Westminster Hospital

Dean Ryle Street, Horseferry Road,


Medical dates:

Medical character:

1719- 1992

Acute.  Teaching Hospital

In 1716 four men met in St Dunstan's Coffee House to discuss their concern about how to develop a hospital for the sick poor of Westminster.  The borough at this time was one of the most blighted places in London - an isolated swamp with no roads, no sanitation and the constant threat of flooding from the undomesticated River Thames.  The four - Henry Hoare, a banker, William Wogan, a writer, Robert Witham, a vintner, and the Revd Patrick Cockburn - managed to raise only £10, which they used to buy food for sick prisoners in the local jail.

In 1719 the revived group met again, this time to rent a small private house in Petty France, Pimlico, owned by a tallow chandler, for £22 per annum.  The local residents objected as they were afraid it would become a centre for infectious disease or undesirable vagrants.  Nevertheless, the Infirmary for the Sick and Needy opened with 10 beds in 1720, the third hospital in London (the others being St Bartholomew's in Smithfield and St Thomas's in Southwark).  To attract financial support, subscribers of 1 guinea (£1.05) a year would become hospital governors - the pattern that would be developed to fund the voluntary hospital system.

By 1724 the house, now with 18 beds, had become inadequate and the Infirmary moved to a larger property, where it had 31 beds, in Chappell Street (later renamed Broadway).  This time the owner retained the use of the front parlour and the room behind it with two cellars, and shared the kitchen with the Infirmary.

The commonest admissions were for infectious diseases - malaria or typhoid - which were self-limiting in course.  Once discharged, patients were considered cured - there were no follow-up procedures.  Patients benefitted mainly by rest and regular meals, in contrast to their filthy and appalling living conditions at home.  Water was pumped from the river into vats, whilst human and industrial waste was collected into cesspools, which eventually ran into the same river.  At the Infirmary male and female patients received a ration of three pints of beer a day.

In 1733 the grumbling division between the medical staff and the Board of Governors came to a head.  The doctors regarded the Board as inefficient and suffocating, while the latter regarded the doctors as their inferiors.  A row broke out over the site of the proposed new hospital.  The entire medical staff resigned and left, along with many of the subscribers, to found a new hospital - St George's Hospital - at Hyde Park Corner.

The Infirmary had to build itself up again.  It moved to new premises in Buckingham Gate in 1735, where it became the Westminster Infirmary for the Sick and Infirm.

Patients were discharged after two months; those with incurable diseases were never admitted.  However, an anonymous donation of £400 persuaded the Board to admit one incurable patient and, eventually, with public donations, the Trustees established a ward for this purpose.  At this time Roman Catholics were excluded as patients, no priests were allowed to visit wards and no Catholic servants were employed (the cook and best nurse were sacked as 'Papists' in 1742).  Patients with venereal disease were also excluded (if admitted by mistake, they were immediately discharged (as were Catholics) - despite the claim to help the sick and needy).

By 1757 there were 98 beds.  The Infirmary had expanded rapidly by conversions and by buying neighbouring properties.  By 1760 it was known as the Westminster Hospital.

Conditions at the Hospital eventually deteriorated and a new site was purchased in 1831 from the Treasury at the Broad Sanctuary opposite the west doors of Westminster Abbey.  The building was completed in three years at a cost (including the site) of £40,000.  It opened in 1834 - with plumbing problems.  Each ward had been fitted with a water closet, but the stench from these permeated the building.  Two baths had been installed in the basement (for 100 patients), which drained into a cesspool, leading to insanitary conditions and outbreaks of erysipelas, an acute Streptococcal infection of the skin.  By 1875 serious consideration was being given to rebuild the Hospital at Millbank.  However, the building was extensively reconstructed in 1895 and a clinical laboratory was built in 1899, which was opened by Lord Lister (1827-1912).

Conditions continued to deteriorate and an appeal was launched for funds for a major refurbishment.  In 1924 the Hospital had to close for a year while this was carried out.  Although great improvements had been made, with a new Out-Patients Department, new specialist units, additional staff accommodation, and lifts and a hot water system installed - it was recognised that these gave only temporary relief.  The site could not contain a large modern hospital.

A new site was purchased at St John's Gardens, Westminster, and the President of the Hospital, the Prince of Wales (later briefly King Edward VIII) laid the foundation stone in 1935.  The Queen Mary Nurses' Home (with 250 beds) and the Training School - the first buildings to be completed - were opened by Queen Mary in 1938.  They had cost £268,538.  The new Hospital building, on the opposite side of the Gardens, opened in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of WW2.

During the war the Hospital was struck by bombs twice in 1940 and by a land mine exploding nearby in 1941, but continued to function.

On joining the NHS in 1948, it was designated to form part of the Westminster Group of Hospitals, including also the Gordon Hospital, the Westminster Children's Hospital and the All Saints' Hospital.   In 1950 Queen Mary's Hospital in Roehampton was added to the Group, which by then contained a total of 1,090 beds.

In 1960 a new Nurses' Home in Vincent Square was opened by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.  A new wing was added to the Hospital in 1966, linked by a  multi-storey bridge: this contained professorial departments for medicine, surgery, chemical pathology and anaesthesia, and also a unit for obstetrics and gynaecology.

In 1990 the Hospital had 403 beds.

It closed in 1992 and was relocated in 1993 to its present site at the former St Stephen's Hospital in Fulham Road as the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital.  Portraits from the Westminster Hospital hang in the Board Room of the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital.  A 16th century painting by Veronese was transferred to the new Hospital's chapel, together with some stained glass windows.

Present status (January 2008)

The building has been converted by Clementine Investments Ltd into Westminster Green - a luxury apartment block with 176 flats.  The original facade of the Hospital has been preserved.

The former Hosital building at Broad Sanctuary survived until 1950, when it was destroyed by fire.  The site now contains the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre.

Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre

The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre now occupies the former site of the Hospital in Broad Sanctuary.

Westminster Hospital

The northern elevation in Horseferry Road (photograph obtained in May 2014).

Westminster Hospital

The west side facing St John's Gardens as seen from Horseferry Road.

Westminster Hospital

The eastern elevation in Dean Ryle Street (photograph obtained in May 2014).

Westminster Hospital

The west side seen from the Nurses' Home in Page Street.

Wstminster Hospital

The stylish Nurses' Home built in 1938 on the corner of Marsham and Page Streets.

Westminster Hospital

The entrance to the former Queen Mary Nurses' Home, with signage still in place.

The Westminster Hospital (1719) was the first of the voluntary general hospitals established in London in the 18th century.  The others are Guy's Hospital in 1721, St George's Hospital in 1733, the Royal London Hospital in 1740 and the Middlesex Hospital in 1745.

References (Accessed 8th December 2013)

Barry G, Carruthers LA 2005  A History of Britain's Hospitals. Lewes, Book Guild Publishing.

Humble JG 1966 Westminster Hospital: first 250 yearsBritish Medical Journal 1 (5480), 156-162.

Humble JG, Hansell P 1974 Westminster hospital 1716-1974, 2nd edn.  London, Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons.


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