An extended post for London History Day:
exploring the history of Florence and St. Thomas’ Hospital,
celebrating a small piece of the history of London.
Today marks the first ever London History Day; the date was chosen as it was on this day in 1859 that Big Ben first started keeping time – one of London’s most iconic sights and sounds.
The Florence Nightingale Museum sits in the grounds of St. Thomas’ Hospital, which is situated across the River Thames from the Palace of Westminster. The chimes of Big Ben are often heard here, and it’s a very useful tool for hearing what the time is!
St. Thomas’, St. Thomas’, & St. Thomas’s
‘My Ward,’ written by Wendy Mathews, explores the history of St. Thomas’ Hospital (as well as Guy’s Hospital, and the Evelina Children’s Hospital, which is in also in the grounds of St. Thomas’), and gives fascinating insight into the long history of the hospitals.
She writes that,
“The early history of St. Thomas’ Hospital is uncertain as, in 1212, a disastrous fire destroyed all of its records. However, it is recorded elsewhere that in 1100 the church of St. Mary the Virgin stood in the yard of Southwark Cathedral, which was in the Diocese of Winchester. The church became known as St. Mary Overie, probably because it was “over” the River Thames from the City of London.
In 1105, Henry I welcomed the Order of Austin (Augustinian) Canons to England. The Bishop of the Diocese, William Gifford, saw the Canon’s concern for the welfare of the poor and persuaded the secular clergy of Southwark to become members of the Order. In return he built them a priory. This 1106 building had an infirmary in the church…which would originally have been for the sick clergy. However, it is almost certain that the Canons and Canonesses shared all they had with their neighbours and tended the sick poor.
In 1173, three years after the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket, the infirmary of St. Mary Overie was renamed St. Thomas’ Spital in tribute to the newly-canonised priest…
Over the next 300 years benefactors, possibly hoping to gain eternal salvation, were generous and the Spital prospered… In 1507, the infirmary was rebuilt using plaster and thatch which stood, with some brick-built additions, for nearly 200 years. St. Thomas’ was closed for 12 years when Henry VIII seized the assets of monasteries and convents but in 1553 his son, Edward VI, as Founder and Patron, approved its 1552 reopening, with the “Royal Hospitals’ Charter”. The hospital was dedicated to Thomas the Apostle. Later it was also rededicated to St. Thomas Becket, hence “St. Thomas’s” Hospital.”
After more than 750 years occupying space in Southwark, in January 1862 the Charing Cross Railway Bill was passed, and the Hospital was served with a compulsory purchase order which favoured the South Eastern Railway Company, and the hospital was given six months to move.
Florence biographer, Mark Bostridge writes,
“Richard Whitfield, an advocate of sanitary reform who had read Florence’s articles in The Builder, sought Florence’s support for rebuilding the hospital in the suburbs, a plan resisted by many of the medical staff on the grounds that it restricted access for patients. She didn’t need much persuasion. Hospitals should never be built ‘among dense unhealthy populations’, and she had a wealth of statistics to prove it. If St. Thomas’s was moved to a healthy location, Florence told Whitfield in February 1859, the opportunity would exist ‘to build the finest hospital in the world’. She thought Blackheath would be ideal. A casualty department could be built in Southwark, and patients transported by rail, ‘like the war wounded’.
But it was not meant to be! Despite Florence’s objections to the new hospital sitting on the Thames “mudbank”, in 1871 the new St. Thomas’ opened in Lambeth, which extended from Westminster Bridge in the north to Lambeth Bridge in the south and was bounded by the River Thames to the west and Stangate (a paved causeway which led to an ancient ford) and decrepit buildings to the east.
Florence Nightingale greatly influenced the design of the new St. Thomas’, as acknowledged by the architect, Henry Currey. In 1859 she had published the first edition of “Notes on Hospitals”, which included her thoughts on how hospitals should be designed and administered. Through her travels across Europe, she realised the importance of design for improved hygiene and health in hospitals. Florence made meticulous calculations regarding dimensions and the efficient use of space. She appreciated the value of pavilion ward blocks with courtyards between. In the wards she proposed full height windows at specified intervals with the beds set between which facilitated ventilation and allowed air to circulate without creating draughts. She stipulated that clean and dirty areas should be separate so food and clean linen were stored at the ward entry with washing and sanitary facilities at the opposite end. (Mathews)
Nightingale Fund and Training School for Nurses
“During the Crimean War in August 1855, plans had been set in motion for a national appeal to recognise ‘the noble exertions of Miss Nightingale in the hospitals of the East’. Friends and family had assumed that Florence would refuse a personal tribute of the ‘teapot and bracelet’ variety, and put to her instead a scheme for raising a fund by public subscription that would enable her on her return home to establish a permanent training school for nurses, of a kind that she had had in mind in pre-war days.
