Whittington Hospital

See also the 1985 booklet ISBN 0951061801 The Hospital on the Hill, published by the Whittington Hospital History Project. 

For a selection of images see www.workhouses.org.uk/Islington

which also includes images of the Islington Workhouse on St John's Way and www.hampsteadheath.net/hospitals.html

Leper Hospital
St Anthony’s Chapel and Lazar House (hospital for lepers) were probably the first buildings on Highgate Hill, built in 1473. However, during the reign of Henry VIII the Chapel of St Anthony was treated like other religious houses and was either closed or possibly demolished. In all events, there do not appear to be any further records of it. 

The hospital then changed during the reign of Elizabeth I and became a home for poor and chronically ill patents, some apparently transferred from St Bartholomew’s and St Thomas to ‘Highgate Spital’. But the hospital and grounds were sold in 1653 as agricultural land, being called the Lazaret or Lazarcot Field.  

Smallpox Hospital 
When the railway was built at King’s Cross, the Smallpox and Vaccination Hospital there was demolished to make way for the new main line station in 1848. The new hospital to replace it was built on Highgate Hill as part of the price of the King’s Cross site. The new hospital offered 108 beds and vaccination facilities with two long acute wards and four smaller convalescent wards, plus a rather elegant gate including a porter’s lodge and doctor’s house. Between 1855 and 1859 1185 patients were admitted and 20% of them died in the last big epidemic of the disease. The hospital continued to function until 1900 when smallpox patients were transferred to South Mimms, at which stage the building became the administrative block for the site.  

Workhouse Infirmaries
In 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act was designed to address the appalling conditions of the workhouse, and workhouse infirmaries were created to look after the sick. In the infirmaries nurses had to be trained – quality of training depending on the quality of the matron - and paid, though barely above subsistence level, for 12-hour days and one day off a month. The voluntary teaching hospitals unloaded their chronic sick and destitute patients on these infirmaries. 

The Holborn Union Hospital, later the Archway university campus, was built for and by the boroughs of Holborn and Finsbury and for many years was known as the Holborn and Finsbury Infirmary, complete with mod cons like gas lighting. Opened in 1877, the large wards in the centre block were designed for 60 beds each and the whole building was to house 625 patients. 

The Highgate Wing, entered from Dartmouth Park Hill, was built as the Highgate Infirmary for the Borough of St Pancras, partially opened in 1866 and completed in 1870. The architects acted on the advice of Florence Nightingale, who also recommended the appointment of a Miss Mabel Torrance as the Infirmary’s first matron.  The first 12 nurses came from Florence Nightingale’s training school and she continued to take an active interest, writing more than 100 letters advising the first two matrons, describing the hospital as the ‘finest metropolitan hospital’ and ‘by far the best of any workhouse infirmary we have’.  

Her letters included one seeking ‘under servants’. ‘We have had plenty of applications – too many – but not of the right sort. We do not want to take women who ‘would never be anything much better than scrubbers’… We will want:- 3 Ward assistants 1 Kitchen assistant, 1 Laundry assistant, wages from £13 rising to £15 – everything ‘found’ lodge in the infirmary. The Ward assistants may expect to rise to be nurses. I do not think it would do, at least at first, to send her very young girls or quite raw girls. They must be, of course, of unimpeached character. As Miss Torrance says – she would like to ‘make something of them’.  

The Infirmary cost £43,000 and included features like a steam washing machine, which presumable ensured that all linen was thoroughly disinfected. Sir Sidney Waterlow, who gifted Waterlow Park on Highgate Hill to the public, was the first chair of the Board of Guardians. From 1901-1903 Miss Edith Cavell was night sister of the infirmary, famous for organizing an escape route for British and allied soldiers during the Great War. This was discovered by the Germans and she was court martialled for spying and shot in 1915. There is a brass memorial plaque to her in the Highgate Infirmary hospital chapel. 

The St Mary’s Infirmary (later St Mary’s Wing) in a building which opened in 1900 on the site of the still standing smallpox hospital (now the Jenner building). At that stage St Mary's Islington parish had the highest population (340,000) of any parish in the country. The wing was designed to house 780 patients and featured wood block floors and half tiled walls. The first Matron, a Miss Jones, was paid £10 per year and the first medical Superintendent was a Dr Henry Robinson, at a salary of £500 per year, plus lodgings.

The three hospitals took in overwhelmingly working class patients, from Islington, Holborn, and St Pancras. 

London County Council Hospitals
In 1930, management of the three hospitals was taken over by the London County Council. By then private insurance companies provided health cover for many working men, but schemes did not extend to the unemployed, elderly, disabled, women and children. Local government took the lead in developing public health and community medicine paid for on the rates. 

Gradually for example children were allocated their own wards, though the admission of ‘lunatics’ was a constant complaint until after 1930 when the Medical Superintendent and London County Council allowed each hospital to have its own admitting area for which it was responsible and at that stage the three infirmaries became known as Highgate Hospital, Archway Hospital and St Mary’s Hospital.


War Time
During WWII all window glass in the hospital was cross-crossed with sticky tape and blackout curtains covered each window. Sand bags were laid out and staff took turns at fire watching. In 1945 a doodle bug or flying bomb crashed in St John’s Way and blew all the windows along the front of the Archway Wing. There were however no casualties, thanks to the sticky tape. Other minor incidents from incendiary bombs apparently resulted in minimal damage. 

In 1945 on the advice of the Minister of Health the Council grouped together the three hospitals under a single administration to economise on equipment and bed usage and improve nurse training. It was found the three hospitals offered just under 2000 beds, albeit with overcrowding. War time restrictions, including evacuating patients from top floors and difficulty recruiting nurses, had reduced the number in use to around 1200. 

A National Hospital Service 
This was launched in July 1948, bringing together 1,334 voluntary hospitals and 1,771 municipal hospitals and when it became the NHS the three hospitals in Archway were merged into one called the Whittington, with about 1200 usable beds and a new out patient block along with new X-ray facilities. By then the hospital had three matrons and three teaching departments, and a combined nurse training school was formed. 

Teaching of medical students from University College Medical School began at the Whittington in 1973 which became a university hospital in 1976 with the formation of the joint Middlesex and University College Hospitals Medical Schools. 

Administrative Challenges
The NHS struggled to respond to new demand released by treatment free at the point of need. The postwar Ministry of Health was tiny and division of responsibility between the hospital, the GPs and local authority services made for problems. Local government of hospitals was left to a combination of medical, financial and administrative chiefs. A limited building programme started in the 1960s, but when cuts were demanded with the 1970s oil shock, capital spending was shelved to protect existing services. The building of the Royal Free, relocated from Grays Inn Road, meant that plans for a new hospital at the Whittington, drafted by the early 1960s, were left unused. 

Combining the Whittington and the Royal Northern (a former voluntary hospital with a private patients' wing) had caused funding tensions. After Labour Health Minister Barbara Castle phased out private beds on NHS premises the two were effectively merged in 1982 to create a District General Hospital. 

In 1990, Islington Health Authority was merged with Bloomsbury, which included UCH and Middlesex teaching hospitals. A year later the District General Manager announced a plan to dissolve the Whittington Acute Unit. The Whittington Medical Committee responded by voting almost unanimously for Trust status as the only way to protect the future of the hospital. 

Since then the Whittington has seen work paid for by PFI finance, including the impressive but not vital atrium costing around £30 million. Now, despite this expense, the hospital is again under threat of closure of key facilities, including accident and emergency. Ironically, the need to pay off this loan might keep the hospital open.