Future Views of the Past

May 2023 by Trevor Dale

Illustration from Andrew Wynter, ‘Village Hospitals’, Good Words 1 May (1886) p352
What could the cottage interior be like when the project is completed and open to visitors for heritage purposes and education? One thought would be to ponder the advances in healthcare and what better way than looking at surgery. From local records we know that Dr Napper, here in Cranleigh, performed surgery which would have saved lives when travel to St Thomas’ in Southwark, the nearest ‘proper’ hospital, would have been hazardous to say the least. It also made him a proper doctor as, after all, anyone could administer potions and lotions.

When the hospital was founded In the cottage in 1859, it is quite startling to consider that medical hygiene was still contentious. Ignacz Semmelweiss had only recently announced, to a sceptical obstetric profession, that hand hygiene was crucial in stemming potentially fatal infections. He faced ridicule and was ostracized for his apparent questioning of established wisdom. The thought was that infection was airborne contagious rather than transmitted by the doctors’ own hands. He had however demonstrated tremendous increases in survival rates where death in childbirth, from infection, was in some cases almost 1 in 5.

It is worth considering that this period saw an increase in mechanisation and the use of equipment in the workplace way before health and safety was thought of. Nasty accidents occurred many of which required the surgeons skills.

Equally anaesthesia was still in its infancy. Ether and then chloroform became used for general anaesthetics in the 1840’s and even Queen Victoria used chloroform in 1853 (birth of Prince Leopold) and 1857 (Princess Beatrice). Local anaesthetics came into use much later. Cocaine (coca leaves) is thought to have been used as a local anaesthetic in 1884 by Karl Koller an acquaintance of Sigmund Freud. So perhaps it is one reason why the surgery room at our hospital was located in the small room at the rear – furthest away from the road, to avoid upsetting the neighbours perhaps?

Cottage Floorplan

Source : Burdett, Cottage Hospitals, General, Fever and convalescent (1880) p 208

Old Cottage Hospital operating room today
Old Cottage Hospital operating room today

The operating room today


With our aim of educating people on the improvements in healthcare since 1859, we are considering restoring one of the upstairs rooms to how it could have been back then. We have commissioned architect Edwin Onions to offer some possibilities.

Since the cottage was used for Victorian era surgery, we thought that the somewhat gory (read colourful) aspect might be thought-provoking and humorous.

Cartoon drawing by Edwin Onions suggesting an historic setting

Copyright Edwin Onions April 2023

Originally published in The Cranleigh Magazine