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The Last Of The London

January 8, 2019
by Nadia Valman

As part of the Being Human Festival in November, Nadia Valman of Queen Mary University and projection artist Karen Crosby paid tribute to the former Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel by conjuring the ghosts of its past

Dorothy Stewart Russell, pioneer female medical student at the London and later the first female professor of Pathology in Western Europe

When it first rose in 1757 over farmland, market gardens and the hamlets east of the Tower, The London Hospital was an imposing presence. Its governors chose a design that would be sturdy and resilient, and the hospital turned its confident neoclassical frontage to the Whitechapel Rd with the promise of a bright and healthy future for the poor of East London. In the following decades, the docks, the sugar and brewing industries and the garment trade brought new employment to the area. By the late-nineteenth century, ‘The London’ served the most densely populated area of the metropolis and donations enabled it to become the largest general hospital in the country.

Yet today Whitechapel’s most monumental building looks vulnerable. On a chilly winter night, it slumps heavily in a pool of darkness, its façade covered with lesions, its brickwork blotchy. At the back of the hospital, pigeons roost on rusty balconies, and behind the boarded windows long corridors lie cold and inert. There is a grand melancholy that hangs over this derelict institution. We are witnessing not only the hubris of a structure built to last but also the husk of the labour, the hope, the striving, that once radiated within. Perhaps The London’s planners and makers knew that it must – in time – be superseded, but did the doctors and nurses who tended to those at the end of their lives ever imagine the dying of the building?

The Last of the London brought light back to the dark building in November. I worked with artist Karen Crosby to tell the stories of the hospital through photographs projected on its walls. Projected light is a magical and mysterious medium. Like hesitant ghosts, the images hover above the surfaces. You must look long and slow, and you cannot always be certain what you are seeing.

There are many well-known figures associated with The London, including Joseph Merrick, the so-called ‘Elephant Man,’ who was first discovered in 1884 being displayed in a disused shop in the Whitechapel Rd and later became a resident in the hospital. Also, Sir Frederick Treves, the surgeon who cared for him and Edith Cavell, who trained as a nurse at The London and was executed for helping British soldiers in German-occupied Belgium in 1915. Yet what interested us more were the untold stories of those who came from far and wide to work at The London, or whose lives began and ended there.

Karen Crosby is especially alert to what goes on in the background and edges of photographs, looking for the figures who were not the focus of the camera’s gaze. And so we found the ghosts of The London lurking in the corners of photographs or caught off guard in moments of uninhibited tenderness. There was something exceptionally moving about seeing these obscure individuals, whose lives are barely documented, transformed into giant luminous projections visible all the way along Whitechapel Rd. A maternity nurse gazes fondly at a newborn baby in the maternity ward, too preoccupied to pose for the camera. Two staff nurses in the back row of a group shot from 1895 look away from the lens because each is absorbed in her own world of reflection. In the photograph, they stand up straight as duty demanded but as we coax them from the shadows, the play of light and shade reveal their fatigue. They were working fourteen-hour days with two hours break and only one day off a month.

To reach their senior position, these women had to impress the Matron of The London, Eva Lückes. In the late nineteenth century, while still in her twenties, Lückes revolutionised training of nurses at the hospital and created a new perception of nursing as a respectable and rewarding profession. But she also believed it was a vocation that demanded constant exertion. ‘It is those who never willingly to give less than their best who will go on finding satisfaction in their chosen work,’ she wrote, ‘and who will discover that their powers have increased and that they are growing richer, not only in what they receive but in what they give. Of all things let us guard against slackness, against the performance of routine duties without that true “love of the work” which sanctifies the drudgery, that love which makes the labours of the day – or of the night – worthy of our best endeavours.’ These were high ideals for any woman but a nurse, said the Matron, was no ordinary woman.

It is because Eva Lückes examined each nurse’s sense of vocation with such rigour and kept such meticulous records of her observations that we can discover the complex individuals behind these enigmatic photographs. A young woman named Gertrude Harlow, for example, began as a probationer in 1885 with ‘average ability and a very abrupt manner’ but her training softened her manner and brought out her ‘earnest and unselfish character’, which gained the approval of Matron Lückes.

Rosamund Llewellyn, on the other hand, despite having a ‘hasty temper’ and being ‘naturally obstinate,’ excelled in charge of an isolation ward for septicaemia patients. Yet after a few years, she formed what the Matron described as an ‘exclusive’ and ‘morbid’ friendship with the sister on her ward – a euphemism for a same-sex relationship. Although the cornerstone of Lückes’ teaching was kindness and compassion for the patient, she regarded any personal emotional attachment on the part of a nurse as detrimental to her work. Finding Rosamund increasingly ‘indolent’ and ‘indifferent,’ she was evidently relieved when both nurses left the hospital in 1900, presumably for a life less determined by self-abnegation.

