The Westmoreland Lock Hospital

Dublin’s Westmoreland Lock Hospital was established in 1755 by George Doyle for the treatment of venereal diseases. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many hospitals would not admit patients suffering from venereal disease leading to a need for a dedicated hospital.

The name Lock Hospital dates back to early leprosy hospitals, which were known as ‘lock’ hospitals derived from the French word loques which were the rags used to cover the leper’s lesions. Later ‘Lock Hospitals’ were specifically developed for the treatment of syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection.

The Westmoreland Lock Hospital was first located on Rainsford Street in Dublin. The hospital opened with 300 beds but over time this was reduced to 150. It changed location on several occasions before relocating to Townsend Street in 1792. The hospital was named in honour of John Fane, 10th Earl of Westmoreland who was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland at the time and who sponsored the move to Townsend Street. The building consisted of a centre, containing the officers’ apartments, and two wings with additional buildings for the reception of patients. The move to Townsend Street was significant as it signalled a shift in the importance of acknowledging and treating venereal disease.

From 1819 men were no longer admitted to the hospital. Instead, they received treatment for sexually transmitted diseases at Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital or Dr Steevens’ Hospital. The Lock Hospital continued to treat women, many of whom were prostitutes. High levels of prostitution in Dublin, especially in the red light district known as Monto, were the result of the presence of large British army barracks in the city. Syphilis and gonorrhoea were rife among soldiers but their spread was blamed on women and prostitutes in particular.

An 1854 Select Committee on Dublin Hospitals reported that of the 6,550 unmarried women admitted to medical institutions in the city with venereal disease in 1850, at least half were believed to have been infected by soldiers. The Westmoreland Lock Hospital’s patient registers for the 1860s showed that most of its Dublin inmates lived in streets adjacent to army barracks, especially the Royal (now Collins Barracks), Ship Street and Beggar’s Bush barracks.

In 1881, Lieutenant Colonel Tucker of the 80th Foot, based at the Royal Barracks, wrote to the assistant adjutant at Kilmainham protesting at the level of venereal disease in his regiment. He said that 284 of his men, 43% of the unmarried men under his command, were then in hospital with venereal disease. According to Tucker, his men could not walk in the vicinity of the barracks, “Without being accosted by troops of largely diseased women.” It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Tucker that his men might equally have been spreading venereal disease amongst Dublin women.

Unlike Cork, Cobh (Queenstown) and the Curragh, Dublin did not come under the jurisdiction of the Contagious Diseases Acts, which allowed any woman suspected of being a prostitute in the vicinity of a barracks to be checked for disease and kept without consent at a Lock Hospital. The Westmoreland Lock Hospital never had the power to hold women against their will.

Tucker’s letter, with others from senior army officers and military surgeons stationed in Dublin, was sent in November 1882 by the adjutant general on behalf of the commander of forces in Ireland to Dublin Castle urging the extension of the Contagious Diseases Acts to the Dublin metropolitan area. But, except for an undertaking to look into enlarging the facilities at the Westmoreland Lock Hospital, the government rejected the proposal and in April 1883, the operation of the Acts in both England and Ireland were suspended.

The number of women treated at the Westmoreland Lock Hospital during the year ending 31st March 1881 was 772 and they were segregated by religion and by marital status. Many married women infected by their husbands were admitted, sometimes with infants also infected with disease, and were kept away from ‘common prostitutes’.

Unlike other Dublin hospitals, the Westmoreland Lock Hospital was largely ignored by the public and had few voluntary subscribers or donations from charitable organisations because of its ‘distasteful’ patients and illnesses. Dr Rawton Macnamara, senior surgeon to the Westmoreland Lock Hospital, told a parliamentary select committee in 1881 that none of the other major Dublin hospitals would admit venereal disease cases except for Dr Steevens’ Hospital. The Westmoreland Lock Hospital was supported by a government grant of £2,600 per annum but it only enabled less than half of the 150 beds to be occupied.

When Ireland gained independence in 1922 and the British army left Dublin, Catholic organisations began to force the closure of the brothels in Monto. As a result, the sex industry declined and many remaining ‘fallen women’ were sent to the infamous Magdalene Laundries. In 1946 the Westmoreland Lock Hospital was renamed St Margaret of Cortona but due to a continuing drop in admissions and the building having fallen into disrepair, the hospital closed its doors for the last time in 1956 and was demolished.

Dublin, Ireland, September 1883. The rift between the Fitzgeralds deepens when Will’s father threatens legal action to gain visiting rights to his three grandchildren. But Will, Isobel and John are brought unexpectedly together by Will’s mother when Sarah’s increasingly erratic behaviour spirals beyond their control.

Isobel is reunited with a ghost from her past unearthing memories she would rather have kept buried while the fragile marriage of convenience orchestrated by John becomes more and more brittle before it snaps with horrifying consequences.

Read an excerpt from Chapter Two…

“Please don’t allow the other woman to simply walk back out onto the streets.”

“We’re not the feckin’ Shelbourne Hotel, you know?” {the constable} replied and {Isobel} shot him an irritated glance before peering back into the cell.

“I don’t think it’s just the drink that’s wrong with her.”

“A bit of an expert, are you?”

“My husband is a doctor,” she explained. “And I have seen enough of his patients to conclude that Maggie is not mad but is most likely suffering from syphilis.”

“Ah – Jaysus – syphilis?” Constable Flynn’s eyes bulged in a mixture of horror and disgust. “Could she have given it to me or the other lads?”

“Not unless you were all intimate with her during the early stages of the illness. Were you?”

“No, we were not,” he stated with clear offence.

“Then, please, Constable, you’ve been kind to her. Do her another kindness by bringing her to the Westmoreland Lock Hospital on Townsend Street. They care for women with venereal diseases there and it’s not too far away. Please?” she begged. “Let her be cared for properly there so she doesn’t have to live on the streets?”

“The Lock Hospital?”

“Yes. Please?” she begged again. “I’ll gladly pay the cab fare.”

“I can’t take money off you.”

“Then, I will hail a cab and pay the cabman directly. Please?”

“Aragh, all right. One less unfortunate off the streets can only be a good thing. Let me have a word with Sergeant O’Keefe.”

Explore my blog for more excerpts, character profiles and historical background information

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Photo credit: By Unknown author – Scan of a photograph of the Westmoreland Lock Hospital, Public Domain, Link