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Helen Taylor-Thompson & The Mildmay Hospital

April 15, 2013
by the gentle author

Helen Taylor-Thompson

What would you do if your local hospital was cut? Would you shrug your shoulders? Would you sign a petition? Would you go on a march? Helen Taylor-Thompson did something more effective than any of these things, she took over the hospital and reopened it herself. Yet it was not such a radical act as you might assume, since the story of the Mildmay Hospital in the East End is that of a succession of strong women driven by a passion to care for the sick and the outcast, ever since the eighteen-sixties when it was established to minister to those in Shoreditch suffering from the cholera epidemic.

Catherine Pennefeather recruited eleven women to work with her and opened the first mission hospital in a warehouse in Cabbage Court in the Old Nichol in 1866, as a memorial to her husband, the Irish evangelist William Pennefeather. Working among people living in the most deprived conditions, Catherine insisted upon a personal approach that respected the dignity of everyone that came into her care, however degraded they might have become by their circumstances. In 1890, a foundation stone was laid for a purpose-built hospital which opened in 1892 and the Mildmay Hospital served the people of the East End continuously until it was shut by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1982.

Demonstrating heroic independence of spirit, Helen Taylor-Thompson refused to let the noble history and tradition of care that the Mildmay represented be broken. She reopened it in 1985 and when, three year later in 1988, Mildmay inaugurated Europe’s first dedicated HIV clinic – the prescience of her action in saving the hospital became fully apparent. At the clinic, it was Helen who delivered the circumstance in which Princess Diana came to the Mildmay and kissed a patient who was dying of AIDS upon the cheek, a powerful gesture that reverberates in the collective memory to this day and that contributed to overcoming the ignorance and prejudice which surrounded the disease at that time. It was an event that occurred within a climate in which staff of the Mildmay were shunned in the neighbourhood and even refused haircuts at local barbers out of misplaced fear of infection.

A pioneer by nature, Helen Taylor-Thompson is the direct descendant of the missionary Dr David Livingston and the daughter of  the Chairman of the African Inland Mission. At eighteen, she was recruited into the Special Operations Executive during World War II, working in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), and her wish to be parachuted into occupied France to work with the Resistance was only frustrated when, as she was under twenty-one,  parental consent was required but secrecy forbade her asking. Yet her missionary pedigree and experience in Special Operations became invaluable assets when she faced her biggest challenge in Shoreditch. “I’ve had quite a life haven’t I?” she confessed to me in bemusement, looking back.

A quarter of a century after the reopening, the Mildmay Hospital is building a brand new hospital for itself and Helen Taylor-Thompson remains undiminished in her fervour to be of service to humanity – applying herself these days to an ambitious educational project Thare Machi, designed to prevent HIV infection among people in the poorest countries. But, when I met her recently, I managed to persuade her to reveal the untold story  of her involvement with the Mildmay Hospital and it proved to be an inspirational tale.

“The Mildmay was a little general hospital, much loved, with just a few wards and an A&E department. In the seventies, the District Health Authority had tried closing it but they were frightened to do so because it had such a good reputation. Other small hospitals were closing locally and many people felt the Mildmay had had its day, yet I believed it was still valuable because it was a Mission hospital and it worked with the most vulnerable people. I was chairman of the Hospital Advisory Council which I had formed to support the Mildmay and, when I saw that it was next in line to close, I got the community behind me to fight and we marched to Trafalgar Sq, and I clambered up among the lions and pleaded  for the Mildmay not to close. It was fun but it didn’t do any good. They said, ‘It’s got to close,’ and it did. So then, a whole lot of people said, ‘We must go out in Glory,’ but I didn’t. I said, ‘We will fight for it and get it back.’

I had only one or two people who agreed with me, but a solicitor said, ‘Legally they can’t close it without giving the Mission the option of taking it back.’ So I went to the MP Peter Shore  and said, ‘I want you to work with me to get it back.’ Then I wrote a letter to Kenneth Clarke to ask if I could have it back, and I knew it would have to be on a lease and seven years was too short and I didn’t think they’d give me twenty-one years, so I requested ‘a long lease.’ And two months later, I got a letter back offering it to me on a peppercorn lease for ninety-nine years – with strings attached.

As a Christian, I put this down to prayer. I was at the top of the stairs and I thought, ‘I  can’t do this on my own,’ and the phone rang at the foot of the stairs. The caller said, ‘You don’t know who I am but I am the father of one of the nurses and I wondered if you’d like some help.’ He was working for the GLC and he could use the photocopier after hours. I employed an accountant to do a feasibility study and the plan was that we were going to work with young people who had suffered  chronic injuries in accidents and people with Multiple Sclerosis, because they weren’t being taken care of.

