Thursday, February 19, 2015

St Olave's Infirmary, Rotherhithe, 1875-1985

The Infirmary in 1888
Work on St Olave's Infirmary began in 1873 and opened in 1875 sandwiched between Deptford Lower Road (now Lower Road, SE16 2TU) and Southwark Park. Located next to the St Olave's Poor Law Union workhouse (which I have covered on an earlier post), its creation was a requirement following the Metropolitan Poor Act of 1867, which required that infirmary accommodation be separate from workhouse buildings. 

The new building was a substantial enterprise.  It covered a 2 acre site and was divided into three components -  a male block, a female block, which together had a capacity of 175 patients, and an administrative block in between them. It was run by a Board of Guardians.  The Boards of Guardians were bodies who were responsible, by law (the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834) for the management and administration of workhouses and related buildings. Those serving on a Board of Guardians were elected by the owners of the properties that were liable for the poor rate, a tax gathered by residents in order to provide provision for the disadvantaged. The board was elected annually.  Although the workhouse closed in 1884, the infirmary stayed open until the late 1970s, and its history between those dates is well recorded.  It was so successful that it had already been extended in 1877 and was expanded several times during its career,

The Infirmary in 1914.  The main change from the
1894 map was the addition of a large laundry.
In the 1920s its name changed to the Bermondsey and Rotherhithe Infirmary, but locally it continued to be known as St Olave's.On 1st April 1930 control passed from the Board of Guardians to the London City Council, at which point it was renamed St Olave's Hospital.  The main difference between an infirmary and a hospital was the sort of care that was offered.  Whereas in hospitals specialized medical professionals and surgeons performed life-saving services, infirmaries were more about basic procedures, provision of medication, and simple levels of care, often lacking any surgical facilities. Maternity, geriatric and convalescent care made up a large part of their activities. Accordingly, three operating theatres were installed at the hospital, which improved its ability to treat medical patients and enabled it to take on and surgical cases as well.  

The entrance to the infirmary in the 1920s on
Lower Road
Rotherhithe was badly damaged during the Second World War and although the main areas targeted were on the peninsula of Rotherhithe, other areas suffered too, and St Olave's was damaged several times.   The maternity block was first part of the hospital to receive damage and other bombs inflicted minor damage until in August 1944 a V1 flying bomb damaged a third of the hospital buildings. Amazingly no-one was killed. In the 14th November 1944 the third of five V-weapons to hit this immediate vicinity fell on the forecourt of the hospital, which had to be evacuated. Later bombs also continued to inflict damaged and by the end of the war most of the oldest sections of the hospital had been destroyed.  The number of beds available was severely reduced. The last bomb to hit Bermondsey fell on 26th March 1945 and exploded by the nurses home of St Olaves Hospital on Gomm Road.

A London City Council hospital ward in the 1930s
In 1948 the Hospital became part of the National Health Service.  From 1948 St Olave's was administered by the Bermondsey and Southwark Hospital Management Committee under the South East Metropolitan Regional Hospital Board.  In 1954 the hospital had fewer beds than before the war, partly due to the legacy of the war damage, but also because new regulations demanded that beds were more widely spaced, meaning that more space per bed was required, which left the hospital with reduced capacity.  There was also a shortage of nurses, which meant that not all the available beds could actually be used. Nursing numbers were soon supplemented by recruiting from overseas and this resulted in an influx of different nationalities into the area.  Rotherhithe had always had a multi-national component, with a large Scandinavian presence from the days of the Baltic timber trade.

By the end of the 1950s the hospital had 12 wards and had become very antiquated and although a number of improvements were made, including the addition of a children wards, the modernization of three of the wards and the building of a refreshment pavilion, it continued to be under-funded, although the number of beds eventually increased.  

The only surviving gate house, with
the plaque commemorating
the birth of Michael Caine.
Photograph by Martin Addison
In 1966 St Olave's was subsumed into the Guy's Hospital Group under the auspices of the South East Thames Regional Health Authority.  Matters improved considerably, with the expansion of its remit and significant investment into its infrastructure.  It was the first general hospital to take in psychiatric patients, and dedicated facilities were provided to support this new initiative.  Upgrades to the rest of the hospital took place in 1971 and 1973.

Following the National Health Service Reorganisation Act 1973 St Olave's has been administered by the South Thames Regional Health Authority and in 1974 St Olave's became the responsibility of Lewisham and North Southwark District Health Authority.  In 1979, the hospital was closed to save costs, its patients transferred to other hospitals in the region.  Although the closure was supposed to be temporary the hospital never re-opened and an official announcement of its closure was made in 1985.

Most of the building had already decayed during its period of closure and was eventually demolished.  During the 1990s it was replaced by the Ann Moss Way housing estate.  However, one of the gatehouses is a fortunate and welcome survivor.

A blue plaque commemorates the birth of Sir Michael Caine (born Maurice Joseph Micklewhite), son of a local fish porter, who was born in the charity wing of the Hospital on 14th March 1933.

With particular thanks to the Lost Hospitals of London website at
St Olave's

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