In the nineteenth-century, a new kind of institution—the ‘convalescent home’—began to dot the British countryside and seaside. Many convalescent homes were established in Kent, with its temperate seaside climate and relatively easy access to London. These institutions aimed to support recuperating patients, often drawn from urban hospitals, to cultivate fuller recoveries though several weeks of relaxation, good food, and unpolluted country air. Modern eyes may struggle to see the work of convalescent homes as anything other than frivolous: these philanthropic institutions simply offered people an extended country holiday, away from work and the stress of the city. Yet for impoverished medical patients recuperating from severe illness, a month-long stay in a convalescent home could mean the difference between life and death, as relapse was a common occurrence. Patients also needed to build themselves up before they could return to some of the back-breaking occupations common to working-class people. A wide range of medical institutions, wealthy philanthropists, and even working-class friendly societies funded convalescent homes for disadvantaged sufferers.
For many Victorian thinkers, convalescent homes were the solution to a wide range of social problems, including the inhumane work schedules of factories, the pollution of urban environments, as well as the sheer stress of modern living. Convalescence itself—the practice of leisurely recuperation following serious illness—has a much longer history in Britain.1 However, convalescent homes—philanthropic institutions that made convalescent practices accessible to poor and working-class people—are a unique phenomenon of the long nineteenth century. Their existence complicates our understanding of the history of leisure and travel. For many nineteenth-century reformers, it was outrageous for the health benefits of leisure and relaxation to be restricted solely to those who could pay for such supports. Rather, they reasoned, these seeming luxuries were fundamental to the well-being of most individuals, and therefore critical to the health of the nation as a whole. Convalescent homes filled a critical gap in medical care by offering holistic health benefits, which were generally available only to the well-to-do, to a wide range of sufferers in need of a respite from constant labor in the unhealthy environments.
One big concern for convalescent homes was the danger of relapse being triggered by arduous railway journeys between hospital and convalescent home, so most homes were build on sites that combined scenic locations with easy rail access to major cities. Convalescent homes ranged widely in size and agenda, from small-scale homes run by pioneering middle-class women, to hundred-bed institutions sponsored by major London hospitals. Many convalescent homes sought to create home-like environments to foster recuperation, however they also ‘drew on heterogeneous models of domesticity, including the grand architecture of country estates, the possession-packed spaces of middle-class homes, and the recreational spaces of male social clubs’.2
The Parkwood Hospital Convalescent Home in Swanley was founded in 1893 through a well-publicized philanthropic gift of £100,000 announced in The Times in 1890. A grand institution, Parkwood opened with 120 beds, 80 for men and 40 for women. According to a write-up in the South Eastern Gazette covering the opening ceremony, the home was expecting to host as many as 2,000 patients annually.3 As a ‘hospital convalescent home,’ this institution offered more direct medical care than most homes, a decision which correlates with the ways that rehabilitation became increasingly medicalized after the turn of the twentieth century. The architecture of this institution also represents one extreme of the convalescent home idea—one where poor patients are temporarily treated to a fully luxurious life akin to the economic elite, complete with manicured grounds and a manor-like residence. The building now houses a private school, Parkwood Hall.
The Friendly Societies Convalescent Homes in Dover and Herne Bay are significant for showing that this model of care was not merely a top-down philanthropic project pushed onto working class people by affluent figures. As friendly societies were run by working-class members, it is significant to learn that these proto-unions invested in convalescent after-care for their members. Friendly societies reimagined convalescent care itself not as a charitable handout, but rather as a benefit ‘earned by independent and self-reliant workers’.4 A variation of this theme is the Railwaymen’s Convalescent Home in Herne Bay (opened in 1901) which was run by railway companies for their workers. One advertisement for this home sought to attract both potential patients and voluntary donations from rail workers themselves. Intriguingly, the ad highlights the fact that the patients will experience ‘No Menial Work,’ a key contrast with other health institutions (like sanitaria) which often insisted upon residents’ labor.
Beach Rocks Seaside Convalescent Home in Sandgate, founded in 1892, had room for 160 patients, then 200 with a new addition. While Parkwood was purpose-built as a convalescent home, Beach Rocks was originally an aristocratic home purchased by John James Jones to turn into a convalescent institution. This home even had accommodations for married couples (a rarity, as most homes segregated men and women’s rooms). The building also included the common amenity of a library, stocked with both books and games. While the founders were religious, they insisted the home would be unsectarian, with optional religious services. As one profile stated, the location of Sandgate was chosen because it was ‘a spot where nature may be relied on to assist the physician in checking the progress of disease and in restoring the shattered frame’.5 This institution later morphed into the Bevan Military Hospital, which focused on treating recuperating soldiers during both the Boer War and the First World War.6
St. Luke’s Invalid and Convalescent Home in Finsbury Road, Ramsgate represents a more modest and personal version of the convalescent home. This was likely the most common form of convalescent home, as just a few donors could easily set up a guesthouse for this purpose. Many middle-class women were attracted to running their own convalescent homes, as women were barred from taking roles in the administration of hospitals.7 Founded in 1875, St. Luke’s was run by Rosalind A. Hosking, who focused on catering to marginalized women, including poor gentlewomen, governesses, and servants. The Charity Organization Society report of 1880 notes this institution had only 15 beds, and served a total of 160 patients that year (a later report from the home in 1883 showed an increase to 230 people in year). While still a philanthropic home, this institution charged residents based on their ability to pay, with those falling under the category of ‘gentlewomen’ paying more and also receiving private quarters. The home also had an emergency fund to support women who could pay nothing. In her annual report, Hosking appealed to donors to help her shore up the institution’s finances, saying ‘I wish to state clearly that there is much more to be done, in order to place the Home on a permanent footing, and I should fail greatly in my part if I were to rest satisfied, whilst the successful working requires my personal superintendence, as is now the case’.8 Many convalescent homes were run through the efforts of individual women. Indeed, institutions like the Charity Organization Society dubbed convalescent care ‘women’s work,’ often in contrast with the apparently masculine vocation of medicine.
Catharine Tait, the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Archibald Campbell Tait established a convalescent home at St Peter's near Broadstairs, which earned the nickname 'Broadstairs the Beneficent' for having at least eleven convalesecent homes.9
Anders, Eli Osterweil. ‘So delightful a temporary home’: The Material Culture of Domesticity in Late Nineteenth-Century English Convalescent Institutions.’ Journal of the History of _Medicine and Allied Sciences 76: 3 (July 2021). 264-293.
‘Beach Rocks and Bevan and Jones Homes.’ The Sandgate Society Archive, File 28.
Charity Organization Society. Convalescent homes: Report of A Special Committee of the Charity Organization Society. British Library: Longman’s, 1880.
Cronin, Jenny. ‘The Origins and Development of Scottish Convalescent Homes, 1860-1939.’ PhD diss., University of Glasgow, 2003. theses.gla.ac.uk/2316/.
Hosking, Rosalind. Rules of the Ramsgate St. Luke’s Invalid and Convalescent Home. British Library, 1884.
Newton, Hannah. From Misery to Mirth: Recovery from Illness in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.
‘Parkwood Convalescent Home: Photograph Album and Scrapbook.’ Westminster Hospital Group, 1890-1966. London Metropolitan Archives, H02/PCH/Y/01.
Particulars of Beach Rocks Sea-Side Convalescent Home, Sandgate, Kent. London Samaritan Society and Homerton Mission, 1895.