Drawing of 49 Great Ormond Street 1882

Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children

Today there are few people who haven’t heard of the world renowned Great Ormond Street Hospital for children. Just off Queen Square in Bloomsbury, the hospital treats thousands of children with serious illnesses each year from all over the country. It has sixty-three different clinical specialties and carries out important research into difficult to treat illnesses suffered by children. It has a constantly developing building programme spilling out into the surrounding area and impressive up-to-date facilities; not to mention a highly committed and skilled medical staff. 

However, back in 1852 when Great Ormond Street opened there were just ten beds in place.  

The need for a children’s hospital

By the middle of the nineteenth century, medical developments were certainly on the increase. Surgery was improving as anaesthetics became more widely available and there was greater understanding of the way the human body worked. But progress was slow in terms of treating infections because knowledge of germs and disease was limited. The population was increasing rapidly and the number of people needing treatment grew daily. Working class people lived in overcrowded and unsanitary homes, at the mercy of waves of unemployment. They had no financial safety net. Paying for a doctor was not an option. 

Children were the ones who suffered most, prey to diseases exacerbated by industrialisation, such as tuberculosis and cholera. Infant mortality was high and the death rate among children under ten, horrendous. Many doctors felt that more should be done. After all, Britain was lagging behind other European cities that already had children’s hospitals provided by the state. In 1848, Dr Charles West began a campaign to open one here in London. 

Born in London in 1816, Charles West showed early promise in the medical field. He trained at St Bartholomew’s, the University of Bonn and in Paris, specialising in the care and treatment of women and children. Returning to London, in 1842, he took a post at the Waterloo Dispensary for Women and Children. At the time the dispensary provided only outpatient services. His experience made him realise that there was a need for a hospital that delivered specially adapted treatments and care for children. 

The campaign to open a hospital

By 1850 Dr West had persuaded Dr Bence Jones to join him in his quest to make his dream a reality. Dr Jones had more contacts and the social ease required to persuade people to support the project. Together they formed a committee of influential supporters to provide financial backing and practical help for a new hospital. Among those were Lord Shaftesbury, well known proponent of social reform, and the philanthropist, Angela Burdett Coutts.

In 1852, the hospital opened in a converted townhouse on Great Ormond Street. This was the first in the country entirely dedicated to children’s health. Unlike the hospitals abroad, Great Ormond Street was funded by charitable donations and subscriptions, but through these it was able to give free treatment to poor children and expand its remit. 

Charles Dickens, the author, lived nearby and was committed from the beginning. He raised the profile of the new hospital by writing articles, publicising the good work and appearing at fundraising events which encouraged further donations. In 1868 the commemorative cot scheme was devised and many individuals and groups sponsored a cot and had their name above it. The Royal Family became patrons and J M Barrie, another local author, donated the rights to his famous book, Peter Pan in 1929. These were just a few of the ways in which the hospital managed to secure sufficient and ongoing funds.

Photos of Cot Plaques of GOSH
Cot plaques Wellcome Collection at Science Museum CC BY 4.0

How the hospital operated

At the start there was Dr West himself, Dr William Jenner, one surgeon and nursing staff. The doctors gave their services for free whilst continuing their own private practices. Initially the young patients were treated in shared wards that looked rather like giant nurseries. Toys and clothes were provided for the children. Visiting and reading to the children became a fashionable pastime for well-to-do ladies. With good care, warmth and food, some of the children who were admitted with minor illnesses would have recovered. But for others, the prognosis was not so good. Louis Pasteur didn’t make the connection between germs and disease until 1867, antiseptics were not developed until the 1870’s and antibiotics until after World War Two. Many conditions were incurable early on in the hospital’s history. 

The growing hospital

The hospital got off to a slow start. On the opening day apparently only one little girl was admitted and by the end of the month the doctors had seen just twenty-four out-patients. However, the reputation of Great Ormond Street grew rapidly after this and so did the number of children being brought in for treatments. Expansion was necessary and so the house next door to the hospital was purchased. This increased bed capacity and patient numbers rose. A convalescent home in Highgate, north London, was also opened so that children who needed time to heal could benefit from country air and a healthy lifestyle to build them up before going home. 

Numbers of children seeking help still climbed and in 1875 the hospital opened a brand-new building built on land behind the original houses. At the time it was a state-of-the-art medical facility. 

A chapel was also constructed as part of this new building. It was designed by EM Barry, son of the famous Barry who designed the Houses of Parliament. This luckily survives today and is Grade II-listed.

By 1893, the original town houses had been demolished and replaced by yet another building for hospital stays known as the Jubilee or South Wing. You can still see the facade of this old red brick building today on Great Ormond Street.

By the end of the century hundreds of children were being treated as in-patients each year and thousands as outpatients. 

Medical progress went on apace during the twentieth century and more and more facilities were added. For example, in 1908 a new outpatient building was opened, paid for by the millionaire American Lord Astor. But by the 1920’s and 30’s despite much success, the hospital was as usual in need of more up-to-date facilities. 

Research and Training

Research, as well as training, was always an important area of the hospital’s purpose. The existence of a variety of cases seen meant doctors were able to study childhood diseases more readily. Doctors were encouraged to train and study at the hospital and over the years this brought impressive results. Many of those who trained went on to become experts in their fields. Nurse training was also always considered essential. Dr West had written a book on nursing children at a time before Florence Nightingale’s ideas brought large scale changes to the profession.  His ideas were developed and adapted during the nineteenth century and eventually the Charles West School of Nursing was set up on-site. This provided national training for children’s nursing right up until 1995. 

Part of the NHS

In 1948 the hospital became an NHS hospital, which meant that it became funded by the state and initially charitable donations were discouraged. The hospital had been operational during World War Two with the basement used as a casualty clearing station for local people injured during the Blitz.  A major building programme had been put on hold because of the war and the hospital suffered bomb damage. 

The new NHS came under severe financial strain as people flooded to take advantage of the new free medical care, so it took time to catch up on repairs and redevelopment. However, the war also brought major innovations and discoveries in health care. The mass production of penicillin was made possible by the scientists Florey and Chain who were spurred on by the need for better treatment of casualties. It was used in Great Ormond Street early on and saved the lives of many children. 

In the 1980’s the government relaxed the rules around fund-raising for hospitals and donations once again contributed to updating the buildings and equipment. Today, it’s hard to believe that a small hospital contained in one modest town house on Great Ormond Street has grown to become such a massive enterprise, still focused on the health and care of sick children and at the forefront of medical innovation and expertise. 







Featured image at top of page: 49 Great Ormond Street 1882 J P Emslie CC BY 4.0

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