No such scrutiny was applied to the young men admitted as medical students at The London. We found some of them lounging hands in pockets in a leisurely manner in the background of a photograph of Cambridge Ward. They spent five years training: the first two attending lectures and demonstrations followed by three years on the job watching seniors on the hospital wards. It was a profession only open to the privileged and cost a fee of £100 (the equivalent of two years’ wages for an artisan or around £8000 in today’s currency). These young men would have felt comfortable in a large institution with a hierarchy reminiscent of school, but they were unaccustomed to the idea of providing services to people of a lower social class and sometimes got into trouble for treating patients without due courtesy.

Although the local neighbourhood was unfamiliar and thrilling territory, with music halls, gruesome waxwork shows, penny gaffs and all kinds of disreputable entertainment just outside the hospital gates, these distractions were discouraged for the more wholesome pleasures of playing in the hospital rugby team. In the photograph, they stand out in their smart dark jackets and waistcoats, but projected as translucent images onto the blackened brick wall it is harder for them to make their presence felt.

Perhaps the most uncanny aspect of hospital photographs is their stillness. A photograph of Crossman Ward gives a reassuring feeling of calm and order as we look straight down the middle of the room, with the beds arranged symmetrically on left and right and the nurses standing either side of the cabinet at the far end. The patients seem tiny on their heavy iron bedsteads bathed in light from windows that reach to the high ceiling. And yet such an image cannot tell us of the emotional experience of these individuals, their lives hanging in the balance, their bodies in pain. It cannot convey the intimacy of being vulnerable and being cared for. But when the photograph is projected on a decaying wall it absorbs the fragility of the building’s fabric. The peeling paint that cracks the surface of this otherwise clean, sharp image can help us see what the photograph tries to hide – the frail human bodies at the edges of the frame.

The London will not be fragile for long. It is now undergoing renovation and will be reborn as the civic centre for the Borough of Tower Hamlets. We hope that the preservation of many of the exterior and interior features that recall the building’s former life will serve as a memorial to those who played their part in the long history of public service in Whitechapel.

Two girls, 1906

Eva Lückes and staff nurses, 1895

Laying the foundation stone, 1864

Frederick Treves, Surgeon, 1892

Medical students, Cambridge Ward

Joseph Merrick

Nurse Annie Brewster, Head of the Ophthalmic Ward, was of Afro-Caribbean descent and spent her entire career at The London

Gertrude Harlow, Nurse at the London, 1885-89

Charles Jones, born in the Punjab, who enrolled as a medical student at the London in 1900 before his tragic death at the age of twenty

Nurse Rosamund Llewellyn, who enrolled as a probationer in 1886 and worked as a nurse for fourteen years

Crossman Ward

Images courtesy Barts Health Archives & Museums

Photographs of projections © Gary Schwartz

You can hear more of the history of The Royal London Hospital in I AM HUMAN, a free downloadable walking tour of the hospital written by Nadia Valman and produced by Natalie Steed

You may also like to take a look at

Phil Maxwell at The London Hospital

15 Responses leave one →
  1. January 8, 2019

    The place I was born.

  2. Georgina Briody permalink
    January 8, 2019

    I read this article with great interest having worked at the hospital in the early 1970s at Fielden House, the private wards. I fondly remember my time there and met many ‘characters’ both patients and staff.

    I re-visited last September with Australian friends, one of whom is a doctor, and it was sad to see the state of what remains alongside the new building. I must say my friends were very interested in its history.

    I’m so pleased part of the hospital will be saved and contine as a civic centre for the area.

  3. January 8, 2019

    I would have loved to have seen these projected. Sad to have missed
    It. Was it last November?

  4. Ken permalink
    January 8, 2019

    Well done, LBTH for taking on the buildings – too many historic hospitals have been mindlessly razed, sometimes to be replaced by new buildings which have proved disastrous, may of them funded by the PFI system.

  5. January 8, 2019

    Thank you for your story GA about the stories that lovely old building could tell.
    The (old) London Hospital has a place in my heart and in the hearts of many Eastenders whose families were cared for inside those sturdy walls down the decades.
    The Last of The London project is a most fitting tribute to those who worked and were treated there………let us hope that Tower Hamlets Council shows that fine building the same respect in it’s restoration project.

  6. Andrea permalink
    January 8, 2019

    Brilliant and moving…thank you for sharing this.

