Martha Buckley reports on Southlands Hospital 100 years after it first opened as Steyning Institution for the poor.

The Steyning Institution opened inauspiciously in September 1901, 16 days after the death of its commissioner.

The workhouse, which cost £65,000 to construct, was to house and look after the poor and destitute of Sussex.

The building included cells for male and female tramps, padded cells for the mentally ill and a disinfection ward.

It was heralded as an improvement on the old one, which had been designed to make life so grim only the desperate would go there.

Those who broke the rules could be beaten or put on a punishment diet of bread and water, while persistent offenders often ended up in Lewes Prison.

In 1906, new infirmary buildings were added alongside the workhouse, which were used to treat the sick from the Shoreham area.

Historian and former hospital administrator Pat Marshall said: "There are all sorts of things which fascinate people about the workhouse days because it is something that is so alien to us now. We get quite disturbed by some of the things that used to happen but they were only doing the best they could to look after people.

"When the place opened it was right at the end of the Victorian era. The Victorians did not want to see poor people cluttering up their streets and it was much easier to put them in workhouses.

"The men were put in one side, the women in another and the children went to a different place so people who went in as a family probably would not see each other again until an opportunity came for them to get out."

Mr Marshall said: "The local people were quite supportive of the workhouse people, especially the children.

"A lot of elderly people can remember visiting the workhouse as children to sing to the inmates."

In the early days of the infirmary, doctors and nurses did their best to diagnose and treat large numbers of patients without antibiotics and with primitive surgical techniques.

One of the biggest killers of the day was tuberculosis, for which the only treatment was to feed the patients up, put them in rows of beds and hope they got better.

The infirmary and the workhouse co-existed at the Shoreham site until the Thirties when they were amalgamated and renamed Southlands Hospital.

Part of the hospital continued to operate as a workhouse until the Second World War when many beds were given over to the care of injured soldiers.

Hospital staff were called up to fight and replaced by St John Ambulance volunteers, who acted as porters.

After the war, the Welfare State was founded and the workhouse closed but many elderly inmates stayed on in the geriatric wards.

The last former workhouse patient died at the hospital during the Fifties.

Many of the original Victorian workhouse buildings were still in regular use by the hospital until 1996.

In the late 1960s, new facilities were added including inpatient and outpatient areas, diagnostic and rehabilitation departments and operating theatres.

The work was completed in 1979 when the main ward block was opened. Janet Ashton joined the hospital as a cadet nurse in the Sixties aged 17.

She is now secretary of the hospital's League of Nurses and is a staff nurse in the outpatient department.

She said: "In the time I have been there, the whole role of nursing has changed, though we are still basically there to care for people.

"In those days nurses did everything, the cleaning, the caring and feeding patients. Now nursing has become much more technical. Nurses do a lot more administering medication and looking after machinery."

In the Sixties, student nurses were expected to live at the hospital where almost every second of their lives was dictated by the matron, who ruled the wards with a rod of steel.

Mrs Ashton said: "We were well cared for. It was like a family with matron looking after us.

Mrs Ashton said: "When I started the uniform was starched aprons, which were stiff as boards."

Today's centenary celebrations will be led by Stuart Heatherington, chairman of Worthing and Southlands Hospitals NHS Trust.