Hospital History: Sciennes 1895 - The Window Cleaning Boy

Illustration by Cate James
 The window cleaning boy
Royal Hospital for Sick Children, Sciennes, Edinburgh 1895
by Linda Cracknell

It’s a brand new hospital
with red stone walls;
a friendly-seeming castle
with towers and long halls.
There’s plenty crystal windows 
so wide and so high,
rows and rows and rows of them
it takes two weeks to shine.

With my bucket and my chamois,
I perch and hang from sills,
wobbling on my ladder -
there’s bound to be some spills.
A crabbit madam is my boss,
the nurses call the Matron.
She only paid six pounds, ten shillings
Illustration by Cate James
then docked me for a pane!
I let light into the wards,
so floors sparkle. I can see
beds, cots, high chairs, flowers;
wee boys wave at me.
I peek into a library 
with rows and rows of books.
I see proper ladies reading
to children sat in nooks.
There’s nurses whose white pinnies
are wheeshing at their ankles.
I hurry on with polishing 
or get caught in Matron’s fankle. 
There’s a kitchen full of pots and pans,
huge and gushing steam.
I imagine I can smell
treacle pudding served with cream.
Illustration by Cate James

Sometimes on the topmost floor
I see like I’m an eagle:
horses straining up the hill
with coal carts that they’re heaving;
the chimney spouting dirty smoke
that drifts through Sylvan Place,
a neighbour shouting from his house
with smuts on his face. 
Children from the school next door
kick flowers in the garden.
A polis chases after them, shouts:
‘They’ve only jist bin planted!’

I wonder how they'll do this job 
There's lots of glass at Little France!
 in a hundred odd years’ time. 
Will pigeons learn to polish
instead of smearing glass with grime?
Or will characters like Doctor Jekyll, 
and his pal Mr Hyde
dangle down the building
from great long lines?

Window cleaning: Lothian Health Service Archive sources

The minutes (19/12/95) record that Matron is to give the window cleaning boy his instructions. The first cleaning of the hospital windows cost £6 10 shillings. Evidently he broke one window and was charged a reduction.

In glaziers’ specification for tenders, 1892, quality glass was demanded: ‘all glass used in the work must be the very best glazing qualities, selected perfectly free from waves, specks or defects of any kind’.

Complaints and teething problems

Letter 22nd January 1896 to Captain Anderson, Police Chambers:
‘Dear Sir, the gardeners who are laying out the grounds of this hospital at Sciennes Road complain strongly that in the afternoons the children from Sciennes schools invade the grounds and destroy the work before it has time to settle. Will you be kind enough to instruct the officer on the beat to warn the children off the ground?’

Complaints were made in the early days of the new hospital at Sciennes by residential neighbours in Sylvan Place and Rillbank Terrace about the ‘smoke, poisonous gases and noise’ from the chimney for the boilers, laundry and furnaces, which resulted in a court case and eventually the rebuilding of a taller chimney.

15/11/1899 Letter from Lindsay Mackeroy WS:
‘Were you to build the chimney as high as the Tower of Babel it would not remove the annoyance created in the street. You must keep in view that the neighbours did not come to this nuisance, the hospital authorities brought it to them and it must be put an end to.’

In 1896 a letter was received by the Hospital authorities from the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ‘demanding a levelling out of the gradient at the side of the hospital as their expensive coal was too onerous for the delivery horses.’ A Most Perfect Hospital by George Birrell p27

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