Victorians: Isolation Hospital of 1885


The Industrial Revolution that swept across Cambridge between the late Eighteeenth and late Nineteenth Century brought many changes to the city. As the population rose, people began living in small houses, on cramped streets, and throwing their sewage onto heaps collected on their streets, or often students living by the river had the contents of their chamber pots tipped directly into the river!  This created a massive increase in sicknesses and diseases in the town, which the authorities struggled to control. Believing that infection was carried in the air, in bad smells or ‘miasmas’, doctors founded the Isolation Hospital, to take people away from these poisonous odours and to stop disease from spreading. At the Hospital, there was a separate block for each disease, and strict hygiene rules to stop patients getting another illness – you didn’t want smallpox and Scarlet Fever! In World War One, the Hospital became the place where men signed up to fight for Britain on the front line. It also became home to a few Serbian refugees, who had fled 1,500 miles from their country. In the Second World War, the Hospital treated those fleeing from not so far away; it looked after the young evacuees, sent away from big cities like London to escape the bombing from the Nazi regime. 

Do please download the pdf or full powerpoint presentation illustrating this subject which you will find useful to use for a class:


To understand the hospital, it is necessary to have a working understanding of contemporary views of illness and contagion. The concept of germs existed in the second half of the 19th century, but it gained little credence from the majority of scientists.  Anningston, the Medical Officer for Health for Cambridge was certainly sceptical, and believed instead in the miasma theory. This was the understanding that diseases were the result of bad air/smells or ‘miasmas’. This, it was believed, explained why diseases were more common in the unsanitary areas of town. Thus, by isolating a man from the bad odours, he would be cured of his illness. Moreover, the bad miasmas surrounding him would be removed from the community, preventing the infection from spreading. As germ theory was gradually accepted, the isolation became less useful. Basic explanations of germ and miasma theory are available from the Science Museum’s website.

Germs and infections were growing in regularity and severity in Cambridge as a result of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in the new, industrial Cambridge. The rivers were essentially open sewers, and travelling paupers, such as tramps, spread infection. It was new cases of Smallpox, as well as an increasing number of cases of diarrhoea in infants that prompted the building of the hospital in 1885.

The hospital was formed of seven separate blocks, each for a different infectious disease. Within the block were two wards, one for women and one for men. The wards were spaced 40 feet apart and there were strict instructions for moving between wards, to avoid spreading infection. There was a set amount of space around each bed, to encourage fresh air in as, according to the miasma theory, it was thought this would cure the disease. In 1915, new wards were built, where each bed had a separate cubicle, accessed from the outside.  Again, there were strict rules, including the donning of different aprons and hand washing, for when nurses travelled between cubicles.

As understanding of diseases changed, the uses of the hospital also altered. During the First World War, the hospital was used as the place where men signed up to the army, to fight in the war. The smallpox wing was suggested as a place for German Prisoners of War, although there is no evidence that it was ever used as such. The hospital was also used to house refugees from Serbia, fleeing the conflict there with Austria-Hungary. They travelled 1,500 miles to get to Cambridge.

During World War Two, the hospital was used as a place to treat evacuees from the big cities when they became sick. Evacuees came from places like London and Birmingham, to the relative safety of Cambridge.

The hospital is now part of the NHS. It is known as Brookfields Hospital and has specialist areas for dentistry and old people. 

Discover More


A full report on the building with more pictures, as well as a more in depth explanation of ‘miasma’ and ‘germ’ theories is available here:

A simplified understanding of ‘miasma’ theory is available from the Science Museum:

More details on the refugees displaced by World War One can be found at the British Library, with a specific section on Serbian refugees:

More information on London evacuees, including an account of a young boy who moved from London, to Gwydir Street, can be found on the BBC:

Victorians: Isolation Hospital of 1885


On this page ...

In this section