Photo of Italian Hospital, Queen Square by Robin Sones

Unusual Hospitals of Camden

If you have been reading Camden Guides blogs in recent weeks you will have seen the rich history it has with medicine.  Today it is the home of some of the most famous and leading hospitals in the country – University College Hospital, Royal Free, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children and the National Hospital for Neurology.

But if you peel back time and wander the streets of those bygone days you will come across some other rather unusual ones. Here is a selection of them:

The Italian Hospital

If you look at one aspect of Great Ormond Street Hospital, you may wonder — why the above plaque? But if you look towards the top of the building you will see the words ‘The Italian Hospital’.

A building on this site belonged to a wealthy Italian businessman, Commendatore Giovanni Battista Ortelli,who was aware of the language barrier faced by many of his countrymen who lived in the Holborn/Clerkenwell area of London, many in poverty. Those original buildings were demolished, with the new Italian Hospital built in 1898 not only with wards but an ornate chapel with a domed roof from further funds donated by Ortelli.  He is commemorated on the exterior of the building with this carving on the corner of Queen Square and Boswell Street. 

The nursing staff were provided by the nuns in the Order of The Sisters of St Vincent de Paul, an order originally established in France to care for the poor and destitute. 

Many of the patients were in fact not Italians, with nearly half of the patients in the early years being local British people in need. Like many hospitals of the time, it depended on patronage and funds to keep going. Giovanni Ortelli’s widow continued to support the hospital, donating funds to enable operating theatres and a further extension to be built in 1911.  

During World War I the hospital stayed open with some of the beds set aside for wounded servicemen, but it had to close for the duration of World War II.   It reopened after the war but elected not to join the NHS in 1948.  It concentrated on private patients and clinics but over time this became no longer financially sustainable and it closed its doors in 1991. It was acquired by the Great Ormond Street Hospital as offices but is currently being transformed to the new Sight and Sound Centre.

Moving across Queen Square to the other side where another unusual hospital once existed:

Alexandra Hospital for Children with Hip Disease 

phot0 of Queen Square by Julian Osley
Queen Square, Julian Osley CC BY SA 2.0

The nineteenth century saw an increase in voluntary hospitals and institutions, and in 1867, opening with 10 beds at 19 Queen Square, was the clumsily named House of Relief for Children with Chronic Diseases of the Joints, then shortened to Hospital for Hip Diseases in Children; but with Royal Patronage of the Princess of Wales, Princess Alexandra, in 1881 it was renamed again as the Alexandra Hospital for Children with Hip Disease.  

The idea for this hospital had been that of Jane Perceval and Catherine Wood, nurses at the nearby Hospital for Sick Children. Children who suffered from hip disease were frequently not admitted to general hospitals as the disease required long-term admission, often incurable.  The disease was tuberculosis, which in this form manifested in the joints rather than the lungs, causing distortion of the joints and pain. Jane was well connected, her grandfather being Spencer Perceval (the only Prime Minster to have been assassinated), and as such able to gather patronage and funds.  Voluntary Hospitals survived on donations and having Royal patronage was good news.

Royal patronage was, in the words of Frank Prochaska, ‘a virtual guarantee of prosperity’ for Victorian charities, with subscribers and donors attracted either by a desire to follow royal example or because of the chance to become associated with the British aristocracy through common charitable interests.   And this little hospital in Queen Square had not only the Princess of Wales but also Spencer Walpole MP, the Duchess of Albany and the Duchess of Fife as Patrons.

From a hospital with 10 beds it rapidly expanded into both 17 and 18 Queen Square, and was then rebuilt to have over 60 beds.  Children were here for a number of years, and although not a free hospital – a fee of four shillings (20p) a week — it was subsidised with some of its beds being endowed. The patients here were children of parents who worked as bricklayers, carpenters, plumbers, and postmen, rather than the wealthy or middle classes.  It remained in Queen Square until 1920 before relocating to Luton and finally closing in 1950. 

The patients were often confined to their beds – immobilised for weeks, sometime months, on end with various contraptions and pulleys, but there was an exercise regime.  Balconies were built so that beds could be moved to enable patients to benefit from fresh air. A good diet was also part of the cure.  

