Remembering The Queen Elizabeth Hospital For Children
Playing at Doctor – A Scene in the Hospital for Children, Hackney Rd, Bethnal Green
The former Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children in the Hackney Rd is a landmark of deep significance for generations of East Enders, yet a decision to flatten it and replace it with densely-built generic ‘new slums’ type flats has been made by Tower Hamlets Council, without any public consultation, dismissing the option of integrating the old building into the housing scheme. As the decision goes to the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, on Wednesday this week there is one last chance to save it. So today, I sketch a brief history of the tradition of care that had its home there for over one hundred and twenty years in the hope that this will not be erased.
In 1867 – Quaker sisters, Ellen & Mary Elizabeth Phillips, established a Dispensary for Women & Children in two rented rooms in Virginia Rd, Shoreditch. The previous year, at the time of the cholera epidemic in the East End, Ellen had worked in the cholera wards at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel through a connection to Elizabeth Garret, Britain’s first woman doctor. By 1871, the sisters had the lease at 327 Hackney Rd, on the site that would one day become their custom-built hospital to minister exclusively to the needs of sick children.
Just three years later, they laid the foundation stone for the building in adjoining Goldsmith’s Row, attracting Royal patronage and the support of Oscar Wilde who wrote a poem for their fund-raising publication. The attractive terracotta sunflower freizes upon William Beck’s building reflect the Arts & Crafts style of this era and, throughout the interior, details of iron work and ceramic tiled floors continue this decorative theme. In 1904, the building on Hackney Rd was added, defining the triangular shape of the complex which continued to expand, acquiring additional buildings to fulfil the needs of the hospital throughout the twentieth century.
Amalgamation with the Queen Elizabeth Children’s Hospital in Shadwell in 1942 delivered the name by which it was most commonly known. Charles Dickens was patron of this hospital, that he found operating in a sail loft in 1869 and for which he raised money to build a dedicated hospital building.
Thus, two nineteenth century philanthropic ventures combined to create an institution that was absorbed into the National Health Service and closed at the end of the twentieth century when the services it offered were fulfilled elsewhere, rendering it defunct. Yet in 1974, it was the largest children’s teaching hospital in Britain with three hundred students every year and Victoria Holt, General Practitioner, remembers her time there fondly – as the most inspirational part of her training.
“I worked there in 1988 when I was training to be a GP in Hackney. The Hospital served the East End but it was also used by Great Ormond St as the place where their nurses were trained – they had to spend some time ‘roughing it’ in the East End. What was so special about the Queen Elizabeth was that it was the opposite of Great Ormond St, it didn’t have a rarified atmosphere. You could literally walk in the door and be seen in the Accident & Emergency Department. It was a genuinely open door policy, whoever you were and wherever you came from – people who had grown up in the East End would bring their children there from Essex because it felt like home to them.
The complete range of all children’s illnesses came through the door and I learnt to distinguish between a not-very-ill and a very-ill child really quickly. I learnt so much there, it meant that even though I was incredibly young, I had this depth of experience in paediactrics. It was about an ethos – there was a collective wisdom in the community – people understood that you took your sick children there, because that hospital had looked after their families for generations.”
The Queen Elizabeth Hospital closed in 1996
The Queen Elizabeth Hospital opened on this site in 1872
“Each nurse shall attend to the children with care and kindness, and use every endeavour to make them happy.” - from the Hospital Constitution of 1874
The Hackney Rd building opened in 1904
The Goldsmiths Row Building with its attractive sunflower freizes was opened in 1880
Victoria Holt is a GP who did part of her training at Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children in 1988 – “The complete range of all children’s illnesses came through the door and I learnt to distinguish between a not-very-ill and a very-ill child really quickly. I learnt so much there…”
Portrait of Victoria Holt © Colin O’Brien
Archive images courtesy Prof Rob Higgins