Lewisham Hospital appealBack in 2012, plans were proposed to downgrade Lewisham Hospital by closing its Accident and Emergency services and Maternity unit. The people of Lewisham and elsewhere, came together to protest the decision by signing petitions, marching and challenging the decision in court. In 2013 the High Court quashed Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt’s decision to downgrade Lewisham Hospital saying that he acted unlawfully.

I have fond memories of standing in the mud in Mountsfield Park listening to speeches and chanting but let’s go back a hundred years to when Lewisham Hospital was something else entirely.

Lewisham Workhouse c1890
Lewisham Workhouse c1890

Built in 1817, part of the site we know as Lewisham Hospital was once home to a workhouse where the poor and the destitute of Lewisham received board and lodging in return for work.  The original building housed 186 inmates.

In 1836 it became the headquarters of the Lewisham Poor Law Union whose operations were overseen by an elected Board of Guardians, 20 in total, who represented seven parishes (Lewisham, Charlton, Eltham, Kidbroke, Lee, Plumstead and Mottingham).

In 1837 the Board of Guardians decided that the workhouse wasn’t big enough for the new Union, so the building was enlarged to accommodate 300 paupers and new Cholera wards were built behind the workhouse.

Bigger and better

By 1865, according to a report in the medical journal The Lancet, although not overcrowded (only 180 inmates had been noted), the workhouse had essentially become a pauper hospital for the elderly, sick and infirm (no able-bodied persons were observed).  There were 72 beds in seven ‘sick wards’ (three for males and four for females) and 22 beds in four ‘infection wards’.

Lewisham Infirmary 1898
Lewisham Infirmary 1898

In 1877 and 1882 more land was acquired and new buildings were erected. In 1892 building work began to construct a separate infirmary to the north of the workhouse, and this was formally opened in 1894.

In 1897 the infirmary began to accept ‘lunatics’ (lack of sensitivity was clearly an issue back in the day) and by the turn of the century, enjoyed a good reputation as a well-run establishment.

The war years

Lewisham was crowded with wounded soldiers during World War One, when many of its houses and institutions were turned into hospitals. The Lewisham workhouse was one of the largest to be converted to military use.

Lewisham-ww1-military-hospital-c1915 The Infirmary had made the first physical distinction between the workhouse and hospital functions carried out on the site by the Guardians of the Poor.

It had 24 beds for officers and 838 for servicemen.  Some 190 beds were for German prisoners-of-war, including 12 for ordinary cases and 12 for insane officers.

Surgery was a major part of the work of the military hospital. Lewisham did not have purpose-built operating theatres until 1924 but since 1895 surgeons had used a room in the female section of the Infirmary as a makeshift theatre.

More buildings were added over the years but during World War Two Lewisham had the distinction of being the only hospital to to receive a direct hit by a flying bomb. In July 1944 a V1 flying bomb destroyed many of the old workhouse and infirmary buildings. Most of the original buildings have been demolished and replaced, but a few survive. The original workhouse building fronting Lewisham High Street is now known as the Waterloo block.

This original workhouse building now known as the Waterloo block
This original workhouse building now known as the Waterloo block

Following the formation of the National Health Service in 1948, the hospital continued to expand with new buildings opened in the 1950s and 1960s. These included the Outpatients Department in 1958, and an extension to the Accident Department in 1964.

The original workhouse entrance showing the coat of arms of the Lewisham Union
The original workhouse entrance showing the coat of arms of the Lewisham Union above the arch

With so much prime real estate you can see why Hunt wanted to downgrade the hospital and sell off the land to property developers.

Hurray for people power!

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Maureen Myatt
Maureen Myatt

Researching family history to find ancestors were there as paupers. It was a dreadful place but that was then. Thank goodness some things have changed. My Mum was also in Lewisham Hospital several times during the 50’s and 60’s.