Moving on, in the heart of what is now the hub of university life in Camden:

Endsleigh Palace Hotel hospital

Photo of Former London School of Tropical Medicine by Tom Bastin
25 Gordon Street formerly the Endsleigh Palace Hotel – A building with 2 hospitals,
photo Former London School of Tropical Medicine, Tom Bastin CC BY 2.0

Sitting on the corner of Gordon Street and Gower Place is an imposing nine-storey building which started its life as the Endsleigh Palace Hotel. In 1915 this building was requisitioned for use as a hospital for officers with 100 beds.  It was described in the British Journal of Nursing in 1915 as having two excellent operating theatres as well as a stretcher and a passenger lift. In addition its situation could not be more pleasant, as facing St Pancras Church and looking into Endsleigh Garden.

Funds were short, however, as the War Office only paid three shillings a day towards the upkeep, which meant a need for private donations and patronage.   The Chairman of the hospital was Sir Archibald Williamson, a Scottish businessman and Liberal politician, while the nursing staff were all trained nurses under the supervision of a Miss E Tubbs.    There was, though, a falling-out with Matron Tubbs as she was dismissed with one day’s notice and £3 in lieu of proper notice.  She did not go quietly, however, and demanded a reason for her dismissal, which was eventually given as not having maintained a sufficiently high standard of order and discipline in the hospital.  The Nursing Journal stated Scandalous is the only word which describes such treatment. 

When she left for the final time she took with her the entire nursing and domestic staff who had resigned en masse.  Miss Tubbs was given the post of Matron at the Hospital Militaires Anglais in France less than two weeks later.

After the war the building was acquired by the London School of Tropical Medicine and Hospital for Tropical Diseases. It was officially opened by the Duke of York, later King George VI, on 11th November 1920, the same day as the burial of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. The school had outgrown its location at the Albert Dock Hospital, together with the belief that there would an increase in people suffering tropical disease as a result of the recent war. There was also the desire to be closer to the University of London and the Wellcome Institute.  Funds donated from the Red Cross Society and the Seamen’s Hospital Society made the move possible to the central location and for the refurbishment of the building to form academic use on the lower four floors and hospital use on the upper floors with sixty beds. 

The first case to be admitted was of bilharziasis in an ex-serviceman from Egypt. It would appear that the building was not a great success with people, as it was described as being dark, awkward, having too many doors and narrow passages.  The students tended to fall asleep because of the darkness in lectures. The school moved out to its new premises in Keppel Street in 1929 and the hospital closed in 1939 at the outbreak of World War II. The hospital came back to Camden after the war, having various locations in the borough. It has since 2004 been based in the Tower of the UCLH on the Euston Road.

Today 25 Gordon Street is a Student Union building and academic teaching space. Hopefully the students stay awake!

And, finally, a hospital for which a walking guide might have felt the need:

London Foot Hospital

Housed in a rather grand building designed by the Adams brothers in the 1790’s, the hospital was at 33 Fitzroy Square.  The concept for this hospital arose when Ernest George Virgo Runting, the chiropodist to Queen Alexandra and Queen Mary, was treating the verruca of Dr Arnold Whittaker Oxford. From a conversation they had emerged the formation of the Chiropodical Society in 1912. They opened their first establishment in Bloomsbury with free evening clinics for the poor who before had few remedies for ailments of the feet.  It continued to grow and after World War I the first school dedicated to chiropody was opened, moving to 33 Fitzroy Square in 1929.  It was very popular and forever needing more space.  Lectures had to be held at the other corner of the Square, at number 40, which was acquired in 1959.  There was then talk of creating an underground passage to link the two buildings! That did not happen. It did, however, house a collection of antique footwear donated by Scholl.

The hospital by the 1980’s and 90’s was deemed no longer fit for purpose, with no lift and narrow corridors, and finally closed in 2003. The degree course transferred to London University.  The collection of antique footwear?  Well, that apparently is now in the Northampton Museum.

If you wish to come on a tour – contact me at freda@sixinthecity or check our website


Featured image at top of post is extracted from Italian Hospital, Queen Square, Robin Sones, 2007 CC BY SA 2.0

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