre of the building was laid out in grass with palms and ferns in the centre and four sides.

The hospital was provided with running water by galvanised iron piping that connected reservoir with a stream in the hills of Hermitage. The reservoir was a settling tank of 810 gallons constructed 81 feet above the level of the hospital. Despite all its modern amenities, there was no X-ray apparatus in the hospital. It was in 1929 that an X-Ray and electro-therapeutic department started to function. This was at the initiative of Dr Maxime Paul Lanier, who was then the resident surgeon. It was badly needed because without radioscopic and radiographic examinations, many patients could not be properly treated. At that time, there was also diathermy treatment and ultra-violet irradiation with the Quartz mercury vapour lamp. This was applied in various cases of chronic inflammation of internal organs. Ultra-violet irradiation was given to patients after surgical operations.

During the first years, the wards in the hospital were lit with Coleman lamps. Later a Lancashire generating plant was installed to provide power. The medical ordinance no 20 of 1899 which had made provisions “to provide for and regulate hospitals and dispensaries in Seychelles” ensured that twenty-five years later, hospital accommodation and medical treatment would be at the disposal of all Seychellois inhabitants, meaning that poverty would not deprive any person of such.

So, there were 3 classes of wards. The first class wards had two scales of fees- 1st class A was R5 daily and 1st class B was R3 daily. The 2nd class was R1.50 daily and the 3rd class was 50cts daily. The difference was in meals. For example, the 1st class and 2nd class patients were provided with bacon or sausage and eggs, and bread and butter, respectively for breakfast, whereas the 3rd class patients got one small loaf of bread or a slice of bread. There were no private wards. Accommodation for the poorer classes of the colony was provided in the 3rd class male and female wards. Government officials whose salaries were less than R1,500 per annum were entitled to free treatment in the 2nd class wards. Free treatment in the 3rd class wards was provided to police constables, prison guards, postmen, Government House servants, messengers and labourers.

The first person to be born in the new hospital was a baby girl, Francoise Alcide on December 7, 1924. The first person to die there was a 46-year-old labourer, Victor Rachel. In 1925, there were 731 cases and 29 deaths. The 1925 budget was R545,257. The sum of R95,700 was allocated to the medical department.

The first matron was Sister Lucy. In 1926 she was succeeded by Sister Catherine. The first Seychellois matron was appointed in September of 1966. She was Nella Marie Thérèse Mathiot. In 1924, there were 5 hospital nurses. They were sisters of the Order of St Joseph de Cluny. They were assisted by 5 probationer nurses. There were 4 male attendants, 2 ward maids, 1 midwife, 1 dispenser and a chief clerk.

In 1927, a shed for rickshaws was constructed … In 1931 a tuberculosis ward was built in the grounds of the hospital, later the Princess Elizabeth Nurses’s Home opened where young Seychellois girls who were keen to join the medical profession took courses in medical, surgical  and maternity nursing. In 1949 a children’s ward with 22 cots opened and a new store room and laundry was built. In 1955, a hand-operated lift was installed. In 1966 the out-patient clinic was completed.

Ninety years ago the Seychelles Hospital was a marvelous infrastructure. An exciting novelty in the lives of the inhabitants.

In his medical report for 1925, Dr John Thomas Bradley wrote “…the grounds of the hospital are now well-planted and laid out, the building is one of the show places of the island, and is one of the principal edifices that catch the eyes of the passengers on steamers arriving in the port of Victoria.” hospital2hospital3hospital

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