Crinolines & Cholera
In her second story, Linda Wilkinson explores the Victorian origins of the Mildmay Mission
The first Mildmay Mission operated from a warehouse in Cabbage Court in the Old Nichol in 1866
One morning in 1866, a letter arrived at the table of the Rev William Pennefather who, in 1857 with his wife Caroline, had set up the Association of Female Workers based at Mildmay Park, Newington Green in North London. The Association provided an outlet for the energies and abilities of women who had a social conscience. Women were trained in a variety of subjects, one them being nursing. Known as the ‘Mildmay Deaconesses,’ they were self-funded women predominantly from the upper classes.
The letter that arrived that day was from James Trevitt, the Vicar of St Philip’s Church in Mount St (now Swanfield St), which lay at the edge of the infamous Nichol rookery, just west of Columbia Rd. He asked if the Deaconesses could come down and help in the terrible crisis being played out there. Death carts were rumbling all night, people were dying like flies and the stench was terrible – cholera was raging unchecked.
Mildmay Park may have been a little run down but Bethnal Green was the slums where thieves and robbers lived, an area in which the police would not venture alone. It was a place of prostitutes, drunkenness, violence, nefarious street urchins and filth – not quite what the young ladies had signed up for.
Later that year, two women – one Gertrude Villiers Stuart, the other anonymous to this day – emerged from Shoreditch Station wearing crinolines and bonnets to do their duty, as they believed their God wished.
It is unlikely that they had any influence upon the lives of the cholera sufferers for, although the water-borne transmission of the infection was known, any meaningful treatment remained unavailable. Eventually, the epidemic burnt itself out but the Deaconesses kept coming, every day, to Bethnal Green.
A base for their work was established in Cabbage Court (Little Bacon St), south of Bethnal Green Rd, where they set-up a Soup Kitchen, a Lads’ Institute, a Men’s Lodging House and a Mothers’ Meeting Club – offering a sewing class for factory girls and eighty meals a day for destitute children. Unsurprisingly, in a short while they were able to walk freely around the area without any fear of molestation.
In 1874, a Mildmay Medical Mission was established, moving around the corner in 1877 to a derelict warehouse in Turville Sq, in the heart of the Old Nichol. This was the first and, today, the only remaining Mission Hospital in London.
The appalling conditions which existed in the Old Nichol led to it being the first area cleared by the newly formed London County Council in 1891. In light of the impending demolition, it was decided that a new hospital should be built in a quieter situation. Austin St was chosen and, in 1892, a fifty-bed hospital was opened which served the local community until 1982.
Sadly, the ability of the Deaconesses to wander the streets alone dissipated. By the early nineteen-hundreds Kemp, the Head Porter, would be informed of the housebound sick by relatives and friends. It was he and his colleagues who would carry the patients to the hospital using blankets, bath chairs or even slung over their shoulders, if needs be.
Like the dispensaries of St Saviour’s Priory in Haggerston and Queen Adelaide’s Dispensary in nearby Pollard’s Row, the maladies treated at Out Patients were those of the poor – tuberculosis, typhoid, accidents at work and home, scabies, pneumonia, bronchitis. The dispensaries had little in their armoury to offer other than cough mixtures, cod liver oil and carbolic lotion for nits.
Yet the Mildmay offered a civilised way to die – in a clean bed, with the security of a warm meal and care from women who were referred to as ‘Angels’ right up until the nineteen-sixties. More recently, as an AIDS hospice, it has provided succour to those who contracted HIV and today a new hospital is being built on the site, ensuring that the Mildmay tradition of care goes on.
One of the original founding stones of the Mildmay
Emily Goodwin, the first matron at the new Mildmay Hospital, 1892
Sister Louise Blakeney, First Theatre Sister, 1909.
Miss Mulliner & Dr Gauld in the hospital pharmacy, 1909
Mildmay Female Ward
In the hospital kitchens
Queen Mary mobbed by locals as she visits the Mildmay Hospital in the thirties
The Mildmay Hospital with extra wards in Nissen huts during World War II.
Mildmay staff in 1966.
Detail, showing the Milmay cat.
Miss Stockton, Elizabeth Willcocks (Matron), Sister Edwin and Dr Buxton at the Mildmay in 1964
Many famous faces visited the hospital during its time as an AIDS hospice. The young man with Liz Taylor died soon after this photograph was taken.
Find out more about the continuing work of the Mildmay International today
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