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A plaque in St Mary's Church Ashbury
©Richard J. Brine


Although he had been born in Ashbury, the Thomas Woollcombe named on this plaque spent most of his life in Plymouth. He was a solicitor who became Devonport's Town Clerk and like so many public figures of his day, became well-known for his support of charitable causes. Together with Alfred Norman (an architect  also prominent in the town) , the men approached no less a person than Florence Nightingale and asked her to design the ward layout of  a hospital they were proposing for the residents of Devonport.


For the remainder of his life, this project was to be the focal point of Thomas Woollcombe's life's work. He had the satisfaction of seeing it open in 1863. Later it was enlarged and a nursing home for convalescence was added in 1900 but these additions, he did not live to see. 


Everything did not go quite so swimmingly as it appeared on the surface however. The Government used the Contagious Diseases Acts as a reason for paying £3500 towards the cost of the hospital. The money was conditional on a very controversial requirement being observed and that was the addition to Miss Nightingale's plan for the wards of what was termed a "Lock Ward." This was to be a place where women who were thought to be  working as prostitutes could be locked up and forcibly treated for sexually transmitted diseases. This was not to be a court decision - the women were simply to be taken off the streets and arbitrarily placed in detention. And for a few years, this was carried out , not only in Devonport but in most of Britain's other large cities. Women were seen as the causes of certain diseases and removing them from the streets would therefore protect men.


It is well-known that Thomas Woollcombe thankfully accepted this Government money and  was in favour of the Contagious Diseases Acts because he believed such action could improve some very worrying medical statistics for the Plymouth area and make the town a safer place for other citizens to live in. That may have been true for men but for women, all women, not just those who earned their living on the streets, it soon became a very dangerous place to live.


Under The Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1868 and 1869, any woman found on the streets after dark could be arrested as a prostitute, taken to a police station and forced to submit to an examination by a (male) doctor. If found to be suffering from a sexual infection any kind she would be held under lock and key in the so-called "Lock" Wards and forced to accept treatment, after which she would officially be registered as a prostitute. This was thought to be the best way to keep men safe. 


Like all servicemen, in the UK sailors were not legally obliged to support their wives and children until 1877 so there were many desperate women living in Devonport - unsure if their "husbands" would ever return home to these shores and take responsibility for their children. Undoubtedly, many women had no choice but to go on the streets. But stories began to circulate in Devonport of perfectly respectable women being arrested for being on the streets at four or five in the afternoon, on dark winter afternoons, as they were making their way home from their workplaces. Local press depicts the police as having acted in a particularly high-handed manner, dragging any women off to a police station for the compulsory medical examination which could lead to imprisonment in the "Lock" Ward of the Royal Albert and official registration as  a prostitute.


Devonport, to its credit, soon became the leader of a national protest against this terrible infringement of what today would be called "human rights". Other brave women stood in the streets distributing pamphlets and soon religious leaders were protesting too. The hated Act was finally repealed in 1886.

The Royal Albert Hospital Devonport
The Royal Albert Hospital, Devonport c.1890


Today, it seems sad that the ideals that helped to create a much-needed amenity for the people of Devonport also led to such ham-fisted political intervention.


Thomas Woollcombe seems to have been a solitary figure - he never married. The hospital, to which he devoted most of his adult life, closed down in June 1981 when it was replaced by the Derriford Hospital.



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