A Victorian hospital and Florence Nightingale

OF CRIMEAN WAR fame, Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) established a nursing school in what is now St Charles Hospital in North Kensington in 1884. In that time, the hospital near the northern end of Ladbroke Grove was called ‘the St Marylebone Union Infirmary’. It was so named because it was built to serve the poor of the parish of St Marylebone. It had to be put up outside the parish because there was no room available to build a hospital within it. This institution was opened in 1881 by the then Prince (future King Edward VII) and Princess of Wales. A very informative website, https://ezitis.myzen.co.uk, revealed that the hospital was:

“… three storeys high, with a central block and four pavilions.  It had accommodation for 744 patients … and 86 resident staff (the Infirmary also had 82 non-resident staff).”

In 1923, the hospital was renamed the ‘St Marylebone Hospital’ and the next year, the then Minister of Health and future Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940) opened an extension, which had just been completed. By 1926, some wards had bedside wireless sets installed.

The hospital was given its current name when the London County Council took over its running in 1930. During WW2, wards on the top floors were closed, but the hospital suffered little damage from enemy bombing. After the war, St Charles served as a general hospital, but by 1998, there were very few beds for in-patients. Currently, the establishment is run by both the Central London Community Healthcare NHS Trust and the Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust. Now, it is known as St Charles’ Centre for Health and Wellbeing. Most of its patient care is out-patient and since the development of vaccines against covid19, it is also a ‘vaccination hub’.

The original edifices were designed by Henry Saxon Snell (1831-1904). In grey weather, the late Victorian buildings of St Charles with their brickwork and neo-gothic decorative features present a somewhat gloomy or even ominous appearance. In bright sunlight, although they do not seem particularly welcoming, they have a certain charm. The website, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol37, describes the architecture in more detail:

“The excellent plain brickwork, strong selfconfident design, and assured functional planning and detail make St. Charles Hospital a most significant building for its period. It occupies a rectangular site of three and a half acres near the north-west end of Ladbroke Grove … The buildings are planned on the pavilion principle, each block being, as far as compatible with facility of communication, isolated from the others. There are five parallel pavilions, the central administrative block being flanked on either side by two blocks of wards. The central block is surmounted by a massive tower, 182 feet in height, which forms a prominent landmark when viewed from the north and west. The chimney-shaft from the boilers below is carried up inside this tower, the upper part of which has a corbelled stage derived from northern Italian work of the Middle Ages. The tower contains a number of large tanks, providing storage for 25,000 gallons of water pumped from a well 500 feet in depth … The pavilions on either side of the tower are linked to each other by cast-iron galleries and canopied walks. A block of buildings situated at the entrance contained the residences of the medical officers, and over the spacious arched gateway in the centre there was a chapel 60 feet long by 30 feet wide, with a boarded wagon-roof of trefoil section. In a report on the infirmary written by Snell, he described the elaborate systems of heating and ventilation. Open fires heated coils of pipes containing water which then circulated, humidity also being contrived so that air would not be dried, a great advance for the time. The lighting was by gas, and fumes were carefully vented away. This ‘Thermhydric’ system, patented by the architect, included upright flues in the external walls, inlets being provided for fresh air which was warmed as it entered, and air was also admitted directly through the walls into skirtingboxes between the beds, while flues carried off the foul air and the products of gas combustion.”

Although it was clearly an advanced building for its time and it is not far from the much-visited Portobello Road, this hospital is unlikely to be on many visitors’ itineraries. However, lovers of Victorian architecture might enjoy seeing it even if they had no clinical requirement to do so.

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