St Thomas’ Hospital stands on the banks of the river Thames at the very heart of London. Today it offers some of the highest quality healthcare in the world, and its history can traced back through the centuries. The sick house that belonged to the church of St Mary Overie was first named St Thomas’ in 1173, as a tribute to the murdered Archbishop Thomas Becket, who had died three years earlier. The church and sick house stood in the yard of Southwark Cathedral, which was in the Diocese of Winchester. Over the next 300 years, benefactors to the hospital were generous and it prospered. Donations of money, property and land in London and beyond were made but available funds were always insufficient to meet needs. St Thomas’ could accommodate 40 patients and was never short of applicants. They came from the local people who were poor, ill-fed and often sick due the unhealthy marshland that surrounded them.
By the late 17th century, St Thomas’ required refurbishing. Sanitary conditions and the water supply were poor and the threat of fire was ever-present. Conditions were made worse when some windows were bricked up after the Window Tax was introduced in 1696. Treatments had altered and required more space, not least because each patient now had their own bed. A new brick building designed to redress all of these issues was completed in 1709 and consisted of a series of courts in the classical style. With over 200 beds in the new building, St Thomas’ was respected and famous, especially after a medical school attached to the hospital was established. The classical building was largely demolished to make way for the extension of the London Bridge railway.
In 1862, a compulsory purchase order for the South Eastern Railway company was served, and the hospital was given six months to move. The hospital spent nine years in temporary accommodation in old pleasure gardens in nearby Southwark. Conditions were less than ideal, as the hospital was situated in a derelict music hall and zoological building.
The new building opened in 1872 and is located on the south bank of the Thames between the bridges of Westminster and Lambeth, where it stands today. Florence Nightingale greatly influenced the design of the new St Thomas’ Hospital with its innovative ‘pavilion style’ of seven large separate buildings connected by walkways. She recognized the importance of design for improving hygiene and health, and made careful calculations regarding dimensions and efficient use of space in hospitals. Nightingale proposed full-height windows at specified intervals in the wards, with the beds set between to encourage ventilation and allow air to circulate without creating drafts. 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 other end.
St Thomas’ during the Blitz
This historic footage shows St Thomas’ Hospital during the London Blitz.