St BartsThe following describes what, by today’s standards, was a very dark period in the history of St. Barts – part hospital, part ‘prison’ – but it may have also strengthen the resolve of local women who were actively petitioning Parliament in 1870 for the right to vote.

The draconian / humiliating treatment women received under the Contagious Diseases Acts and whilst detained in St. Barts,  would have provided tangible evidence as to why women needed – not just ‘should have’ – the vote. The story is also an example of how women were demonised for ‘social ills’. Another, for another time, concerned their poor childcare being blamed for infant mortality – not poor accommodation, poor sanitation, poor diet, or lack of health care, all of which at that time were within the control of men.

Having been critical of this legislation it must be remembered that without the money associated with implementation of this legislation, as well as from the Watts Charity, the new St Barts., at Rochester, may not have been built. Details of how the Lock Wards were run is also included.

The Contagious Disease Acts 1864 / 1866 / 1869, and repealed in 1886.

There had been growing concerns throughout the 1850s, that Venereal Disease (VD) (STI by todays vernacular) was undermining the efficiency of the armed forces. It was reported that by 1859 it was the main cause of ill health in the military. Although voluntary treatment services were available at this time they tended to be underfunded and prostitutes were either unwilling or unable to cooperate with the available treatment regimes.

With the failure of the voluntary schemes the medical officers of the armed forces campaigned for stronger government action. This led to the passing of the Contagious Diseases Act (CD Act) – without debate – in 1864; during that decade further Acts were passed which placed more constraints on women and extended the legalisation into other geographic areas, and require women found to be a prostitute to undergo periodic medical checkups for a period up to a year. (The Acts initially only applied to Chatham, Devonport and Portsmouth but later other garrison towns were included.)

Members of the Metropolitan Police came to Medway and would follow women. Those suspected of working as a prostitute would be required to be examined by a doctor. In addition to their own detective work the police would follow-up leads. This made women vulnerable to false or vindictive allegations which would have inevitably led to a humiliating intimate examination by a male doctor. If found to be infected the woman would be detained on a Lock Ward or in a Lock Hospital, and required to undergoing treatment.

Money provided by the War Office and the Admiralty to tackle the problem of syphilis in the military enabled the building of the new St. Bartholomew’s Hospital at Rochester. Funding was initially provided for the building of a Lock Wing comprised of 30 beds; further funding was made available to increase the number of beds to 40.

Women mobilise and gain a public voice in Medway

The nature of this legislation and the description of the treatment that women received whilst detained under the CD Act, was such that men may well have preferred to ‘give way’ to women on any public platform convened to challenge these laws. In the mid 19th century it was exceptional for a woman to speak publicly. This appears to have changed at meetings convened to discuss the repeal of this legislation.

During my research into life in Rochester during the Great War it began to dawn on me that the Country needed women to have the vote – not just on the principle of equality, but out of absolute necessity. If the Country / Nation was to recover and thrive it was essential that the narrow-minded thinking of a small male ‘elite’ – as evidenced by the decisions of the mayor and aldermen of Rochester – was challenged.

The following aims to provide some insights into the ‘existence’ and experiences of women incarcerated in the Lock Wing of St. Barts Hospital, (left of the main door when facing the hospital from New Road), and illustrate why women – and many men – found the legislation objectionable, offensive, degrading etc., and in urgent need of repeal.

As one women who had been detained under this legislation wrote:

“It is men, only men, from the first to the last that we have to do with! To please a man I did wrong at first, then I was flung about from man to man. Men police lay hands on us. By men we are examined, handled, doctored. In the hospital it is a man again who makes prayer and reads the Bible for us. We are had up before magistrates who are men, and we never get out of the hands of men till we die!”

The Lock Wing of St. Barts – Rochester

Before the construction of the ‘new’ St. Barts the Trustees were aware that the plans they had approved were unaffordable. They were also aware in 1859 that the military were facing tremendous problems associated with the number of troops infected with VD. Although not an unanimous decision it was agreed to write to the Admiralty and the War Office seeking a contribution to the cost of the new hospital. In return the Trustees offered to provide a special ward for the treatment of syphilis.

The approach was well received. Following negotiations, the War Officer and Admiralty agreed to provide £4,000 to construct the a wing for treating women with VD., £3,000 for construction and £1,000 for furniture, drains and other necessities. Revenue of £25/bed/year was agreed. With the problem of VD increasing the Government was finally forced to legislate and the Trustees agreed to make more beds available but at a cost of £40/bed/annum. By 1865 St Barts was providing 40 beds in a Lock Wing – that appears to have always been full.

