History of Lewisham Hospital

History of The Grounds


The grounds where Lewisham Hospital now stands, were originally palaeolithic settlements. Items found near The Riverside, include a four-inch ovate, facetted palaeolithic flint hand axe, mesolithic blades and neolithic flint flakes. These were left by early Saxon villages.

By the Victorian era, when Lewisham Hospital’s origins begin, the grounds are part of an established small Borough. The grounds made up an estate with stables, housing and a local pub, which may be the establishment pictured below.



History of The Buildings

In 1612 a chain of events began that would eventually lead toward the building of Lewisham Hospital. A house on Rushey Green was donated to Lewisham Parish. This became the first Workhouse. It offered respite, work and care for poor residents of Lewisham and surrounding boroughs. At this time early ambulances took the form of any available horse and cart, or even a wheelbarrow, to bring in those too sick to walk. The Workhouse struggled to find enough room to cater for local needs and overcrowding became a problem that lasted  over a hundred years.

In 1814 Lewisham obtained a Local Act of Parliament and appointed a Board of Guardians to organise poor relief. Finally in 1817 a new Workhouse was built to accommodate the expanding needs of local communities. This Workhouse was erected at the west side of Lewisham Road which later became known as Lewisham High Street.

Expansion of Lewisham Hospital

The Board of Guardians oversaw the creation of a Lewisham Poor Law Union in 1836. This Union represented Lewisham and surrounding boroughs. The Poor Law Commission allocated £2,000 to expand the Workhouse. This included cholera wards to treat 218 cases. Nun’s were originally the sole carers and were trained as nurses. This was inspired in the UK by the high quality of French nursing, also administered by trained Nuns. The Infant Poor House is shown on the map below. This was an invaluable respite for orphans or children who could not live with their family. The children in the Infant Poor House, were schooled in skills that would later find them employment.

The Infant Poor House had a resident pet dog, who lived on the dorm. An Unknown Foundling was left as a newborn baby, in a nearby street. She is mentioned several times in the Lewisham Hospital Archives. On reaching working age, she was employed and given lodgings in a big house. Each child was entered into a trade or family for service. From 1904 children born in the Workhouse did not have it cited on their birth certificate, so as not to put them at a disadvantage later in life.

The Workhouse Becomes A Hospital

The expanded Workhouse began to employ doctors in 1837. In 1847-48 an influenza epidemic, cholera and small pox took up nearly all the Workhouse resources. It is at this time that the Sisters of St. John came into their own. These Nuns had been trained as nurses because of a physician called Robert Bentley Todd, from Kings College Hospital. Mr Todd was an Irish protestant who believed religious discipline could transform nursing. Popular opinion at the time questioned whether British nursing standards were the best that could be devised. In 1848 Bentley decided to develop an order  of highly qualified Nursing Sisters, attached to the Anglican church. He gained support from the principal at Kings College, Richard Jelfe.

The Sisterhood of St. John the Evangelist  &  The First Nurse Strike


A lease was taken at 36 Fitzroy Sq. in the Parish of St. John and the Sisterhood of St. John the Evangelist began. In 1854 the Sisters were relocated into the cholera wards at Westminster Hospital. The Sisters became so successful over subsequent years that many other Sisterhoods were set up to emulate them.

In 1869 Sister Matron Amy Parry was having consistent outbursts, against the Governors. They demanded her removal from service. She was removed and immediately, all of the remaining  Sisters and 35 nurses sent a letter to King’s threatening to resign. The Council of St. John refused to change their decision. After a three day sit down of nurses and Sisters, all of the Sisters resigned, alongside thirty nurses.


Coffins’ From the Windows!

The Sisters of St. John provided an initial health care service, that Lewisham Hospital would later be founded upon. Several of the original Sisters were appointed to serve in the Crimean War. They left for Russia, under the supervision of the governing Matron, a Miss Florence Nightingale.

Meanwhile in London the Sisters set up a small house in Cressingham Road, Lewisham to begin treating the poor and sick. This Voluntary Hospital failed, when the Nuns realised that they had failed to measure the narrow staircase properly. When the first patient died on their ward upstairs, the only way they could take him out in a coffin, was to lower the coffin from an upstairs window. Although they did try to continue to do this, it became a scandal in the community and had to be closed down.

Some of these Sisters, then ended up working at Lewisham Workhouse. Before doctors and surgeons were appointed, they were solely responsible for providing free healthcare to those who could not afford it. Infectious paupers were paid for out of the Poor Rate, which was an early blueprint for todays NHS.


Too Many Parishes, Not Enough Beds


By 1868 the strain on Lewisham Workhouse resources, was too much. Charlton, Kidbrooke and Plumstead were removed from the Union. In 1877 the freehold 11-14 Exchequer Place adjoining the Workhouse was bought. In 1880 the Guardians bought the Workhouse from Lewisham Parish for £7,500 pounds. The Parish allowed the Guardians a mortgage, spreading payments over thirty years. In 1882 the Nursery ground behind Exchequer Place, and ten cottages comprising 264-282 High St, and a property called Hornbrook House were bought for £7,800. Hornbrook House stood where the car park is now.

