Monday, 2 July 2018

From Workhouse to Well-being – a short history of University Lewisham Hospital


The 70th Anniversary of the NHS is a good time to look back on the history of our local hospital University Lewisham Hospital. Did you know that the hospital first began as a workhouse?

Workhouse origins

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries there was a large increase in poverty. In 1834 an Act of Parliament made it compulsory for parishes to form unions, and for each union to have its own workhouse. The union covering Lewisham was called the Bermondsey Union. Workhouses were large buildings which housed the poor and destitute and were deliberately designed to be horrible places to live. Work was compulsory.  Lewisham had a workhouse at least as early as the 1740’s and a new one was built in 1817. By at least 1865, the workhouse was mainly a hospital for the old. And in 1894 a separate infirmary was built. The following year medical staff quarters were built. Friction between the Matron and the Medical Superintendent soon followed. The authorities deemed Matron had been “insubordinate” but she refused to resign and the matter continued for some time. In 1897 the infirmary opened its doors to “lunatics” (as people with mental health problems were then labelled). The Workhouse Infirmary was the building that still stands as part of Lewisham Hospital on the left-hand side of an entrance arch. You can still see the workhouse coat of arms in red and white over the archway.

University Lewisham Hospital with the workhouse coat of arms above an entrance.

 The workhouse infirmary was often used by non-resident local women as a place to give birth. From 1904 children were issued with birth certificates giving the address of 390 High Street, Lewisham with no mention of the workhouse. Other workhouses did the same.

Many UK hospitals have similar histories of being housed in part in former workhouses.


1914 until 1948

During the First World War, the Workhouse Infirmary was cleared to make way for expected wartime casualties. The hospital was then renamed Lewisham Military Hospital. It cared for officers, ranks and German POWs. One of the nurses was Sister Daisy Ankers who will be the subject of a forthcoming exhibition at Lewisham Library. 

Lewisham Military Hospital.
After the war, the hospital reverted to civilian use with new buildings being built in 1925. The workhouse continued to operate to some extent until 1929 when the site was taken over by the London County Council and became a general hospital called Lewisham Hospital. In 1932 C block was built with 163 maternity and children’s beds. In 1935, HRH Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, opened a new wing.

An NHS institution

After the NHS began in 1948, the hospital continued to expand. In 1954 Lewisham Hospital opened a premature baby unit for 12 babies. Building started on a new Outpatients block in 1956. In 1957, Lewisham was the second hospital to introduce a staff paging system. HRH Princess Margaret opened a new Outpatients Department in 1958 built on the bomb-site of one of the ward blocks hit in World War II. In the 1960s, new operating theatres were added together with a new Special Care Baby Unit, a new Antenatal clinic and an Intensive Therapy Unit (ITU). The ITU was the first in a District General Hospital in the UK. After a new Nurses Education Centre opened in 1971, the Macmillan Team treated their first cancer patient in 1982. 1987 saw the beginning of a redevelopment of the Hospital and another  redevelopment phase began in 1992 which included a new Women and Children’s wing. The 1990s  also saw the upgrading of the A&E Department, the Ladywell unit for mental health and the granting of University status in 1997.

During this time the hospital responded to local civil emergencies by treating casualties from the 1957 Hither Green and St John’s train crashes, and the Eltham crash of 1972.

Riverside Redevelopment

In 2007 Archbishop Desmond Tutu opened the Riverside wing as part of a third redevelopment programme to replace Nightingale wards with more modern facilities. Archbishop Tutu was asked to open the building due to his ministry in the Borough in the 1970s at St Augustine’s Church, Grove Park.
Construction of the ‘S’ shaped building which weaves around the Ravensbourne river to maximise the site space, was carried out by Carillon. It was the first major NHS building to generate some of its own power using photovoltaic roof panels.

Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign

In July 2012, the South London Health Care Trust responsible for running the hospital went into financial administration. A Government report that year recommended that the A&E unit should close and patients go to Woolwich instead. It also recommended that the maternity unit close. A strong and spirited local campaign quickly followed. Nobel Prize winner and Freeman of the Borough of Lewisham, Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke out against the move as did as Lewisham Council. 

In July 2013, the High Court ruled that the closure could not go ahead. And in October 2013, the Court of Appeal ruled that Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt had exceeded his powers as a Government Minister. He did not have the authority to make cuts at the hospital. The decision will have important effects as it affects how ministers can manage NHS finances.

In 2013, the hospital became part of the Greenwich and Lewisham NHS Trust.

The present and future

In January 2018, the Midwifery Unit Network made the birth centre a beacon site for its midwife-led birth unit. The hospital continues to provide a range of community health services in Lewisham.

As of 7 July 2018, the A&E and maternity units are still open. Jeremy Hunt remained the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, with social care added to his portfolio, in January 2018, until July 2018 when he became Foreign Secretary. He was replaced by Matthew Hancock. 

Forthcoming exhibition: the Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre will present an exhibition on Sister Daisy Ankers and the Lewisham Military Hospital later this year. It will be part of the national events commemorating the First World War and women’s role in it as well as the Centenary of UK women's suffrage. 

Julie Robinson, Local Studies Librarian. Enquiries: local.studies@lewisham.gov.uk

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