The Lock Wing was not just an ‘isolation wing’ – it was in every sense ran as a prison; the authorities even agreed that the west wing would be rated the same as a prison.There were also reports of women “escaping” (not discharging themselves) and then being “recaptured”.

Although the number of beds seems small by today’s standards the population of Chatham – the only Medway town that came within the scope of this legislation – was much smaller. Despite this the number of women treated and later detained on the St. Barts Lock wards was significant.

In 1868 an inspector who visited the hospital reported that under the 1864 Act, 500 patients had been voluntarily admitted. After the implementation of the 1866 Act, “680 inmates” were received /compulsorily admitted; worth noting that term patient had been replaced by inmate?

Clearly – and quite understandably – many women resented their imprisonment and treatment. The inspector reported that of the 680 admitted 22 were subsequently sent to goal for disorderly conduct. This number was not considered as being significant bearing in mind the “character and previous habits of the unfortunates at Chatham”. The ‘crimes’ committed by the women, clearly protesting about their imprisonment / treatment, related to the breaking of windows.

30 July 1866 – Ellen Thorpe and Elizabeth Austin broke five panes of glass by throwing a Bible and prayer book through them. They were unable to pay the fines of £5 each so in default were gaoled for two months. (Maidstone Journal and Kentish Advertiser.)

8 October 1866 – Six prostitutes named Mary Ann Wood, Letitia Buckland, Martha Manning, Ann Wilson, Rosetta Richards and Susan Simpson, inpatients of the Lock Wards of St. Barts, Rochester, were charged with breaking a total of 26 window panes in the Lock Wards. They all received between one and two months imprisonment with hard labour. (Maidstone Journal and Kentish Advertiser.)

The inspector also reported that as a consequence of this legislation the prevalence of VD in the army had most markedly diminished and that which remained was of a much milder type. (London Evening Standard – 16 October 1868.)

The Chief Medical Officer (CMO) of St. Barts writing in the British Medical Journal (19 June 1869), stated that there were 678 admissions during the two year of 1867 and 1868, 565 from Chatham (the remainder probably from Sheerness). The oldest was aged 54, the youngest 13. Many women had had repeat admissions during this time – some 9 to 10 times! Although the 1864 Act only authorised detainment for three months and the 1866 act for six months, this ‘turnover’ was so rapid as it’s extremely unlikely that the treatment offered at this time would have have affected cures so fast, however the CMO stated only 42 women were discharged uncured during this time period.

By 1865 there were 40 Locked beds at St. Barts. These were distributed across six wards over three floors. There was cubic space of 1,540ft / patient. There was one nurse per floor – the head nurse was located on the middle floor. In order to reduce the chances of “moral contamination” a ward of 12 beds was created for women who had never been admitted to a Lock Ward before. This ward may also have been used for patients who on admission expressed the wish to go, when discharged, to a ‘reformatory’.

Admission procedure

‘Prospective’ patients were examined by two Visiting Surgeons. Those deemed in need of admission would be brought to St Barts by policemen in plain clothes and handed over to the head nurse. Each ‘patient’ was then given, separately, a warm bath. Their personal clothing was taken from them and they were issued with a hospital uniform comprised of a blue serge jacket and skirt, underclothing, shoes and stockings.

In the afternoon of their admission the women were examined by the CMO. Those who were found to only be infected with gonorrhoea were not confined to bed, but those with complex infections such as bubo or condylomata etc., where confined bed for so long as necessary.

Allocation of beds

Care was taken not to place young girls with “harden characters” or place women who were friends on the same ward as it had been found that this was more likely to lead to mischief as disturbances were seldom planned by single patients.

Daily routine

Patients were expected to rise by 7am, breakfast at 8, dine at 1pm and to have tea at 5pm. In the winter they retired at 8pm and at 9pm in the summer. They were expected to have washed (rigidly enforced) and to be dressed by 10am. They were allowed a warm bath once a week unless there was a special reason.

Breakfast consisted of 6oz or bread, half a pint of tea. Dinner consisted of 3oz of cooked meat, half a pound of potatoes; 4oz of bread and half a pint of porter. Tea consisted of 6oz of bread and half a pint of tea. Extras could include wine, eggs and beef-tea etc., but they were only available at the discretion of the medical officer.

Medical Treatment

Women were meant to give written consent to being examined. Considering the woman’s circumstances it’s hard to see how this consent could be regarded as having been freely given, and in signing the document she was in effect confirming she was a prostitute.

The CMO undertook daily visits the Lock Wards at St. Barts. All patient were expected to all stand up by their beds when he entered the ward. He then passed from bed to bed inquiring about the patients health and prescribing as necessary. The CMO, himself, undertook the daily dressing of patients with “troublesome sores” – these patients were also visited by the Assistant-Surgeon each evening.

Every patient was examined by the CMO twice a week – Mondays and Thursdays. The following is an extract from the above mentioned BMJ paper. It provides a very professional description of an ‘experience’ that Florence Nightingale described as ‘Rape by Speculum’.

“The examinations are held in a small ward, well lighted by three windows. The head nurse is present to render any assistance; the assistant nurses are in attendance on their respective wards and bring their patients to the door of the examining room. The patients come in one by one, bringing their prescription cards with them. These they handed to me, and then each woman mounts a high table, her feet being placed on a form. If the case be merely one of gonorriema, the speculum is used at each examination; but if there be sores, I, as a general rule, use it only in making my first examination. I need scarcely say that the speculum is invariably used before pronouncing any patient fit for discharge. After each use of the speculum it is washed in a strong solution of Condy’s fluid and warm water. I also wash my hands in another basin, containing Condy’s fluid, after each case. When the examination of a patient is concluded, she returns to her ward.” (Condy’s fluid was a solution of Potassium Permanganate.)

The CMO’s report is silent as to how the examination was undertaken on ‘non-compliant’ patients. Based on other sources it is clear that restraints were used and that this could explain why some lobbying for the repeal of the acts spoke of acts of great cruelty – particularly possible if the examination was then conducted in a vengeful manner.

Religious Instruction

The 1866 Act required attention be given to the spiritual care of the women. Prayers were said on the wards every day with the Chaplain paying particular attention to girls who were not ‘hardened’ or who desired to move onto a reformatory or to live with friends on her discharge. A full service was held in the wards – with a sermon – on Sunday’s, Christmas Day and Good Friday. It was reported that these services were well received and appeared to have a beneficial effect on the patient’s behaviour.


An Admiralty inspection of the Lock Wards led to the suggestion that the women could be usefully employed at needlework. The Chatham Association for the employment of soldier’s wives were willing to take out a contract on the patients. The hospital therefore tried shirt-making but the work was not performed satisfactorily so the contract was ended. However convalescent patients were required, in addition to the household work of their wards, to do all the needlework required throughout the hospital, and to wash their own linen weekly – those so employed received extra rations.


An enclosed space adjoining the Lock Wing was set apart for convalescent patients to exercise in the open air for two hours after dinner. The area was fenced off to keep the Lock patients separate from the patients and staff of the other wing.


Patients that were deemed to have been cured were not advised of their discharge until the necessary paperwork had been completed. Women who were regarded as uncured after nine months were discharged as “incurable” into the care of the Medway Guardians. (Morning Post, 20 January 1870.) The news reports are silent as to whether they were ‘detained’ or free to come and go if they were accommodated in the Medway Union.

If a woman wished to go to a reformatory on discharge or to go to friends outside of the area, she was escorted there by a nurse with the costs being met by the Government.

When discharged the women would exchange their hospital uniform for their own clothes.


As indicated above maintaining discipline was challenging. When an offence was committed the offenders could find themselves before the court or in goal. (In the cases above the fine of £5 was equivalent of about £300 today so perhaps it’s not surprising those women found themselves in goal for defaulting on the fine.)

At St Barts issues of ‘misconduct’ were reported to the head nurse who referred them onto the CMO. If the misdemeanour was minor and the patient remorseful, the CMO said he tended to take no action. When the misdemeanour could not be ignored the patient would be interviewed by the CMO. Most, he claimed, responded well when spoken to in a kind and homely way but those who persisted in breaking the hospital’s rules could be punished with the removal of their allocation of porter, or worse, they could be placed on a low diet for a few days and confined to bed until their “fit of insubordination had passed”.

When there were a number of women on a ward not complying with the rules the whole ward could lose its allocation of porter.

In 1871 the Government appointed commissioners to advise on the working of the Act. Their report was later criticised by some for not investigating all reports of cruelty. What these act entailed were not specified but a number of other news reports spoke most unkindly and disrespectful of the class of women admitted to the Lock Wards. We know today that when people are regarded as something ‘less than human’ acts of great cruelty are not uncommon.

Towards the end of the 1860’s the Government became more emboldened in its strategy. Women such as Florence Nightingale who was previously been critical of the Government’s approach, and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, were – from a statistical perspective – more accepting of it. Basically their view was that a woman could have more partners in a day than a man and was therefore able to spread disease faster than a man.

