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HOSPITALS

FLETE HOUSE MATERNITY HOME, HOLBETON

Updated:  31 May 2011 

Following the destruction of the maternity ward at the City Hospital (Freedom Fields), Plymouth, in March 1941, when several young children and nurses had been killed, it became necessary to find a safer location.  By May 1941 the Ministry of Health had made arrangements for the evacuation of expectant mothers to a house within a radius of 15 to 20 miles of the City.  This turned out to be Flete House, in the parish of Holbeton, south Devon.  [1]

Although it has always been claimed that the use of Flete House was by the consent of Lieutenant-Colonel, the Lord Francis Bingham Midlmay PC TD DL JP, there is no mention of any offer and it may well be that it was simply requisitioned under wartime emergency powers.  Having said that, he was closely involved with the City Hospital so the offer could have been made without any official record.

A recent view of Flete House, Holbeton, Devon.

A recent view of Flete House, Holbeton, Devon.
  Western Morning News Co Ltd.
Courtesy of Plymouth Local Studies Library.

The estate of Flete existed at the time of the Domesday Book and in 1198 was in the hands of one Guy de Alba Marl.  It was still held by the Damarel family, as it became, during the reign of King Edward II (1307-1327), after which it passed to the Hele family.  The original mansion was erected during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603).  In 1716, when that branch of the Hele family became extinct, the estate passed to the Bulteels.  The two principal fronts were altered by Mr John Crocker Bulteel in about 1836, when they were rebuilt in a castellated style.  He also carried out other improvements that included a large picture gallery.  [2]

A landowner and magistrate by the name of Mr William Francis Splatt was in occupation of Flete House in 1871  [2a].  It would appear that he was leasing or renting the property as Lady Elizabeth Bulteel, the Lady of the Manor, was still alive.

The Mildmay family took over the estate in 1876 and the present mansion was erected by Mr Henry Bingham Mildmay in 1878, when one of the wings was also removed.  [2]

Lord Francis Mildmay still lived in part of Flete House when it was taken over by the Ministry of Health and he took a very close interest in the mothers and their children.  He kept a record of his own of all the babies born there and on the evening before the mothers were due to leave he presented them with a signed photograph of Flete House.  In addition he presented christening cups to the thousandth and tw0-thousandth baby to be born there.  [3]

The first baby to be born at the Flete Emergency Maternity Home arrived on Monday July 14th 1941.  He was christened Francis Bath after his Lordship.  By the end of that month three babies had been delivered: Anthony Pester, named after Lord Mildmay's son, and Helen Moss, christened after his Lordship's daughter.  [4] 

By the end of that first year 125 babies had the distinction of "Flete" appearing on their birth certificates.  [5]

During 1943 the women of the Oreston Branch of the Women's Co-operative Guild sent a letter of protest to the Plymstock Parish Council against the decision that women from outside the City of Plymouth could not be admitted Flete House to have their babies but instead had to go to Plympton or Totnes Hospitals, which were considered 'unsuitable'.  The Parish Council put the matter to the County Council, who replied on September 6th 1943 that 'the Ministry of Health had now agreed to cases from the County Area being booked for admission to Flete House in the usual way, subject, of course, to beds being vacant and available'.  [5a]

In December 1944, with the Second World War drawing to a close, it was announced that the Home would soon be closed by the Ministry of Health.  Flete at that time contained 24 "lying-in" beds and 24 "anti-natal" beds and cost the Ministry 5,185 to run in 1942-43 and 4,000 during 1943-44.  It was at this point that Lord Mildmay offered Flete House to Plymouth City Council for use as a maternity home for twelve months at a nominal rental of four shillings per annum.  [6]

Consequently on March 25th 1945 the Ministry of Health terminated its control and Plymouth City Council took over.  [7]

Lord Francis Bingham Mildmay passed away at the Prince of Wales' Hospital, Greenbank, on Saturday February 8th 1947, three weeks after undergoing an operation.  He is buried in Holbeton Churchyard.  [3]

Evidently this arrangement lasted a little longer than the projected twelve months and on October 16th 1947 it was reported to the Council that they had been given notice (presumably by the Ministry of Health) to terminate the agreement with Lord Mildmay and a conference was called to discuss the continuing lack of maternity care facilities in Plymouth and the need to retain the use of Flete House.  [8]

