Princess Louise Hospital, Kensington, came into existence as a direct result of people recognising a need for medical care among the poor in the parish and taking matters into their own hands. By their hard work and commitment to their cause they managed to achieve their goal and local health and welfare was improved beyond recognition.
In other words, the hospital was built by the people for the people.
Some medical care had been available for the sick and poor in Kensington from the early 1800s, most likely provided by a group of medical and philanthropic people getting together and starting what was called in those days a “dispensary.” This would have been a consulting room or converted building where medical men could attend their patients, give treatments, dispense medicines, and so on. From such small beginnings the Kensington Dispensary opened in 1815 at 13, Holland Street, with an initial expense of twenty pounds for furniture and equipment.
A group of medical practitioners opened an establishment there for the purpose of interviewing their poorer patients, and apparently continued there until the Kensington Dispensary was founded as a properly constituted body on April 12th 1840.
Its affairs were governed by a Committee of lay people, advised by a medical board of 8 doctors. A consultant physician and surgeon were appointed plus a resident Apothecary, required to be a licentiate of the Apothecaries’ Hall.
Although in the mid-1800s there was general poverty and extremely poor living conditions throughout Kensington, by the end of the nineteenth century improvements were taking place in the districts nearer the Dispensary, but the working classes were moving north west to the new district of North Kensington. Soon some of the worst slums in London could be found in that area, particularly in the Potteries of Notting Dale, in Golborne, and Kensal.
Dr. Goodrich, the first Medical Officer of Health for Kensington, described the Potteries as follows:-
“One of the most deplorable spots, not only in Kensington but in the whole of the metropolis, is “The Potteries” at Notting Dale”. It occupies 8 or 9 acres of ground and contains about 1000 inhabitants, the majority of whom obtain a living by rearing and fattening pigs upon the house refuse obtained from club houses and hotels, and upon offal from slaughter houses.
The general death rate varies from 40 to 60 per annum. Of these deaths the very large proportion of 87.5% are under five years of age and the most appalling fact, however, is that for a period of three years the average age or time of death is under twelve.”
The first President of the Dispensary was the Venerable Archdeacon Potts and the first Patrons included HRH the Duke of Sussex, HRH the Duchess of Kent, HRH the Princess Sophia, Her Grace the Dowager Duchess of Bedford and the Most Noble Marquis of Bute. In 1843 HRH Prince Albert also consented to become a Patron.
The object of the Dispensary was “to render medical and surgical aid gratuitously to the sick poor not receiving parochial relief upon the recommendation of the Governors.”
Two members of the Board attended at the Dispensary taking alternative days for 3 months in succession, so that “a patient may, by attending every other day have the benefit of being seen by the same medical man even for 3 months together …. should any continue for so long a period as to require it.”
Apart from attendance at the Dispensary, the Medical Board organised a scheme of home visiting, dividing the district into 8 areas and appointing medics to cover each area.
By the year 1845 the premises at 13, Holland Street had become too small for the increasing numbers of patients. As a result it was decided to look for a new site for Dispensary House and a building fund was set up. It was not until 1849 that suitable premises were found. The Dispensary moved to 49 Church Street, Kensington in September of that year and remained there for seventy five years.
A turning point in the Dispensary’s history took place at a meeting of the Medical Board on November 10th 1879.The Board had noticed for some time that the proportion of child patients attending the Dispensary or being visited in their homes was steadily increasing and thus it produced a Report which recommended the setting up of a Children’s Hospital and stipulating what would be needed for such an establishment, e.g. the cubic space per bed, the size and position of the windows, the placing of the toilet – separate from the ward – and the necessity of having a bathroom. The Board also recognised the needs of the children’s parents, in that, although glad to have their children in hospital they objected to sending them too far away, as every visit involved expense and possibly the loss of a day’s work.
By the 1920s plans were afoot to take the Dispensary north. Princess Louise, the only daughter of Queen Victoria to marry a British subject, was the President of the Kensington Dispensary and very supportive of education and health projects for women and children. Thus she called a conference at her home in Kensington Palace in 1924 where it was decided to re-establish the Dispensary in North Kensington. After all, the Kensington Dispensary was almost two miles away from the areas of greatest poverty and, according to The Times in 1924, it “was the only provision for the sick poor in the whole of Kensington apart from the poor law institution.”
Lord Balfour of Burleigh, a Kensington Councillor, was appointed Treasurer. His fund raising campaign began with an advertisement in The Times, March 1925, quoting the Medical Officer for Health, Kensington,
“out of every 1000 children born in Kensington not many more than one half are alive and perfectly fit at the age of five”
An all out effort was made to raise the necessary money to build and maintain the planned hospital and four years of continuous collecting took place. One way and another their goal was reached and the £80,000 needed was achieved. Thus the Princess Louise Hospital for Children was indeed “built byKensington people with Kensington money for Kensington children.”
A site on the War Memorial Playing Fields was bought in 1925 for £4237, 6 shillings and 6 pence. The foundation stone was laid a year later by Princess Louise and the new road of Pangbourne Avenue was created. The Hospital, built on an open, airy site between some of the worst slum was finally opened in 1928 by King George V and Queen Mary. There were 42 beds, an Out Patients Department, a Dispensary for Sick Women and both Medical and Surgical wards.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the Hospital played an important role in the local community, its work supported by the Borough Council and the London County Council. However, health care was becoming more a matter of obligation than one of charity. The Hospital’s pamphlet of 1937 said that
“Today the keyword is not ‘Charity to the poor but ‘service.’ And in our special case ‘service to the children’ is the keystone on which Princess Louise Kensington Hospital for Children bases its claim.”