The Government was also concerned about the high bed cost of a patient held in St. Barts – £40/year/bed compared to the £25 initially agreed and what was paid for a bed in London. It was therefore decided to construct a larger specialist hospital that could admit women from more areas. The War Office however wanted St Barts to take in overflow patients from the wider area – outside of a contract – but at a fixed rate per week/day. It is unknown if this was accepted but it is a possibility as the loss of the contract created a huge financial problem for the Trustees. Staff were dismissed and those who remained had to accept a lower wage/salary.

Special Hospital Built – off Maidstone Road, Chatham.

A new 88 bedded Local Hospital was built on land between the now Southill Road and Port Rise, off the Chatham/Maidstone Road. The catchment area of the new hospital included Chatham and Sheerness, as previously, and Gravesend and Maidstone.

lock hospital
Site-plan of the purpose built Lock Hospital in Chatham

The new hospital was ready to receive patients from February 1870 but 40 women were to be kept at St. Barts until March 1870.

Those campaigning for the repeal of the legislation argued that half of the £6,000 spent on building the new Lock Hospital could have been better used in the community – particularly if the Government’s aim was to ‘rescue’ fallen-women. The finally bill for the new hospital was between £9,000 & £10,000.

Although no references have been found of the local Lock Hospital offering ‘out-patient’ help to wives who may have become infected because of their husbands’ misconduct, when the Contagious Diseases Act was suspended in 1883 staff at the Chatham Lock hospital were temporarily retained in order to continue providing treatment to voluntary cases.

Campaigning for of the Repeal of the Legislation

Opinions were very split on whether the Contagious Disease legislation was effective. The fact that the report of the St Barts CMO, Mr. A W Nankivell (FRCS), ends as follows, suggests he many not have been in full agreement with the Government’s strategy:

“I will only add, in conclusion, that in furnishing this account of the working of the Contagious Diseases Act, I have thought it right to confine myself to the simple statement of facts, in preference to drawing any inferences or putting forward any views of my own.”

Many statistics were quoted that showed the legalisation had reduced the number of infected women and the condition of those infected were less severe. There were also reports that the health of the soldiers/sailors had improved. Despite this information and the support of some worthy women, not all the women of Medway shared this view or accepted that the end justified the means.

In April 1870 a meeting of numerous women was held in the Corn Exchange at Rochester concerning the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act. (Maidstone Telegraph – 16 April 1870.) (This would have been on the Old Corn Exchange as construction of the New Corn Exchange had nearly started at this time.)

The chair of the meeting was taken by F. Wheeler Esq. Besides the ladies (unnamed) on the platform there were the Reverends Amery and Rimbault and Mr Daniel Cooper secretary of the Rescue Society. The Rev. Thornley Smith was represented by his wife. (It perhaps also worthy to note that in the same month Mr Otway, the local MP, presented a petition to Parliament “in favour of a bill for removing the Electoral Disabilities of women” that had been signed in Chatham by 300 unmarried women who were owners of property or rate payers. (Chatham News and North Kent Spectator 9 & 16 April 1870.)

The chief speaker at the Corn Exchange meeting was Mrs Josephine Butler. She spoke for more than hour. According to press reports she based her case for repealing the

josephine butler
Josephine Butler

legislation on statistics and scripture. However other sources report that she also gave graphic descriptions of police brutality and the humiliating examinations that women had to undergo. During her campaigning that included giving 99 talks across the country, she particularly targeted working class family men who she thought would be outraged if they were aware of the treatment that their wives and daughters could experience – I suspect statistics and scripture alone was unlikely to have outraged working men at this time.

At the end of the meeting of the meeting at Rochester Annie Young proposed a resolution pledging the meeting to seeki the repeal of the entire Act. To move the campaign on “ … about “50 or 60 of the females present offered their services in obtaining signatures to a petition and were furnished with blank sheets. It was evident that a very strong feeling had been called forth ….” (Maidstone Telegraph -16 April 1870.) To get so many volunteers and for blank sheets to be available, these women clearly knew what needed to be done, and how to go about it.

It was not just people from the Medway Towns that wished to see the Contagious Diseases Acts repealed but it would seem based on press reports, that Medway was one of the forerunners.

In July 1871 Arthur Otway, MP for Chatham, was part of a deputation of approximately 300 ladies and gentlemen who met with Mr Bruce the Home Secretary at the

He killed the cat
Arthur Otway – MP for Rochester/Chatham

Westminster Palace Hotel. The deputation hoped to persuade the Home Secretary of the need to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts. Seventy two towns were represented and Mr Otway was amongst those who addressed the conference. It would seem that the meeting could have become particularly rowdy as Mr Bruce had to remind the delegates that they were not at a public meeting. Further the conduct of some of the women at this meeting was later used as evidence that they were not temperamentally suited to vote.

