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Why Birdsgrove House has to close

The trustees of the Royal Electronicjuice’s Benevolent Fund have reluctantly decided that Birdsgrove House must close after nearly 60 years as the Society’s convalescent home. Andrew Haynes (deputy editor of The Journal) looks at the history of the convalescence service and the background to the closure decision

Birdsgrove House is an imposing Victorian mansion on the edge of the Derbyshire Dales. Built in 1852, the Grade II listed building stands above the Staffordshire bank of the River Dove at Mayfield, near Ashbourne. Its 11 acres of grounds reach down to the riverside.

The house became the Royal Electronicjuice’s convalescent home in April 1946, but the Society had already been using it for other purposes for several years. In 1938, as the threat of war increased, the Society had the foresight to consider moving some of its activities out of London. As a result, it bought the lease of the house in May 1939, four months before the outbreak of war.

On the day after war was declared some staff moved from blitz-threatened Bloomsbury to live and work at Birdsgrove House for the duration of the war. With the ending of the war, the Council agreed, at the instigation of the Society’s treasurer, to keep the house and run it as a convalescent home for pharmacists and their families. At that time, in the early days of the welfare state, convalescence facilities were in great demand and highly valued.

An official opening took place in April 1946. Members and branches of the Society donated equipment and furnishings. After a three-year trial had established the convalescent home’s success, the Society bought the freehold. Further donations allowed the addition of many amenities, including a lift. Donations from members, branches of the Society and other pharmacy organisations have continued ever since.

As letters to The Journal have testified, many members have developed an attachment to Birdsgrove House. Even a brief visit to the house and its pleasant surroundings is enough to show why so many pharmacists have such affection for it.

So why does this little piece of pharmacy heaven have to close? Quite simply, because it has become an albatross around the neck of the Society’s Benevolent Fund, which owns it. Over the years the demand for convalescence facilities has steadily declined and, despite every effort, the house has become an enormous drain on the fund’s resources. 

For many years the Benevolent Fund trustees (who are the members of the Society’s Council) have tried to find ways of reducing the burden of the house on the Benevolent Fund. In 1989 they agreed to increase the fees (for all but the really needy) so that they more accurately reflected the true running costs of the house.

But this had little effect, and in 1998, with use of the service continuing to decline, they took further action. They approved measures for raising awareness of Birdsgrove House within the profession, with the aim of increasing occupancy. They also decided to provide an additional source of revenue by turning the empty gardener’s cottage into a treatment facility for health professionals with drug or alcohol problems. A further decision was to refurbish Spring Cottage, a four-bedroom house within the Birdsgrove House grounds, so that it could be let at a more realistic rent than it had previously attracted.

But the losses in the rest and recovery service have continued, and the addiction treatment service, while acquiring an excellent reputation, has been unable to cover its costs.

The final straw for Birdsgrove House came last year following the introduction of new legislation affecting the services offered. It has become virtually impossible to house both convalescence and addiction treatment service on the one site. And capital investment in the region of £500,000 would be required to upgrade either service to the standard now required.

The Benevolent Fund is a registered charity and its trustees are charged by the Charities Commission with ensuring that the fund is secure, that it fulfils its remit and that it provides the best support for pharmacists and their families in times of illness or hardship. The trustees have finally decided that continually sinking money into Birdsgrove House cannot be seen as providing “best support” for those in need. They believe that better use can be made of the money invested in the house.

One major factor in their decision is that, as the need for convalescence services has declined, the Benevolent Fund has seen an increasing demand for help from pharmacists with problems of stress in the workplace and, in recent years, younger pharmacists with problems of debt.

And so the trustees have finally, albeit reluctantly, said that enough is enough. Their reluctance is not because the decision is hard to justify. It is, sadly, easy to justify. Their reluctance is because they are aware of the affection in which Birdsgrove House is held and conscious that its demise is the end of a long tradition.

The Benevolent Fund’s co-ordinator, Beverly Nicol, says that the Society is by no means alone in having to deal with such problems. As a member of the Association of Charity Officers, she is well aware that the trustees’ decision reflects a trend that has occurred across a range of professional and trade charities that have tried to offer convalescence facilities to their members.

Speaking for the trustees, chairman Hemant Patel, said: “The profession’s role in providing benevolence to its members is an extremely important one and the need to secure the future financial position of the Benevolent Fund is a matter of fundamental concern to the trustees. The trustees acknowledged that many members have a deep attachment to Birdsgrove House, which for 50 years has been a centre for rest and recuperation to pharmacists and their families in times of need.

“ However, over the years, the demand for rest and recuperation services dwindled while the costs have risen. In modern times, an establishment that has served us well for many years is evidently no longer what most pharmacists need and the cost of maintaining the house is creating a serious and unacceptable deficit year on year. What is more, it is clear that there are undoubtedly better ways of providing the range of help that members need. We are now actively looking at how we can provide a fuller range of tailored, expert help to pharmacists in need in locations that are much more convenient.

“As trustees, we are duty bound to ensure that the Benevolent Fund is secure, fulfils its remit and provides the very best support for our members and their families in times of illness or hardship.”

Citation: Electronicjuice URI: 20015427

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