Skip to content

Remembering Helen Taylor-Thompson

March 9, 2024
by the gentle author

Click here to book your spring walk through Spitalfields

Click here to book your walk through the City of London


On International Women’s Day, we remember the inspirational Helen Taylor-Thompson (1924-2020) who co-founded Europe’s first AIDS hospice at the Mildmay Hospital in Shoreditch.

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 three years later in 1988 – when 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 which 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 was a 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 experience in Special Operations became an invaluable asset 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 it reopened, the Mildmay Hospital built a brand new hospital for itself and Helen Taylor-Thompson remained undiminished in her fervour to be of service to humanity, applying herself to an ambitious educational project Thare Machi, designed to prevent HIV infection among people in the poorest countries. But, when I met her, 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

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Maria O’K permalink
    March 9, 2024

    What an incredible woman. Just shows what we can achieve when we don’t take no for an answer.

  2. Philip Athill permalink
    March 9, 2024

    Thank you for this. What a wonderful, inspirational woman.

  3. March 9, 2024

    A wonderful woman and she deserves this recognition on International Women’s Day.
    The Mildmay Mission Hospital was another much loved East End Hospital , like the London Chest Hospital.
    Helen’s achievements there were nothing short of miraculous, what an incredible , inspirational woman. Thank you for sharing her story GA.

  4. aubrey permalink
    March 9, 2024

    As a child my mother took me to “The Mildmay” with various ailments on several occasions . Yes I did attend the evangelical services. The services were held both in the wards and in the evening in the outpatients area. Being a small child and a compete ignoramus I didn’t know what was what but I do remember the food they distributed to the visitors by a very dedicated staff. That was, of course, a long time ago, before it was converted from a local hospital to the AIDS facility.

  5. Lorraine Whebell permalink
    March 9, 2024

    What an interesting read this morning. Such an inspirational story and what a determined and caring woman she was. God bless her.

  6. stephanie brann permalink
    March 9, 2024

    In 1976 I remember running running running down the road to the Mildmay with my two-year-old daughter in my arms. She’d fallen down a flight of stone steps in the flats in Drysdale St and cut her head. I was terrified, but the staff were reassuring and kind. They checked her out immediately for concussion, stuck a plaster on her and she was fine.
    There were many small local hospitals then: St Leonards in Kingsland Rd, The Children’s Hospital in Hackney Rd, The London Chest in Approach Rd, the German Hospital in Ridley Rd, and another hospital in Kingsland Rd, the name of which I’ve forgotten. Most have now been converted into ‘luxury’ apartments, as have the nice old pubs of those long-ago days when bar staff knew exactly what bitter was (today, requests for a pint of bitter sometimes lead to a slightly bewildered offer of angostura bitters).

  7. March 9, 2024

    A brave and little-known story …….one of the OVERGROUND train lines to be given names recently is now the MILDMAY LINE linking Stratford, Clapham Junction and Richmond, ( bits of the former Broad St / North London Line and the West London Line)

  8. Cherub permalink
    March 10, 2024

    What a wonderful story, I am so glad those terminal AIDS patients had such dedicated people looking after them. HIV/AIDS was a terrible thing for my generation and I am glad people now survive and thrive.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS