The Hospital in Little Chelsea

I don’t want to go on and on about medical matters but just for the record I got the idea for this week’s post while lying in a cubicle in A&E at the Chelsea Westminster Hospital. A doctor was putting some pressure on a wound in my leg that had been squirting out blood about half an hour before. My mind drifted off and I went through the exercise of asking myself the quintessential local history question: what was here before? What was on this spot before the hospital, and whatever came before that?

Chelsea Westminster Hospital pc

Well, the hospital is this imposing building on the Fulham Road, the dividing line between the formerly separate boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea. A long time before that the village of Little Chelsea straddled the border between the two parishes.

Little Chelsea 002

The Fulham Road, which had existed under one form or another since the 1300s was the main route between London and Fulham but as you can see from this engraving of 1780 Little Chelsea was a quiet sort of place, never more than a small collection of houses. The first major building in the vicinity was Shaftesbury House. The Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper bought an existing property about 1700 to which he added barns, stables and outhouses not to mention “great and little gardens”.  Mrs Marianne Rush depicted it in one of her enigmatic (but not always entirely accurate) watercolours.

Gulston - Lord Shaftesbury's house at Little Chelsea

The open door is one of her characteristic touches. Shaftesbury didn’t stay very long. He was concerned about smoke affecting his asthma, apparently. In 1710 he sold it to the intriguingly named Narcissus Luttrell. It passed through several hands after that before being sold to the Parish of St George Hanover Square for use as a workhouse.  Here it is on Thompson’s 1836 map of Chelsea:

Thompson 1836 detail showing Little Chelsea

Even then the surrounding area consisted mostly of farms and market gardens. William Cowen ventured down from his home territory of Old Brompton to paint this watercolour showing a solitary man and dog engaged in rural pursuits:

Little Chelsea A4 C4

The house was demolished in 1856 to be replaced by new workhouse buildings. The workhouse was known as St George’s Union Workhouse, although it is sometimes misleading called the Chelsea Workhouse. The inmates all came from the parish of St George in the City of Westminster – an early example of exporting the poor. The actual Chelsea Workhouse (St Luke’s) and Infirmary was in Dovehouse Street.

St George’s also had an infirmary opened in 1878 whose patients came from not only from the workhouse but also the Kensington Workhouse (later St Mary Abbot’s Hospital) and other institutions in Westminster. Although the number of paupers accommodated in the workhouse expanded as the institution moved into the 20th century the infirmary also grew in size and importance. New buildings were constructed and hospital functions took over as the number of workhouse inmates diminished.

St Stephen's - City of Westminster Hospital

This postcard shows one of the other confusing names by which the Hospital was known. The name St Stephen’s Hospital was not adopted until 1924. The gothic tower can be seen in many views of the Fulham Road and the area around it.

In 1930 the Hospital was taken over by the London County Council as a municipal hospital (along with 97 other hospitals in Central London). This ground plan from 1934 shows the extent of the whole complex:

Ground plan 1934

The Hospital had become a local institution for Chelsea and was a fixture of local life through the War and into the 1950 and 1960s. Some of the older buildings were demolished and replaced. The hospital became a modern teaching hospital:

Classroom 1960s

A prospectus for student nurses from the 1960s boasts of the excellent teaching and recreational facilities.

Nurse playing tennis 1960s

New outpatients and emergency departments were built at the same time:

Outpatients 1966

I took a few minor complaints here in the 1980s. The only time I ever went into the remaining older section was visiting in one of the old wards with their long rows of beds. The new wards were preferable:

New Ward  1971

This picture from 1971 shows a new operating theatre:

Operating theatre 1971

The site in 1978 looked like this:

Aerial view 1978

Plans were made in the 1980s for a new hospital which would combine the facilities of four other hospitals: Westminster (from my personal recollection a rather grim and grubby place), Westminster Children’s, West London (a maternity hospital), Hammersmith and St Mary Abbot’s.

