From 1893 until 1927, Braunton had its own hospital boat.
Such vessels were quite common in busy estuaries such as the Taw Torridge estuary and were intended as isolation units for homecoming sailors who had contracted infectious diseases abroad.
The initial idea of having a hospital boat seems to have been born when a ship called Fortunato Repetto sailed into Appledore with its yellow flag flying, which denoted fever. It had returned from the infected port of Bahia in East India and evidently caused alarm.
The French vessel Nymphen was bought for the purpose at a cost of £275. She was sailed to Appledore and an auction was held to sell off all the surplus kit on board. Work then began to turn her into an Infectious Diseases Hospital.
This included provision of a male ward, a female ward, an isolation unit and two convalescent wards, in addition to nurse’s rooms, kitchen and scullery. Three Bodley ranges were fitted and a primitive form of air conditioning was provided by wind-vanes that channelled fresh air down pipes, all the way to the bilge deck. The side of the ship was adorned with the words ‘Barnstaple Port Sanitary Hospital’ and once ready she was sailed to her resting place at Crow Point, where she was ballasted with gravel and had her rigging removed.
Day to Day
The task of the day to day running of the ship was first given to a Charles Petherick and his wife Hester, who were later replaced by a Mr Burgess and his wife. Between them they were responsible for keeping everything clean, keeping the ship in good repair, assisting the nurses in whatever ways they could, cooking and, when necessary, nursing simple cases.
All the preparation done, they were ready for an influx of infectious patients. This alas never arrived – in fact the hospital ship had just one patient in its entire history. Able seaman Bassett was taken off Bessie Gould in 1903 because he had smallpox and was indeed the only person ever to be treated for an infectious disease at the Barnstaple Port Sanitary Hospital.
Incredibly, in 1924 Nymphen was joined by a second hospital ship called Charlotte. After two long years with still no patients between them, a survey was done on both ships which resulted in their sale, during January 1927, to Hinks of Appledore for a mere £32.