- Tower Hamlets
It has been 17 years since the Queen Elizabeth Children’s Hospital saw its last patient. Now, ELL investigates the history behind the East End landmark ahead of its redevelopment.
“You walked into the building and it was full of Disney pictures, clowns, cartoony things and toys,” says Charlene Bougourd, who was an inpatient at the Queen Elizabeth as a child. “Things that made a child feel safe.”
But enter the hospital site on Hackney Road today, and it feels anything but. Eerie paintings of Disney characters guide you through winding corridors, and abandoned wards are littered with dismantled furniture in bright, primary colours. Peeling paint, missing ceiling tiles, loose wires and areas roped off with red tape make the derelict hospital feel more like a horror film set than a place of care and security.
Now, having stood empty since its closure in 1997, the hospital buildings are due to be demolished, save for the Hackney Road façade, and developed into residential flats. The news has received a mixed reception.
“To me, this was one of the best hospitals – if not the best – I have ever known,” says Dr Charles Jenkins, who was something of a regular at the Queen Elizabeth in his youth. “I was horrified when I learned that there were plans to demolish the building. The hospital has been part of the community for many years.” 144 years to be precise.
In 1870, the Phillips sisters of Bethnal Green obtained the lease of 327 Hackney Road and set about building a hospital dedicated to improving paediatric care in east London. Four years previously, Ellen Phillips had worked at the Royal London Hospital during the Great Asiatic Cholera Epidemic, and had experienced first hand the devastating effects of a 24 per cent infant mortality rate.
When the hospital first opened, it had space for just 12 inpatients. A Daily News report from 1870 paints a sombre picture: “Wan faces and stunted limbs, childhood’s helplessness without childhood’s grace, countenances which should have been fresh and blooming, prematurely lined and warn, small figures wasted by suffering and emaciated by pain.”
For the first hundred years after it opened, the hospital continued to expand as it outgrew the original building on Hackney Road. In 1904, new outpatient, diphtheria and isolation wards were opened and a nurses’ home built two years later. Following a donation of £350,000 from the Charles Hayward Charitable Foundation in 1969, a further development was built housing labs, a diagnostic unit, library and the Academic Department of Child Health.
At its peak, the Queen Elizabeth was the largest teaching hospital in London, an international centre for research into childhood illness, and host to several royal visits, from the sixth child of Queen Victoria, Princess Louise, in 1872, to Queen Elizabeth II in 1977.
And the hospital’s support wasn’t limited to royalty: Charles Dickens was a patron and, in 1885, Oscar Wilde contributed the poem Le Jardin Des Tuileries to a fundraising volume.
But it is for staff, rather than for famous connections, that the Queen Elizabeth is best remembered by local residents.
“The ward nurses were kind, but definite in what they would tolerate and what they would not,” remembers Jenkins. “My nurse was very kind to me and always sat with me until I fell asleep. She told me all sorts of stories about her childhood and even sang to me once. I always liked nurses as a child: to me they represented kindness and were people who would take care of you.”
Shirley Kalinauckas, whose son was an inpatient in the hospital in 1997, remembers the staff at the Queen Elizabeth from a different perspective: “The nurse was very concerned to find out whether I’d ever had a child having an operation before. I thought it was good that she asked, because when you see your child go under general anaesthetic it can be a bit traumatic.”
“They were extremely caring and just put me completely at ease,” she says. “I couldn’t have faulted them.”
For 130 years, the doctors and nurses at the Queen Elizabeth provided specialised paediatric care for the children of the East End. But as Great Ormond Street grew, patient demand for the Hackney Road hospital was no longer high enough to justify its continued use as an NHS institution and, in 1997, it was closed.
How the former hospital will sit in the community when the development is complete remains unclear. But what is clear is that the Queen Elizabeth will continue to hold a place in the childhood memories of those who were treated there.
“A whole hospital dedicated to children – for me – was the best,” says Bougourd. “I still go past it most days and smile.”
Additional Reporting by Emma Finamore