Southside secrets: The Madonna of Aberdeen Harbour

You may have heard of the floating restaurant, but have you heard of the floating clinic? Jai Rane finds out more about the little boat that cured.

The Madonna was a free sampan clinic that operated in Aberdeen harbour during the sixties. Jointly operated by the Catholic Women’s League (CWL) and the Canossian Sisters of Aberdeen, the clinic is reported to have offered free treatment and diagnosis to thousands of boat dwellers.

Many of Madonna’s patients –a large proportion of whom were refugees from mainland China– had been sent onto junks to ease pressure on the housing industry. Marine Census statistics show that of the 136,000 boat dwellers in Hong Kong in 1961, the largest population lived in Aberdeen. These 28,591 boat dwellers were squeezed into Aberdeen harbour with a mere 4,053 vessels between them. The leaky, worn-out crafts left boat-dwellers prone to disease and illness but many were too skeptical of doctors and “land people” to ever seek medical attention.

The Madonna was created under the principle that “if the people can’t come to the church, the church must come to the people”. Christened by Rev. Fr. F. Cronin, SJ, on February 22 1961, the Madonna provided a modest yet comfortable space for the boat people to seek help without having to go onto the shore.

Built using a £100 sponsorship from the CWL in the United Kingdom, the sampan was watertight and freshly painted. It was also complete with a pharmaceutical dispensary that held a good selection of medicines and dressings.

In a 1967 interview with Radio and Television Ireland, CWL clinical volunteer Mary Dunham explained that one of the initially difficult aspects of the floating clinic was the task of pouring medicines without it “spilling all over the place”. “It’s tricky enough getting on the boat as it is” she said, “that is why we have to wear slacks.” When asked about typhoons, Dunham let out a sigh of relief: “We’ve never had a really bad one since we’ve been here; we’ve been lucky so far”.

The clinical team would include a graduate volunteer nurse, a Chinese medical student, a student nurse, and two additional volunteers who were in charge of moving the sampan around. The sampan ladies would use poles and ropes to manoeuvre the little clinic through the jam-packed mud banks of Aberdeen harbour towards her waiting patients.

Once in position the floating clinic would provide basic medical treatments, ointments, and salves to her queue of boat dwellers. Common ailments treated by the clinic included athlete’s foot, tuberculosis, influenza, “prickly heat”, rashes, scrapes and minor injuries. Severe cases were referred to a larger land-based clinic where x-rays could be taken.

The CWL reports that the Madonna managed to treat over 39,000 patients in 1963 alone.

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