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United by fight to save Newmarket's hospital

Newmarket Hospital petition 1991 (3299494)
Newmarket Hospital petition 1991 (3299494)

Never did a single cause so unite the people of Newmarket as the fight to save their beloved general hospital.

The town's one-time workhouse epitomised the original promise of the NHS to provide care from cradle to grave.

And for decades it provided that care until the health service became a business with a new mantra which looked to large regional centres such as Addenbrooke's to treat the local population and which had little room for the smaller town hospitals like Newmarket.

The hospital had started its life as a the Newmarket Union Workhouse built in 1837 to care for the poor and destitute. A chapel was later added along with an infirmary, a very early pointer to the building's future role. In 1904 it was visited by Edward V11, recorded as possibly the only such visit to a workhouse by any reigning monarch.

With the outbreak ofthe Second World War in 1939 it was turned into the White Lodge Emergency Medical Services Hospital (EMS) and a year later was taking in military casualties including men rescued during the Dunkirk evacuation. In 1941 when the High Street was bombed the injured were admitted and ten years later it was re-named Newmarket General Hospital.

Additional wards and services were added and for the next 40 years the hospital thrived always at the centre of the community it served and always close to its heart.The hospital's own army of volunteers known as the League of Friends worked tirelessly to raise money for equipment and all those extras which made the patients' stay more comfortable and the Journal's own Hospital Fund raised thousands of pounds through readers' donations as they contributed amounts large and small as their way of thanking the staff for care either they or a relative had received.

Newmarket nurses and hospital staff make their feelings clear during the protest march in May 1991
Newmarket nurses and hospital staff make their feelings clear during the protest march in May 1991

In 1982 because of deterioration in its structural condition, local health officials had deemed it necessary to totally rebuild the 275-bed hospital, adding 100 extra beds. For a few years, the town was buoyed by the belief that the grand old lady of Exning Road was to be given a new lease of life and made ready to serve the town's ever increasing needs well into the next century.

In 1988 it had been decided that in the future it would be continuing to provide acute services and treatment. Money for redevelopment had been allocated and work was due to start in September 1991.

But, unbeknown to most, the storm clouds were already gathering. In August 1989 a Journal report, that the future of a new hospital was in doubt,had been dismissed by the East Anglian Regional Health Authority. The reports were true, and in October 1989 the authority was set to perform a u-turn over thefuture of the hospital which it now planned to downgrade moving most of its acute work to Addenbrooke's and West Suffolk Hospitals.

Those plans would have stayed secret for at least another month had a group of Newmarket GPs not leaked the information deciding it was time the town knew what really lay in store for its much-loved hospital.

Residents of the town could hardly believe the scenario which was unfolding before their eyes and many feared for the worse. In February 1980 the hospital's 15-bed children's ward had been closed despite a three-month fight to keep it open and in October of the same year there was widespreaddisbelief when the casualty unit followed.

Princess Diana at Newmarket Hospital 1988
Princess Diana at Newmarket Hospital 1988

Amidst the gloom there had been some causes for celebration. In 1984 a new labour and delivery suitecosting £300,000 had been opened by then Journal editor Liz Sayersbut just five years later consultants in obstetrics and paediatrics came up with new safety guidelines which questioned the future of Newmarket's maternity services as, although the hospital had an above average safety record, it had no paediatric unit if emergency care was needed. The unit,which one mum had described as being "in a little world of its own with a wonderful, friendly and personal touch" was on borrowed time its cradlesset to disappear for good.

Despite protests, petitions, and appeals by mums, health chiefs were not to be swayed. And on January 28, 1991 it was announced admissions to the unit would cease from July 31. Martin Abrey earned his place in local health history by being the last baby born in the unit weighing in just 24 hours before it shut its doors for good.