…When the fund was wound up on 20 June 1856, it was revealed that £44,039 – more than £4.3 million in today’s money – had been collected. A Deed of Trust was outlined, assigning Florence the power to direct the Fund as she saw fit. This was an extraordinary testament to the British public’s faith in their heroine.” (Bostridge)
Florence saw the value of working with an established hospital and chose St. Thomas’, partly because it was on the point of redevelopment and also because its matron, Mrs Wardroper, was committed to nursing reform. Mrs Wardroper became the first principal when the school opened on 9 July 1860. (Kirsteen Nixon, Pitkin Guides, The World of Florence Nightingale)
World War II
Between September 1940 and May 1941, the St. Thomas’ was bombed six times, miraculously there was only a total of ten fatalities, but the hospital’s infrastructure and services were badly affected at a time when they were under immense pressure from both military causalities and civilian victims of the Blitz.
St Thomas’ Hospital, in a key strategic position across the river from the Houses of Parliament, was an early target. The first direct hit occurred at 2.30am on 9th September 1940 when a large bomb fell on Block 1, which included Gassiot House, where the Florence Nightingale Museum is located today. Gassiot House served as the Hospital’s nurses’ home, six members of hospital staff were killed including two nurses.
On 13th September 1940, St Thomas’ was again hit by a large bomb, this time falling on ‘Jericho’ the night nurses’ dormitory and a temporary building known as ‘E Hut’. On this occasion there were only minor injuries and no fatalities.
The most destructive attack occurred two days later on 15th September, when a very heavy bomb made a direct hit on the main hospital corridor, causing the collapse of medical outpatients, wrecking the kitchen, canteen, Dispensary and Administrative blocks, and putting all essential services at St Thomas’ out of action. Four members of staff died, three were critically injured, and 38 other patients and staff also suffered injuries.
St Thomas’ was hit a further three times in October 1940, and in April and May 1941, with no further fatalities and only minor injuries occurring.
During the period of the Blitz much of the hospital’s night time activity was moved to the basement where it was considered to be marginally safer. Due to a city wide blackout, which required that all exterior lighting be turned off, and black out blinds or panels to be installed so that enemy aircraft would not be aided by lights on the ground, much of the medical staff’s work was carried out in near darkness.
These white rabbits were painted on the basement walls to aid doctors, nurses and patients with navigating the warren of basement corridors at night, and can still be seen today. (FNM)
Florence Nightingale Museum
In 1963 the architect Eugene Rosenberg was commissioned to design stage two of the redevelopment of St. Thomas’, including a new Gassiot House, on the site of the original Nightingale Training School.
The museum has its origins in a collection of “Nightingalia” that various matrons of St. Thomas’ assembled in the years after Florence’s death. The Nightingale collection was first displayed for the Crimean centenary in 1954 at the Royal College of Surgeons in London and then on the centenary of the Nightingale Training School for Nurses, 1960, and the 150th anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth in 1970.
With the passing on of “Nightingalia” by the matrons, and with a discovery of a box of artefacts in 1978, the then matron and a hospital administrator of St. Thomas’ decided to widen access to the collection, which ultimately led to the creation of the museum under Gassiot House. The Florence Nightingale Museum Trust was created in 1982 to safeguard the collection and make it accessible to the general public and researchers, and the museum was formally opened by HRH Princess Alexandria in February 1989. (Mathews, and FNM guidebook)
Mary Seacole Statue
Part of St. Thomas’ most recent history was the unveiling of a statue of Mary Seacole on 30 June 2016. After a 12 year endeavour, and the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal raising over £500,000, the bronze statue proudly stands in the gardens at the hospital, with a bronze disc bearing an impression taken from the Crimean battlefield; a reminder of this courageous woman who would tend to the soldiers on the battlefield. Voted the ‘Greatest Black Briton’ in 2004, the statue of Mary is important in many ways, one of them being that it is the first statue of a named Black woman in the UK.
The statue’s plinth is inscribed with the words written in 1857 by Sir William Howard Russell, who was the War Correspondent for The Times,
“I trust that England will not forget one who nursed the sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead.”
Long may the statue stand as a reminder of Mary and her story; her compassion, her entrepreneurship, and her bravery; and stand as a source of inspiration.
Happy London History Day!
If you would like to find out more, all the books mentioned in this post can be found in the museum shop.