But the District Health Authority didn’t want us to reopen the hospital, they wanted to sell it and get the money. We were examined and they told me we were incapable of doing it. If we hadn’t made a go of it after a year, they were going to take it away from me. I still had to find the money, so I sold the Mildmay Convalescent Home for half a million and I discovered there was a thing called ‘free money’ – the money which the hospital had in 1948 when it was taken over by the NHS. It had been put into a trust to be used for the hospital. I had no idea how much there was but I said, ‘You’ve got to give me that money.’ – it was £365,000! So we just had enough for eighteen months. The hospital had been closed for three years and vandals had got in, so I said to the NHS, ‘You’ve got put it right for us.’ I realised that we needed to get in six months before the contract was signed, so that we could sign the contract and admit the first patient on the same day. Elizabeth Willcocks, the previous matron who was in retirement, agreed to come back for two years and we reopened.

Thirteen months later, we were asked if we would take some AIDS patients. At that time, they were treated like lepers. So I went to the Matron and the Medical Director, and they both said, ‘The Mildmay has always looked after the people that nobody else wants to look after.’ We had the top floor which had formerly been the children’s ward and we didn’t know what to do with it, so I took the proposal to the board and I said, ‘I want a unanimous answer,’ and they said, ‘Let’s get on with it!’

Then we had big trouble – bricks thrown through the windows and a lot of Christians saying we shouldn’t be doing it and homosexual groups saying, ‘Boycott them, they’re Bible Bashers!’ We decided, ‘We’ll take no notice, we’ll open up and we’ll show love and great care.’ In October 1988, we opened the first hospice in Europe dedicated to treating people with AIDS. We had so many, we turned the whole hospital of thirty-six beds over to them. We had found our purpose, and the government were good and supported us with money.

The press used to be on the roof of the building opposite with telephoto lenses because we had some quite well-known people as patients. You’d think it was a sad place because people were dying, but it was happy because the patients were so well looked after and the doctors made sure they suffered no pain. Princess Diana came regularly and there was a patient called Martin who was dying and had lost touch with his family for eleven years. I said to him, ‘Would you like to give her the bouquet?’ The BBC were there and he gave Diana the bouquet, and they filmed her as she kissed him. Within twenty minutes, his mother rang and wanted to come to see him, and the whole family were reunited and shortly afterwards he died.

The Chairman of the District Health Authority, who had interrogated me, came to see me privately and he said, ‘I wish I hadn’t voted against you reopening the Mildmay.’ I said, ‘I’m very glad you did because it put more pressure on me to make the hospital independent, without that maybe I’d never have been able to get it back?'”

The first Mildmay Mission operated from a warehouse in Cabbage Court in the Old Nichol in 1866.

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.

Matron and sisters in the nineteen twenties.

In the hospital kitchens.

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.

Portrait of Helen Taylor-Thompson copyright © Patricia Niven

26 Responses leave one →
  1. jeannette permalink
    April 15, 2013

    i think diana’s legacy grows more and more tarnished, but if she had only done this one thing, it would have been enough.

    what a wonderful story this is, thank ms. taylor-thompson.

  2. gary permalink
    April 15, 2013

    great post, should be used in schools

  3. April 15, 2013

    Woa! Fascinating story – and wonderful pictures. Agree should be used in schools!!

  4. Jerry W permalink
    April 15, 2013

    Heroic is the word. What a truly inspirational and heartwarming story!

    Well done Helen Taylor-Thompson. I see she is an OBE, but she should be made a Dame.

  5. Ron Pummell. permalink
    April 15, 2013

    I was born shortly before WW2 and we lived close to the Mildmay until a slum clearance in 1952 compelled us to move. As a child I well remember having communal prayers in the waiting room, led by a nurse, before the doctor would see us.

  6. Andrew Plume permalink
    April 15, 2013


    an absolutely terrific story, just like so many of your posts

    thanks indeed



  7. Linda Ruby permalink
    April 15, 2013

    This is an amazing story and should be told over and over again. By the grace of God Mildmay is a place that cares for the people that sometimes nobody else wants to go near. God loves them and so do we, all the staff that work at Mildmay. We look after the patients; not just thier physical needs but their spiritual, mental and physical requirements. May Mildmay be supported and go forever.

  8. Vicky permalink
    April 15, 2013

    Terrific story, what a woman! A hero. And some wonderful photographs for the archive.

  9. Caro permalink
    April 15, 2013

    This brought back so many memories for me – I volunteered at the time Mrs TT and Matron were at Mildmay, and lived in Jacob Home, working alongside said gentleman from the GLC whose involvement was amazing.
    Will never forget my time there – met inspirational people, and Mrs TT was a force to be reckoned with. I remember staying with her one weekend at her stunning house near Ashdown Forest to sort out years worth of paperwork!

  10. Elaine Napier permalink
    April 15, 2013

    A wonderful story of great strength and persistence. Seems particularly apposite now given the problems of supporting the sick and vulnerable in our current environment. Thank goodness for people like Helen Taylor-Thompson and those who have worked with her. And another amazing piece of East End history. Thank you to you all.

  11. April 15, 2013

    A wonderful insight into the work of a truly inspirational woman. Thanks from all of us at Mildmay where we continue to provide unique and pioneering care for people living with HIV – it’s good to remember how it all began.

  12. Carolyn Badcock - nee Hooper permalink
    April 15, 2013

    Thanks to you, Gentle Author, we learn of this wonderful woman’s gift to humanity. She’s enhanced many lives in a magnificent way.


