The Royal London is one of the best known hospitals in London, home to the London Air Ambulance Service. Historically, it is perhaps most associated with Joseph Merrick, known as the Elephant Man, although the hospital also has links to Jack the Ripper. One of its most famous medical students was Thomas Barnardo, who later became a highly regarded philanthropist and founder of the Barnardo’s children’s charity.
East End Institutions – The Royal London Hospital
Founded in 1740, the hospital has an interesting history, and also has its own museum which is well worth a visit. It is also a familiar location to some TV show viewers, as it is the setting for the historical Casualty shows, including Casualty 1909.
Key Moments in the history of the Royal London Hospital
The hospital was originally named the London Infirmary. It changed its name to The London Hospital in 1748 – it did not become the Royal London until 1990 in its 250th anniversary year. Originally located in Moorfields, the hospital was moved to its current location in Whitechapel in 1757.
The hospital was originally founded as a voluntary hospital, or charity, that would serve local Eastenders such as the manufacturing classes and merchant seamen. Over the years, it would stand at the leading edge of medical development and initiatives, while continuing to treat the poor of the East End in the days before free medical care.
For example, in 1785, it became the first hospital to house its own medical school in England. In 1895, the Royal London became the first hospital that offered a preliminary training school for nurses. In 1925, one of its surgeons, Sir Henry Souttar, completed a heart operation that was to become the basis for modern heart surgery, when he stretched a mitral valve. He was also the first doctor at the hospital to use radium therapy to treat cancer patients.
The hospital played a major role in treating the wounded from both World Wars. As a voluntary hospital, funding was often difficult to find, although the hospital managed to survive until the government introduced free health care. The Royal London became part of the NHS in 1948.
The Royal London and Joseph Merrick
Thanks to the David Lynch film, starring John Hurt, Joseph Merrick is a relatively well-known character in British history. Often referred to as the “Elephant Man”, Merrick suffered from an unknown syndrome that left him with severe deformities. In his day, people who looked different were viewed as abnormal curiosities and Merrick was put on exhibition by showmen as a novelty, or freak, during the late 19th century.
Merrick’s connection with the Royal London started at this point in his life. He was displayed in a shop on Whitechapel Road, directly opposite the hospital and was viewed by its medical students and doctors. A senior doctor, Frederick Treves heard about Merrick, asked to meet him and then arranged to examine him medically. At a later date, Merrick took refuge in the Royal London under Treves’ care. Unable to find a different home for him, the hospital ended up giving him his own rooms in the basement – he remained there for the rest of his life.
The Royal London Hospital Museum
If you are in the Whitechapel area, the Royal London museum is worth a visit. You can learn more about the general history of the hospital and its development over the years, and there are also special displays to view. Displays in the museum are split into three sections by century.
The section that covers the 18th century looks at the founding of the hospital and its early years and includes its 18th century operation bell. It is said that this bell was rung to bring in attendants who would hold patients down during surgery in the days before anaesthetics.
The 19th century area has some interesting information on early surgery – you can also see some of the surgical instruments used at that time. This section also covers some of the well-known medical staff associated with the Royal London, including Florence Nightingale and Thomas Barnardo. If you’re interested in learning more about Joseph Merrick and Frederick Treves, this is the section to focus on. A forensic medicine exhibition also has some original material on Dr Crippen, John Christie and Jack the Ripper. One of hospital’s surgeons, Thomas Horrocks Openshaw, helped investigate the Ripper’s crimes.
In the 20th century section, you can see exhibits on the two World Wars, special features on Nurse Edith Cavell and a variety of equipment used in the hospital at the time. You can also watch two videos on Joseph Merrick, one of nursing training in the 1960s and one on Casualty 1906.
The Royal London’s museum is not located in the hospital, but in the crypt of St Philip’s Church in nearby Newark Street. It is open Tuesdays to Fridays, but not on bank and public holidays, from 10am to 4.30pm, and admission is free.