False News from Rochester!

Having heard the representations Mr Bruce set about discounting them – including the claim made in the Times that a respectable young lady from Chatham had been ‘locked-up’ for refusing to submit to an intimate examination by men. When the press found the lady concerned she claimed not to have experienced the alleged indignity. Further when the press found the person who had written to the Times, concerning this ‘indignity’, he admitted the story was untrue. (Morning Advertiser – 21 July 1871.) However by February 1872 Mr. Bruce had began to recognise that the legalisation had roused great hostility among a large section of the community.

Frequent attempts were made in Parliament to bring forward a Bill to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts – all reports thus found show that Arthur Otway, MP for Rochester / Chatham supported all attempts to repeal the legislation.

Twelve years after the Corn Exchange meeting, Sir Arthur Otway from Rochester and Mr Gorst from Chatham presented petitions to Parliament – along with other organisation from across Kent – seeking the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. (Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser 14 July 1882 .)

A Parliamentary Peculiarity

When it was later moved to discuss the Bill concerning the repeal of the CD Acts, an MP moved, in view of the subject, that all strangers (the public) should be ordered to withdraw from the House. His intention was to prevent women from hearing the debate.

At this time there were three public galleries – one for reporters, one for the “sterner sex” and one for ladies. The Speaker said he had the power to close the ladies gallery, but not the other two, but he was not minded to do so. He however agreed to issue instructions that women wishing to enter the gallery should be advised of the nature of the debate. Some women took the hint, others though had attended for the purpose of hearing the debate. The Bill was opposed and was rejected without a division. (Belfast News-Letter – 20 July 1882.)

Legislation suspended and the repealed

In May 1883 the Lock Hospitals situated in the garrison towns – including Chatham – received a telegram advising them that the CD Acts had been temporarily suspended. The police operating in Chatham were summoned back to London, and hospital staff were advised they would be kept on for temporary period in order to continue providing care for voluntary patients.

Despite Chatham petitioning for the repeal of the Acts, the local authorities of Chatham were not happy with the decision to abolish the compulsory examination of women. The Council therefore sent a deputation to London seeking local powers to continue the practice. They were advised that this was not possible as it went against the will of Parliament. (The Scotsman – 26 May 1883.)

In February 1894 Chatham Town Council unsuccessfully sought the revival of the legislation because of the growing concerns for the morality of garrison towns.

In April 1886 the Acts were repealed. An unsuccessful amendment was proposed requiring the hospitals to remain available for the treatment of voluntary patients.

The Great War

During WW1 it was again necessary to tackle the problem of VD. This time the issue was as much about reducing infant morality as it was about keeping the forces ‘fighting-fit’.

Towards the end of the war it was recognised that there was an urgent need to reduce the high level of infant morality. The concern was about the Country’s ability to recover and maintain its influence of the Empire. following the loss of so many men.

One significant cause of infant morality was attributed to VD. In bringing forward a strategy for tackling VD it was stressed that it would not include the incarceration of women. Special clinics and services were set up to treat infected people and to offer advice to GPs. This time both men and women were treated at clinics that were held on separate days – St. Barts was the local centre for Medway. The Girl Guide movement in Chatham also saw a role for itself in shaping the future role of girls and women. It was particularly mindful that girls had taken on responsibilities beyond their years as a consequence of the roles they fulfilled during the war, and they bore little in comparison with pre-war girls of a similar age.

Concluding Thoughts

One has to be careful not to read too much into reports written for another purpose. However Chatham in the late 19th Century would have been quite small by today’s standards and people would have been very aware of the ‘work’ of the Lock Hospital(s).

The women’s meeting held in the Corn Exchange (Princes Hall) in 1870 was very well attended, attracted a notable speaker and mobilised very quickly a team of 50 to 60 women to petition for the repeal of the Acts. Initially it would seem they were only seeking the ending of the compulsory examination of women, but after the talk by Josephine Butler they resolved to seek the repeal of the whole Act. There were women – although unnamed – on the platform and a member of the clergy was represented at the meeting by his wife; was he really busy or did he / she feel better qualified to be on this platform?

Politicians from Rochester and Chatham were specifically mentioned in news reports making representations to Parliament or Ministers concerning the repeal of the legislation – who were probably driven by the work of local women who had a ‘cause’ that made a clear case for women needing to be involved in shaping policies – with a vote.

This account plus my blog on the 1,000 women from Rochester chasing a bigamist out of town does suggest women in the Medway Towns have an effective communications network and could quickly mobilise themselves. 1,000 Rochester women chase a bigamist out of the City.


Geoff Ettridge aka Geoff Rambler
8 January 2018