The Royal London and its Community

At its foundation in 1740, the hospital London Infirmary as it was initially known, aimed to treat ‘sick and diseased manufacturers, seamen in the merchant service’ and their families. With this aim in mind, the governors of the charity moved its premises from Moorfields on the northern side of the City to Prescot Street in the East End, and ultimately, in 1757, to its site on the south side of Whitechapel Road.  In the early years of the hospital’s existence, many patients were country folk who had moved to the City and its environs to find work. Admission to the hospital as an inpatient or outpatient was by recommendation by supporters of the charity through the governors’ letter system.

New communities had formed in areas of the East End like Spittalfields, where Protestant Hugenots had settled after fleeing religious persecution in France. Several prominent members of the hospital staff, like the physician Dr John Andrée and the surgeon Gabriel Risoliere had Hugenot roots and the early governors of the hospital set an important precedent by admitting patients of all faiths. By 1780, the reformer John Howard stated that about 20% of inpatients were Jewish and he further noted that they were given a small allowance to buy kosher food. In the 19th Century, the proportion of Jewish patients rose as new communities from central and Eastern Europe settled in the East End. In the 1830s the hospital appointed a kosher cook at the request of the Jewish community leaders, who went on to suggest Hebrew wards be established. The London was the first general hospital in England to have these special kitchen and ward facilities. In 1907, at a time when the majority of Whitechapel residents were Jewish, and with substantial support from prominent Jews, new Jewish wards were opened and named the benefactors Rothschild, Helene Raphael and Goldsmid. These continued until the mid 20thCentury, though latterly not exclusively reserved for Jewish patients.

From the 1880s to the 1940s the London was the largest general hospital in the country. Its medical college, founded in 1785, was likewise expanded as was the London’s nurse training school.  Endowed by the benefactor James Hora, a District Midwifery Service was established in 1905, and this sent out midwives to attend mothers living within a mile radius of the hospital. The midwifery service cemented the links between hospital and community but also gave midwives first-hand experience of contemporary overcrowding and the unhealthy living conditions in some homes. The hospital in this period was where a number of innovative new medical and surgical treatments carried out, such as the first mitral valvotomy heart operation (1925).

The hospital suffered considerable damage during the Second World War, but managed to maintain services by transferring patients to annexes and sector hospitals away from the Blitz-ravaged East End. After the War, the hospital, which was previously a charity, became part of the new National Health Service. Gradually its local community changed as families moved elsewhere and new residents arrived, particularly from British Commonwealth countries in Asia and the Caribbean. By this time the London, like other NHS hospitals relied increasingly on immigrants from Commonwealth and other countries for its workforce. The hospital’s work became more closely centred on its East End community, which had seen a large influx of people from Bangladesh, along with others from countries including Somalia and Vietnam. Community and hospital health services were developed, informed by research into these new communities and their needs by Tower Hamlets Health Authority and successor bodies.

The hospital was granted a Royal title in 1990 by HM The Queen, who opened the present new Royal London Hospital in 2012. The new hospital, now part of Barts Heath NHS Trust, provides spacious and state of the art facilities but remains at its core a District General Hospital for the people of the East End.

 Queen Alexandra’s statue sits in the courtyard by the south tower at the Royal London Hospital. It was designed and executed by George Wade and was erected through the support of friends of the Hospital. Queen Alexandra first visited the hospital as Princess of Wales in 1864 when the new West Wing was named the Alexandra Wing in her honour. She became President of the Hospital in 1904 and remained so until her death in 1925. On the rear of the plinth is a bronze bas relief depicting King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra inspecting the Finsen Light Department on the day they opened the new Out Patients Department in 1903. The Queen had endowed one of the two Finsen Light machines, developed by her fellow Dane and Nobel Prize winner Niels Ryburg Finsen for the treatment of Lupus Vulgaris. The Royal Couple are accompanied by the King’s surgeon Sir Frederick Treves, Royal Hospital Chairman Sydney Holland, later Lord Knutsford and Matron Eva Luckes.

Jonathan Evans

 The Royal London Hospital benefits from being the home of the London Air Ambulance, more information can be found on their website:

www.londonairambulance.org.uk