    PS At times I’ve thought – How will GA get enough stories to continue till 2037, but then…….. Not one of us knows who is currently in the East End who is going to do amazing things for their community.

  13. sprite permalink
    April 15, 2013

    Hello there, Linda Ruby! Not where i’d expected to hear from you. What about that cup of tea?

    sprite / (claire)

  14. Susan Goldman permalink
    April 16, 2013

    Thanks Gentle Author for another wonderful story. What an amazing woman.

  15. aubrey permalink
    April 16, 2013

    As a child, I remember being preached to by a doctor or nurse when I was a patient on a ward. I also attended prayer meetings after I was discharged (They also served food afterwards!). I somehow knew that the staff were ‘people apart’ – not from the local community; but I couldn’t quite work out who they were. All I did feel was that they were a gentle and dedicated group

  16. April 16, 2013

    That was a heroic act!. God must have been you by the side.
    Thank you for caring to Gods humanity.

    No wonder I see such wonderfull work that Mildmay-Uganda does. It is from that philosophical approach

  17. Barbara Jezewska permalink
    April 21, 2013

    This is such an education. Despite the fact that I grew up in Whitechapel from 1957-1965 and then Hackney 1965-1999 , I am learning so much about people and places that were familiar and everyday to me but about which I knew very little. Thankyou for peeling back the layers and revealing the history and true significance of East-End life. Truly incredible work, thankyou once again.

  18. Carol Metcalfe permalink
    December 24, 2013

    I’m pleased to see the last two photographs.
    I remember Dr Buxton who saved my mother’s life, I remember the Lady Almoner Miss Stockton who was very kind to us, and I remember making a fuss of the cat (or a cat, I think there were two) while it slept on a radiator in the corridor.
    I also remember Sister Pauline – does anybody know what happened to her?

  19. Carolyn Reilly (nee Muir) permalink
    February 4, 2014

    Did my training at Mildmay 1971 to’74. Feel so privelaged to have been a part of a great hospital. I remember Matron Wilcocks and Miss Stockton.

  20. Fred Katalaga permalink
    May 23, 2014

    Dear Helen,
    It is a long time without hearing from you and your husband let me hope that you fine.
    I just want let you know that I retired from Mild may on the end of April 2014.
    I want to start a pig and chicken on big scale. And already bought a machine making food for pigs and chicken. Now I am looking for funds for buying the law materials. Also If you the email for Andrew who bought the land for Mildmay send it to me.

    Send my gratings to your husband and children

    God bless

    Fred Katalaga
    PO Box 25785 Kampala
    Tell 0772509744

  21. John permalink
    July 17, 2014

    Diana was never “Princess Diana”. She was either Lady Diana Spencer, The Princess of Wales, or Diana, Princess of Wales.

  22. Christine Martin (née Melloy) permalink
    December 29, 2014

    Had the privilege of being a Mildmay nurse from 1972-1975…now as I sit at my nurses station in USA I discovered this article…Oh what a blessing…I remember sister Edna and Matron &Miss Stockton. Our training at Mildmay was both a privilege and Joy….anyone else out there from set 427?

  23. Jane Wright permalink
    February 11, 2018

    I am doing some family research and have discovered that two distant cousins, Fanny Maud and Clara Jane Cattell nursed at Mildmay Hospital, and are listed online as pioneering nurses.

    It seems Fanny Maud was trained by Catherine Pennyfeather, and succeeded Miss Goodwyn as Matron in November 1896, whilst her younger sister Clara Jane, trained at Brownlow Hill infirmary, Liverpool and became Sister on the Men’s ward at Mildmay.

    I would love to think either of the sisters were portrayed in the lovely photographs on this site.

  24. DAVID J. KNIGHT permalink
    March 3, 2019


  25. March 3, 2019

    I heard about Helen this morning on the radio and felt inspired by her faith and courageous take on life. Thank you for the information on this page which helped me to know more about her.

  26. Bernie Coleman permalink
    March 4, 2019

    I was born in the then Belgian Congo of missionary parents, (WEC)in 1947. My mother a trained nurse,( Hope hospital during WW2), I was delivered by the late Winnie Davies, who was martyred during the 60’s Rebellion .’Having a cleft palette/hare-lip, Dr Stanley Browne then visiting Yukusu BMS hospital advised I get back for an op in UK asap, ~ asap on missionary allowance didn’t cater for flying, as cost prohibitive, 4 weeks later by sea voyage, mother finds UK London hospitals all full of then 1st. year of NHS patients. (My father had insisted rather priggishly that I have the op @ Grt. Ormond St.) ~ dear Mildmay accepted us, and there I had my 2 ops.( the 2nd. in 1956) that I remember,~ there was Sunday School, and importantly, before each op. prayers were said, the plastic surgeon who did the op. was Dr Fathey? an Egyptian, his face lit up like a 100watt bulb when he asked me to say ‘ahh’~ as he realised the op had been successful,(rather proud that an ‘African’ + the Almighty put me ‘right’!
    I never had speech therapy, this I put down to my Scottish education, professional medics have often commented on my excellent speech, PTL! ~ Bernie.

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