  7. Malcolm permalink
    January 8, 2019

    It is becoming more and more apparent just how far-sighted and brilliant certain Victorians were. Unlike the greedy, wealth hoarding rich creatures of today, many Victorians were concerned with the plight of the poor and they knew that by improving life from the bottom up, society as a whole would benefit. Health, education, social housing and social welfare were practically invented by Victorians. It was the golden age of philanthropy and huge amounts of real money were poured into these areas by great people, like Peabody – who spent billions by today’s standards, Carnegie, Passmore Edwards, Angela Burdett-Coutts and many others. Today, philanthropy means giving money to an art gallery or museum in order that the donor should have a monument to vanity, rather than a monument of humanity. The arts is where the money is today. The London Hospital has – like Barts and the dilapidated Whittington at Archway – been allowed to fall into a state of appalling disrepair. These buildings, along with the now lost Middlesex, are prime sites for avaricious developers. Bits of Barts are already undergoing the transformation. The old Whittington at Archway, which later became part of Middlesex University, has been rotting away for years. It was bought by the Peabody Foundation in 2014 and they have submitted plans to restore the buildings and turn them into housing, along with a 20 storey tower block. So far, nothing has been done due to objections about the density of the development and the number of affordable units planned. But at least it isn’t being demolished, unlike the Middlesex which was tragically flattened by the disgraceful Candy brothers. I can’t say I have much faith in Tower Hamlet’s plans for the London. I think this is merely a stop-gap ploy until they can find a way of off-loading the buildings to developers.
    My first – and so far only, touch wood – hospitalization was in the London Hospital. I was four years old and I can still remember it vividly 60 years later. I remember the ward, the nurses, the Doctors and the smell with great clarity. I also remember that I was discharged on Christmas Eve, much to my disappointment. I thought of all the other kids having a party while I was stuck at home with my Mum and Dad!
    Thanks to Nadia for a fine article.

  8. Richard permalink
    January 8, 2019

    Thanks for the update on The London. What a great image is the two girls. I have good memories of the psychiatry department in the seventies as a student. There were some great figures there, Sydney Crowne, Colin Parkes. Prof Pond (who informed me of the vagina dentata. It’s the little things you remember!)

  9. Paul Loften permalink
    January 8, 2019

    My father grew up at 13 Raven Row whic was a narrow alley directly behind the London hospital. He told me that when he was aged around 8 a street peddler came there and sold old Boer War Pith helmets The children gathered round the seller with his barrow and bought them for a penny and they all tried them on, running up and down the street shouting with joy and playing at being soldiers . The result was that a week later they developed Scabies from the helmets and were taken into a ward in the hospital which became full of shaven headed children. But since all the children knew one another there was an up side to being in the hospital. and they were brought jelly and ice cream by the nurses

  10. John Venes permalink
    January 8, 2019

    Great article. Sad to see the present state of the London -where my daughters were born and various family members were treated.
    At least it is not being demolished, unlike so much of the area.

  11. Jill Wilson permalink
    January 8, 2019

    Beautiful images and a great tribute too the nursing staff.

    I remember a television series called Casualty 1907 which was set and filmed in the London Hospital and which really brought home just how dedicated the nurses were in those days. Before penicillin even something as minor as a cut finger could be fatal, and the storyline about the development of X rays was particularly fascinating as nobody knew about the horrific effects of radiation.

    It certainly made one appreciate how far medical science has come since that time!

  12. Georgina Briody permalink
    January 8, 2019

    Richard, I remember a Sidney Crown. I first met him at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, Queen Square, some fifty years ago!!

  13. Dorothy Flint permalink
    January 9, 2019

    So many memories! I trainedin 1940s, and am sad to see the state the hospital has fallen into.My first ward was David Hughes, Children. That Christmas one little boy was allowed to stay because his home circumstances were not good. We worked hard, but it was so rewarding to see a patient made comfortable, and recovering. There were the sad times of course, which you learnt to accept and to do your best for the patient and family. I hope the new hospital will have the same happy memories for all who work there

  14. Mary permalink
    January 9, 2019

    So lovely to see these images. I love the photo of the 2 little girls, the youngest has quite a “modern” face. I wonder if they made it to adulthood?

    I have nothing but the fondest memories of The London having spent three very happy years there as a student in the early 1970s. The old EastEnders are wonderful people.

    It is very interesting to read the memories of fellow “blog followers”. I particularly like Paul Loften’s story, but I have to agree with Malcolm that Tower Hamlets Council are just biding time in order to sell The London to developers. History seems to mean nothing in London anymore – it is all about money!

    Does anyone know what has happened to the statue of Queen Alexandra that was in the garden?

  15. sprite permalink
    January 11, 2019

    Yes, Mary, the statue of Queen Alexandra is now at the back of the main building, on the site of what once was the Luckes home (where most of us were housed as first year student nurses). It has been cleaned and restored but does not cut as proud a figure as when it occupied the centre of the square in the middle of the old hospital.

    I trained there between 79 and 83, and gave birth to my only daughter there in 89, on a ward that used to be the leukemia ward in my student days…. it was really strange to remember all the people who had died and in which bed, at the very time new life had just come out of me. I remember taking her to the balcony overlooking the square, thinking at last I was coming out of a cycle of death towards life…. but little did I know that I had just put my finger in the clockwork of what turned out to be the biggest pandemic… and AIDs became my unchosen career by default.

    I could tell many a tale…but find it difficult to organize such memories in a readable and attractive form.

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