In 1885 a new Workhouse opened housing 506 patients, but this was still too small to cope with local demand. In 1886 the Guardians bought the Workhouse gardens, from the Earl of Dartmouth. They now owned about ten acres. Over the next five years they bought the remaining private house at 246 High St, the Colfe school and all remaining stables.

The Infirmary opened in 1894 and the total cost of the entire site including building, equipment and necessary landscaping had came to a total of £74,000.

Mr Toogood  &  Emmie Lofts

The first Medical Superintendent at Lewisham Hospital, was Dr F S Toogood. He served the hospital until 1920, and is thought to have set the foundations for medical care at the Infirmary. Emmie Lofts was a young Matron employed to establish care at the Infirmary. She was the first person on record, to appoint female orderlies. She also organised some of the first nurse training schemes under a Local Authority. She was the first Local Authority matron to insist on midwifery training for maternity Sisters.

In 1897 the first mental health facilities were pioneered at Lewisham Hospital, with twin wards called Hope and Faith. These were called Lunatic Pavilions at the time, and were dedicated to treating psychiatric patients.

In 1915 and throughout the War the hospital became a military facility for those injured in the war. During this time Lewisham Hospital became the only hospital in London to receive a direct hit from a V-1 flying bomb.


During the Great War

The bomb that hit Lewisham Hospital, wrecked D & E wards, the registrars office (most of the patients records were lost) and the library. Fires broke out in the dispensary and in offices after the blow fell at 4.50am, 26th July 1944. Four people died and seventy were injured. The bomb that hit was a V1. The Fieseler Fi 103, better known as the V-1 ‘Buzz Bomb’, also colloquially known in Britain as the ‘Doodlebug’, was an early example of what would later be called a cruise missile. At its peak, over a hundred V-1s a day were fired at southeast England, 9,521 in total. The V-1 attacks caused 22,892 casualties (almost entirely civilians).

The above photograph is stored in Lewisham Library archives: Red Alert, The Story of South East London at War 1939-45.

After the war Lewisham’s population had grown from 100,000 at the turn of the century, to nearly 200,000 by 1925. So once again the Board of Guardians had to consider what to do. Their answer was, once again, build.

Ward blocks A and B were built in 1924 with appropriate operating theatres. Bearing in mind that accommodation was for the old, the infirm and not just for the sick. In 1925 to accommodate the increased demand for nurses the New Home was built. The Lunacy Wards were cleared and physiotherapy and x-ray moved in. Physiotherapists, surgeons and a radiologist were appointed. Lewisham Hospital was rapidly expanding to become the modern hospital it is today.

Photographs From Lewisham Hospital Archives

A surgeon photographs an early limb replacement.



The Bacteriology Laboratory established at Lewisham Hospital in 1915, was subsequently extended to take in pathology investigations.


Oxygen, Nitrous Oxide, Vacuum.



Nurses in a training session.



Nurses being trained on the ward using plastic dummies.


A boy on the Children’s Ward enjoys cycling around on his tricycle.



A young boy in a treatment chamber.



A boy on a hobby horse in the children’s ward.



The children of Lewisham and young patients enjoy a party at the hospital.



A young midwife and a new baby. Lewisham Hospital was one of the first hospitals to insist on full midwifery training for their maternity nurses.



A Mum and her newborn twins pose for a photograph with, the midwives.



Nurses in the 1960‘s, standing outside what is now The Education Centre. This building is based in the original old Lewisham Library.



Operating theatre.



Reception duties in the hospital.



An immaculately organised laundry.



A space for prayer.



Lewisham Hospital Today




University Hospital Lewisham is an acute district general hospital. What began as a small voluntary hospital in a Workhouse, is now a facility that treats hundreds of thousands, of patients each year. The National Health Service formed in 1948. University Hospital Lewisham continued to expand throughout the 1950s and 60s. The Premature Baby Unit was established in 1954, and an Outpatients Unit in 1958. The Outpatients Unit was opened on the 15th May by Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret. In 1964 the hospital opened its Accident and Emergency Department. In 1968 an Intensive Therapy Unit was opened and the Premature Baby Unit was replaced by an Special Baby Care Unit.

In 1997 the hospital was awarded university status. University Hospital Lewisham now provides teaching and training for medical staff. The services offered in the hospital include an exceptional neonatology unit, paediatric surgery, cystic fibrosis treatment, haemophilia treatment, accident and emergency, ENT, maternity and elderly wards, among many more.

2007 saw the grand opening of a major new treatment wing, The Riverside. This building is at the forefront of current practice ideas regarding patient care, with multiple four-bedded bays. The Riverside generates as much power as possible, via photovoltaic panels. This kind of approach ecologically, and environmentally continues to keep University Hospital Lewisham a highly functioning, modern hospital.


Statistics 2009


51,000 inpatients treated.

187,500 outpatients treated.

30,000 children treated.

3,499 babies delivered.

A&E treats 83,000 adults.


All sources used to develop this article were found in Lewisham Hospital Archives and Lewisham Library Archives. Lewisham Hospital by RJL Meyrick was particularly useful. All photography came from Lewisham Hospital Archives in the Education Centre, except the V2 Bomb from Red Source, A History of London in the War. Statistics as to 2009 patients, are on Lewisham Hospital Website:




This article was collated by J. Fagan, a Writer in Residence at Lewisham Hospital in 2010.