The Retreat

The origins of St. Andrews Hospital
By Jim Devlin

1931 Report
1932 Report
1933 Report
Census entry

Over the years the archive has had a number of requests from individuals seeking information about “The Retreat”. Normally they have been researching their family tree and have come across birth or death records that give “The Retreat” as the location. These questions sparked a line of research.

“The Retreat” was often used as a euphemism for an unmarried mother’s maternity home. However this cannot be the case here as many of the enquiries were related to death certificates. The search for an answer was clouded by the mention by correspondents of “The Retreat” being variously  in Billericay, Great Burstead and Ramsden Heath and so the mystery deepened.

The name was also used as a euphemism for the infirmary of a workhouse, but this was not originally thought to be the case here because a lady who now lives in Australia was born at “The Retreat” Great Burstead in 1948, well beyond the days of the workhouse.

Things became a lot clearer when one of my correspondents, Carol Burton, found some reports on of the “Administrative County of Essex Report of the Medical Officer of Health” for the years 1931-33. The section of the report which covers Billericay is signed by Dr. J. Douglas Wells, the local Medical Officer, with the address of the institution being The Retreat, Billericay. It is interesting to note his telephone number which is Billericay 2, I wonder how many phones were attached to the Billericay exchange in those days. The other interesting thing in these reports is that  the entries are all for Institutions , this is because the only hospital facilities were often the infirmary of the workhouse. By the time of these reports the workhouse had all but ceased to exist and thus a great proportion of the facilities were occupied by the hospital, normally run by the local council, in this case Billericay Rural District Council.

The reports themselves make interesting reading and extracts relating to Billericay are attached to this article. In 1931 it was noted that most of the hospital portion of the institution was erected in 1926 and that provision for extensions had been made with 5½ acres of land available. In 1932 it appears everything is running well as the Medical Officer only notes that there is plenty of land for future development. Then in 1933 he reports that whilst all is well in this relatively new hospital “more use could be made of it for acute Medical, acute Surgical and Maternity cases”. He also reports on improvements to the nursing quarters and that “it is proposed to provide a padded room and an observation ward for male mental patients”.

It was around this time that the hospital started to be referred to as St. Andrews Hospital to overcome the stigma of the workhouse.

So what of the reports of “The Retreat” Great Burstead. It has to be remembered that Billericay and Great Burstead were somewhat interchangeable in peoples minds as the original parish was Great Burstead. However a mystery still remaining is why a birth at St. Andrews would be recorded as Great Burstead because the St. Andrews site was in the parish of Buttsbury. Another mystery is Ramsden Heath location, also attached is a portion of a census return which clearly states “The Retreat” Ramsden Heath. It could be that these were house names rather than an institution as there was only one workhouse that covered the whole of the Billericay Union (a very large area) and we know from the Medical Officers reports that there was only one hospital which served a wide area including Brentwood.

Like many things perhaps the mystery will never be fully solved unless you know better.


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  • My Birth Certificate reads ‘The Retreat, Gt. Burstead’, date June 15, 1950. As far as I know, the Workhouse finally ceased in 1954. My Mother was married, but had left her husband (my presumed Father) and was therefore on her own, ergo my birth at The Retreat. A Classmate of mine at my Senior School in Collier Row was also born there in late 1949, his Mother was also on her own.

    By John Keens (born Phipps, but Mother's name was Harrison). (04/05/2022)
  • Board of Guardians November 1
    “It was resolved to describe the Union House as the ‘Retreat Great Burstead’ for the purpose of registering births therein”.
    Source: Essex County Chronicle Friday 4 November 1904.
    According to the National Archives index, what began as a workhouse for the Billericay Poor Law Union in 1840, became the Public Assistance Institution run by Essex County Council in 1930 until 1948. It was used for the chronic sick and elderly.
    The text refers to a publication which I have not seen but may interest readers: Quennie M Jackson’s A Brief History of St Andrew’s Hospital Billericay. According to the text there is a copy at the Essex Record Office.
    It would appear the hospital section of the institution was named St Andrew’s Hospital in 1937.
    See Essex Chronicle Friday 17 December 1937.
    David C Rayment.

    By David C Rayment (05/03/2022)
  • World War II Civilian Deaths has Christopher Webster dying at St Andrew’s Emergency Hospital, 21 Feb 1945, Urban District of Billericay. Probate states he died at the Retreat, Great Burstead.

    Editors Note: St.Andrews Hospital was on the site of the Billericay Workhouse housed in the same buildings and the euphemism “The Retreat” was applied until the NHS was established.

    By John Moore (01/03/2022)
  • My great grandmother was in the Billericay Union Workhouse after putting herself there. It was still known locally as the Workhouse although by then it had become a Public Assistance Institution. Her children and grandchildren visited weekly but she chose to stay there. My mother recalls at visiting time all the lady inmates would sit holding their handbags. In September 1947 they visited as normal and later that day she died aged 80 years. However, the place of death is shown as The Retreat.

    By Jacqueline Oldman (04/12/2020)
  • On my Birth certificate dated 15th June 1950, my birth location is given as ‘The Retreat’, Gt. Burstead, Essex. My birth details are not correct however, as my name shown is not that of my parent, but of the people she was boarding with. She abandoned me when I was 15 months old, leaving me with her landlords (Sept. 1951). She has never reappeared. Her name was Harrison, but for some reason I was registered in the landlords names! Makes me think maybe it was a women’s refuge wing or solo parent wing? I would love to have this solved!

    By John Keens (25/11/2020)
  • My Great Grandmother, Ellen Elizabeth Harvey, died in 1946, at 92, of pneumonia, at The Retreat.
    I have just traced her death certificate.

    By Elizabeth Hoy Harvey (19/08/2020)
  • My grandfather died at The Retreat, Great Burstead, Essex in November 1947 according to his probate details.

    By Rob Thomas (26/03/2019)
  • Regarding the fact that a St. Andrew’s birth would be recorded as under Great Burstead instead of Buttsbury may be a combination of the interchangeable confusion between Billericay and Great Burstead, and the fact that Buttsbury as a parish was actually abolished in 1938.

    As you can see from the registration district lists above, Buttsbury originally came under Chelmsford, then was split between the parish of Billericay under the district of Billericay (which itself was placed under the district of Brentwood in 1939), and Stock, which comes under the district of Chelmsford.

    I hope this helps.

    By Christine Yates (20/07/2018)
  • With reference to the Retreat. One of my relatives died there and the address was:
    The Retreat,
    Scrub Rise,
    Tye Common Rd
    Hope this helps to clarify the matter.

    By Christine Godman (23/06/2018)

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