St Stephen’s closed in 1989. There was one occasion after the closure when I had to go with my son (now a consultant to the blog on transport matters) to Charing Cross Hospital A&E, so I for one was pretty pleased when the new Chelsea Westminster Hospital opened in 1993.

Chelsea Westminster

The Chelsea Westminster has takeaways, a Starbucks (from which another Starbucks used to be visible in an instance of retail overkill) and a post office next to its entrance. Inside is a huge atrium with some nice examples of public art, including the Acrobat by Allen Jones, one of the largest indoor sculptures in the world, and some large slightly dusty hanging fish which I’ve always been fond of, best seen from the third or fourth floor walkways.

For various reasons I’ve spent many hours in this building and although no-one really enjoys being in a hospital I’ve always felt safe and comfortable there as a visitor or occasionally as a patient, which is a good quality in a place of life and death.

Many famous people have come and gone there and it’s been seen in films and on TV. But my favourite of these is the scene in Eyes Wide Shut where it doubles as a New York hospital.

ews_fronthospital-620x466

Tom Cruise just visible there through the main entrance. The late Stanley Kubrick was always meticulous in his choice of locations so he must have seen something striking about the place. I remember being amazed as I instantly recognized the revolving doors and the reception desk. Has anyone got any other examples?

Postscript

Credit should go to Chris Howgrave-Graham and Laurence Martin who wrote the excellent book The Hospital in Little Chelsea to mark the centenary of the hospital in 1978. Some of the pictures in this post come from the book.

I promise not to talk about any of my medical complaints for a while. But I would like to say thank you to all the staff at the Hospital who have treated myself and members of my family over the years we’ve lived nearby.

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6 responses to “The Hospital in Little Chelsea

  • William

    Dave, Mention of St Mary Abbot’s brought back painful memories. I had my tonsils ripped out there in 1966 by a butcher.I called it St Mary Abattoirs. I was on morphine for days because of the agony. The entrance was opposite the Devonshire Arms. Also my wife worked at the Royal Marsden hospital on cancer research as an SRN, up the road from from the Chelsea hospital. Her comment at the time “they don’t know what they are doing”.

  • Sylvia Gilbert

    Very informative, thank you. Three of my children were born in St Stephens Hospital, 1966, 1969 and 1970.

  • Keith Saunders

    Really interesting post, as always.
    I have one enduring memory of St. Stephens from 1965 when a taxi challenged my motor bike to a duel in Draycott Avenue.
    Fortunately for me an ambulance was following me up the road and took me straight to the hospital. (The driver was also a witness for me as it was the taxi at fault).
    As I was being loaded into the ambulance a helpful bystander looked at my blood soaked jeans and cheerily said, ‘he’ll never use that leg again’.
    Happily his medical knowledge was far surpassed by the doctors in St. Stephens, Happy atmosphere even in casualty.

  • Jamie Davis

    I believe all the vehicles in photo 10 are Austin LD ambulances.

    The ambulance at the front of the picture, 428 BXA, was still in existence in 2013, and can be seen here….

    OS as we found the old girl

    Best wishes,

    Jamie

  • squidgybod

    Dave, thank you. Fascinating, and I hope you have made a full recovery from the terrible injury that you described.

    In the late 1950s I had a paper round in the hospital, collecting the newspapers from Lavelles across the road by the Servite RC Primary School. I had to wait outside the Maternity Ward while the ward sister came out with a list to collect the papers. Patients were offered a free bottle of Guinness on Sundays.

    I vaguely remember that just for a change we walked home from the Servite School a few times, somehow sneaking right through to Gertrude Street as the new accident and emergency site was being constructed.

    As a boy I was treated a few times there, once for a broken foot from a fall at from the top board at the Fulham swimming pools! I can still hear a click when I walk.

  • Red Baron

    I was glad to read this blog Dave thank you for taking the time, I was born in St. Stephen’s in 1971 so whilst I have precious few memories of it, other than remembering the imposing tower for the remaining years I lived in Chelsea, I will always have a link to it so I was sad when it disappeared, nice that in work such as this the memories of others and their interactions can live on.

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