In June 1988 Princess Diana, then patron of the British Lung Foundation, had opened the new assisted ventilation unit pioneered by consultant Dr John Shneerson who, with his team of nurses, had made national news headlines by restoring and bringing back into use some derelict iron lungs. Such was the success of the unit that an increasing number of patients were being referred from places as far away as Liverpool and Dundee. The unit was to remain at the hospital until the end, finally re-located to Papworth in February 1992, seven months before all acute in-patient admissions ceased.

For three years before that Newmarket had done its damnedest to save its hospital. In November 1989, a fighting fund had been set up as the town mobilised for the first battle in what was perceived to be a war with officialdom. Residents rallied willingly to the cause with 28,000 initially signing a petition, a number which had swelled to 55,372 by the end of the month.

On Sunday November 19, 8,000 people marched along the High Streetin the first of two huge public protests. Newmarket's then MP, Sir Eldon Griffiths, threw his weight behind the campaign to save the hospital but as it was the Tory government of which he was part, that was driving health authority's decision, he found himself being asked some very uncomfortable questions.The Committee for the Retention of Newmarket Hospital was formed under the leadership of the late Kenneth Kemp-Turner with members including Shirley Crickmere, Tony Taylor, Peter Lee, local GP Dr Tony White, Patricia Lewis and Journal editor Liz Sayers

By the end of the month, there was a temporary reprieve as the RHA embarked on a complete reappraisal of the region's hospital services and it would be the New Year before a report on the options available would be discussed but many believed the die to be cast.

Members of the Committee for the Retention of Newmarket Hospital
Members of the Committee for the Retention of Newmarket Hospital

In 1990 those leading the hospital campaign used money raised by residents to commission private consultants who produced a report outlining the case to redevelop |Newmarket as an acute hospital. The West Suffolk Health Authority (WSHA) agreed and asked the regional authority for extra funding and approval of medical staff appointments.

But Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government was about the move the goalposts. In September local councillors were removedfrom health authorities effectively leaving them with no democratic accountability. Sadly it came as no surprise when the RHA turned down the funding request on the basis that "it would undermine the key aim of the planned health service reforms of achieving better value for money." The WSHA was told, rather dismissively, to think again about its plans for Newmarket and that any proposals it had had to be "financially viable." It had no alternative but to abandon plans for an acute hospital.

The Journal then took the town's campaign to new Prime Minister John Major in May 1991 in a letter asking him to intervene and a delegation including Journal deputy editor Cathy Watson, news editor Alison Hayes and local businessman Terry Mills, took the petitions signed by thousands to the steps of 10 Downing Street.

That same month nearly 10,000 residents took to the High Streetfor a second time, demanding they be heard. But it was to be the last hurrah. At that time even Kenneth Kemp-Turner who had been at the forefront of the campaign knew in his heart the fight was lost. Dr Tony White described the process by which the RHA was trying to downgrade the hospital as 'wicked and cynical' while Sir Eldon Griffiths tried to shift the blame from the government to consultants who he claimed were part of a 'carve-up' bent on protecting their own hospitals. He also came under fire for suggesting that the government would not give final approval to the new hospital unless a day surgery unit, midwife/GP maternity unit and casualty unitwere added, options he well knew were unworkable.

On June 26, 1991 heath officials voted to downgrade the hospital but the town, that after all was no stranger to close finishes, was determined to fight all the way to the line and in the autumn another delegationmet with then health minister Stephen Dorrell who was told the hospital was being forced to suffer the indignity of death by a thousand cuts.

The pleas of the people fell on deaf ears. A year later plans were announced which would see the transfer of acute services to West Suffolk and Addenbrookestaking place by September.

A new £8 million community hospital was to be built with the health authority selling off the old hospital buildings and land for housing. In February 1995, children from local schools buried time capsules at the new site containing items it was said would give future generations an insight into Newmarket in the 1990s which were to remain unopened until at least 2045.

Perhaps by then tales will still be told about how the people of Newmarket, young and old, went to war to save their hospital, whose resilience kept the campaign going in the face of insurmountable odds and who will never forget.