Even so it still needed to rely on charitable donations and voluntary groups e.g. the Linen Group, to survive. Kensington’s annual carnival gave all its profits throughout the 1930s and all manner of bazaars, charity balls, and matinees were organised to raise further funds.
The House Committee Minutes Book of 1929 gives the following examples of donations to the Hospital funds:-
The opening of the Royalty Cinema in Lancaster Road raised £10.00 which was shared between Princess Louise and the Middlesex Hospitals.
A charity meeting of the Greyhound Association on November 29th donated £300.00 and a Boxing Tournament raised £130.00.
For one week a year the income from Derry & Toms’ roof garden was donated.
It was agreed that the notice board in the grounds of St. Helen’s Church be repainted and the wording altered to include an appeal of some nature for funds. Later this was changed and it was agreed that a totally new board would be put in place, rather than having just the old one with an appeal pasted on.
One scheme was proposed whereby local people could pay a penny a week to support the Hospital.
Another scheme, proposed by the Maintenance Fund Committee, was that the residents of North Kensington be offered the opportunity of paying three pence a week or 12 shillings a year, for which they would receive certain benefits:-
Free general Out Patients treatment for children
Free medical Out Patients treatment for women
(special treatment for children & women was not included)
One card covered
- All the girls in the family
- The mother in the family
- All the boys in the family who had not reached their 12th birthday
This was not a popular proposal, especially among the doctors who thought that they would become known as the “Threepenny Doctors.” This scheme was abandoned in 1929.
Few patients could afford to pay for their treatment so an almoner, positioned near the Out Patients Department, was on hand to assess how much the Hospital could afford to subsidise each patient. At the time, National Insurance only covered those in employment and there was increasing unemployment in the 1930s. Healthcare depended on a range of private, voluntary and municipal provisions.
This Out Patients Department stayed open throughout the Second World War even though the Hospital was damaged three times by bombs. It also served as an air raid First Aid Post. Most of Kensington’s children were evacuated during the Second World War and as many of the wealthier residents left London so fund raising decreased. It was becoming clear that a state provided health service was needed.
The Post-war Government was mandated to provide welfare for the whole nation – an idea that had been gaining popularity since the beginning of the century. Thus in 1948 the National Health Service came into being and all hospitals were absorbed into it although in 1946 Princess Louise Hospital had already volunteered to come under the protection of St. Mary’s Paddington, in the hope that this voluntary association would preserve its identity more effectively. Even then Princess Louise continued to receive donations, e.g.on Wednesday, January 14th 1948, the Globe Theatre played a special matinee programme of “Tuppence Coloured” for the Hospital. The local Girl Guides worked hard to raise funds to provide entrance gates and also painted and maintained the railings.
There were benefits to be gained from this association with St.Mary’s in that 2 houses were bought in St.Quintin Avenue for nurses’ accommodation – they had been sleeping in the wards until then – and also the hospital became an official teaching hospital. Nursing was becoming a profession, not a vocation. Local support also continued and in 1948 the Friends Association was formed, which over the next twenty years raised thousands of pounds for the Hospital. In Littlehampton, a home was given anonymously so that children could convalesce at the seaside . For many, it was their first view of the sea.
The Queen visiting the Hospital in 1953
People’s health began to improve steadily, This was particularly noticeable among the young. The “Daily Herald,” in 1955, was pleased to print,”the happiest news of all, they can’t fill the kids’ beds in hospital.”
This was certainly true for Princess Louise where some of the beds were routinely empty. In 1954 it was planned to close two wards and use them for maternity; the long-term intention being to use the Hospital for adults only. This was not popular locally and, in fact, this became a national issue, going twice to the House of Lords.
Lord Balfour, now heading the Friends’ Association, along with the Borough Council, local M.Ps and a petition of 15,000 local people fought this proposal. A vigorous campaign was begun to save Princess Louise for children. It was felt that despite the general decline in demand for children’s beds Princess Louise was in an area whose needs had changed little over the years.
The Minister for Health discovered that the Hospital’s land carried a Royal Charter stipulating that it could be used only by mothers and children, so for a while the Hospital became a maternity and paediatric unit. This change took place in 1960.
Improving conditions – diet, housing, medical care – resulted in people living longer and the idea developed that the Hospital would be of greater benefit if used for geriatric care. Despite local protests this came about; the final children’s party was held in 1970 and the elderly took up residence in 1971. The Hospital was converted to accommodate 61 beds, and day rooms were added, along with rehabilitation, long – stay wards and a day hospital. As well as a social worker, chiropodist, visiting dentist and hairdresser there was speech therapy, occupational therapy, and physiotherapy plus art and music therapy available. There was even its own ambulance service.
The Senior Nursing Officer, Eulena Craig, wrote in 1989 about Princess Louise being ” built to be an intimate, warm environment for the most needy of its age: it still is, “Embracing the elderly need that is carrying us into the 21st century”.
Despite this, at the start of the 21st century opinions were changing again. Surveys of elderly patients showed that they would much prefer to receive care in their own home rather than in an institution, when, and if, care was needed. So, the future of this local resource, once more became a local cause for concern. However the decision was made on February 28th 2006 that this Hospital would close as a centre for geriatric care. Other possibilities would have to be considered for its future.
It would be a great shame if its future had no involvement with its past and all the hard work, endeavour and enthusiasm of local people for Princess Louise Hospital was lost completely.
J. Godin 2006
Thanks to the archivists at the Princess Louise Hospital Archive at St Mary’s Hospital, the London Metropolitan Archive and RBK&C Local Studies.