The conference resolved that Plymouth City Council should continue to lease Flete House for a period of 21 years from December 25th 1947 at a rental of four shillings per year, with breaks in the 7th and 14th year and that a minimum of 14 bookings per year should be taken from Devon County Council as from February 1st 1948.  Until that date, mothers from outside the City could be admitted if the accommodation was available.  In addition another room at the mansion was to be converted for an additional 3 or 4 "lying-in" mothers.  [9]

Responsibility for Flete House Maternity Home (the "Emergency" bit was dropped in 1942) was transferred from Plymouth City Council to the new South West Regional Hospitals Board as from Monday July 5th 1948, when the National Health Service commenced.  [10]

Miss Wendy Mary Ham was the 7,992nd and last baby to be born at Flete House.  On Monday April 28th 1958 she and her mother, Mrs Margaret Ham, of The Ridgeway, Plympton, were presented with a silver christening cup by The Honourable Mrs R J B Mildmay White, daughter of the late Lord Mildmay of Flete, who started the custom.  Also present at the ceremony, of which baby Wendy was totally oblivious, were: Miss G Wollaston, matron of the Plymouth Maternity Hospital; Sister Winifred A Pratt, sister-in-charge at Flete for more than 16 years; Lady Carnock; Doctor W G Verniquet; Sisters D Way and A Giles; Staff Nurse E Morris; Miss B Coyte; Miss Dickionson; and Mr Taverner, the administrative officer.  [11]

At the same ceremony, Commander J Mildmay White and his wife also presented Sister Pratt with a record player on behalf of the family in recognition of her long service at the House, during which time seven pairs of twins and one set of triplets had been born.  [11]

Flete House Maternity Home was closed on Thursday May 8th 1958, less than a month after the last baby was born there.  Flete House was returned to the Mildmay family in 1959.  Between 1961 and 2003 Flete House was owned (or possibly leased) by the Country Houses Association and converted into 34 private retirement apartments.  [5]

Mr Francis Bath, the first baby born at Flete House, died at Saint Luke's Hospice, Plymouth on April 11th 2002.  He was only 60 years of age.  [12]


Sources:

With thanks to Mrs Deborah Watson for information from the Plymouth City Council Minutes.

[1]  Plymouth City Council Public Health and Maternity and Child Welfare Committee minutes, number 1797 (d) dated May 29th 1941, held by the Plymouth & West Devon Record Office, Plymouth, accession number 1572/18.

[2]  Brief history of Flete House, Plymouth & West Devon Record Office, Plymouth, accession number 3310/6.

[2a]  1871 census, RG10/2105/20/15.

[3]  "'Devon Has Lost a Real Friend': County Appreciations of the Late Lord Mildmay of Flete", Western Morning News, Plymouth, February 10th 1947.

[4]  "Maternity Home in Mansion", Western Independent, Plymouth, July 27th 1941, with additional material.

[5]  Grier, John and Mole, Doreen, "A Brief History of Plymouth Hospitals", Old Plymouth Society, Plymouth, 2004, ISBN 1-900457-06-7.

[5a]  Letters held by the Plymouth & West Devon Record Office, Plymouth, accession number 383/49.

[6]  Plymouth City Council Public Health and Maternity and Child Welfare Committee minutes, number 467 dated December 14th 1944, held by the Plymouth & West Devon Record Office, accession number 1572/19.

[7]  Plymouth City Council Public Health and Maternity and Child Welfare Committee minutes, number 782 (d) dated January 11th 1945, held by the Plymouth & West Devon Record Office, Plymouth, accession number 1572/19.

[8]  Plymouth City Council Public Health and Maternity and Child Welfare Committee minutes, number 5556 dated October 16th 1947, held by the Plymouth & West Devon Record Office, Plymouth, accession number 1572/19.

[9]  Plymouth City Council Public Health and Maternity and Child Welfare Committee minutes, number 341 dated November 13th 1947, held by the Plymouth & West Devon Record Office, Plymouth, accession number 1572/19.

[10]  Plymouth City Council Public Health and Maternity and Child Welfare Committee minutes, number 1918 dated February 12th 1948, held by the Plymouth & West Devon Record Office, Plymouth, accession number 1572/19.

[11]  "7,992nd baby is last to be born at Flete home", Western Morning News, Plymouth, April 29th 1958.

[12]  Death announcement, The Herald, Plymouth, April 15th 2002.

  Brian Moseley, Plymouth, UK

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