History of the Royal London Hospital

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.

Royal London Hospital – Books, Prints

8 thoughts on “History of the Royal London Hospital”

  1. Mrs. Terry Swindells

    I have completed my genealogy on both sides, taken years to do. Found out I am a true EastEnder as my ancestors never ventured very far from there door steps to find there partners to marry!
    Most of em came from Bethnal Green and Westham areas, worked as labourers living hand to mouth as and in slums! Large families… No Tele then!!!

  2. Shirley Runnalls (Wallis)

    Just read the history, brought back memories as I was SET 326 at Tredegar’ Sad to hear the uniform is no longer used. We have a film in Cornwall re Edith Cavell Tomorrow so I have old LH newspapers re her plus photo of Edith Cavell Home also LH badge & scarf to take to it as her statue was carved here at the DeLank Quarry, St Breward! My stepmother & her sister also trained there, Elsie Leeming joined the Q.A’s during the war & was posted to Egypt as a Matron, responsible for moving the hospital when necessary according to the fighting then crossed the Atlantic 18 times on the Queen Mary taking the wounded back to the USA

  3. What a wonderful history re the Royal Hospital! I didn’t realise it had such a history, I lived in Commercial red Stepney from 1949=1960 My parents had a Cafe’ near Stepney Station, I came to live I Brisbane Australia in 1964, My reconlection of the Hospital was when I was 13 =14 I ended up with Disetry! That was not pleasant, in fact to my reconlection was over a week in there withno food only one tablet per day, Alls well😂 But the history re The Elephant Man, Edith Cavill, Florence Nightingale, Jack the Ripper makes good reading. Iwan Morgan

  4. I am researching the life of one of my ancestors, Thomas Llewellyn 1809-1857, who moved to Whitechapel in the 1830s to study medicine, I assume at the London Hospital. In the 1851 census it states that he is a qualified general practitioner with the further qualifications MRCS and LSA. As he continues to live in the Whitechapel area there is the possibility that he has become a permanent staff member of the hospital.
    If you could confirm my suspicions or give me any further information I would be most grateful.

  5. My name is Jimmy Dallas and I work for Transparent Television – an independent television production company based in London.

    We specialise in documentary production and have made a number of critically acclaimed documentaries for most major British broadcasters, mostly the BBC, Channel 4 and Channel 5. We are currently producing a brand new primetime Channel 5 documentary series about Britain’s most incredible abandoned buildings. Each episode will focus on one amazing structure and explore the fascinating history behind it.

    Abandoned Britain is a new landmark documentary series for Channel 5 exploring the stories of some of Britain’s most unique and extraordinary buildings. Presented by Michael Portillo, a passionate advocate of social and architectural history, the series will combine compelling historical investigation with a stunning visual treatment. Each episode will focus on one building uncovering the story behind its construction and using it to frame a pivotal moment in British history.

    While access is still pending, we are hoping to do an episode on the Old Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel.

    I would really appreciate any comments or insights into the hospital, including any family or friends who might have any interesting stories from the hospital.

    Look forward to hearing from you,

    Jimmy Dallas
    jimmydallas@transparent.tv

  6. Mark Mapstone aka Mr Bloggy

    Is there any chance of you putting share buttons at the end of each article, and, if possible a ‘reblog’ button.
    This would make dissemination of your articles much faster.

  7. Rosemary Hackforth

    I am in the middle of researching for my Great Grandfather Charles Joseph Johnson 1859-1929 He was a railway labourer with Great Eastern Railway and on 1891 census he was living at Plaistow Road West Ham. At the National Archives I found his records his service with Great Eastern Railway started on 29.09.1886 and he was discharged on 26.01.1888. My late mother told me that he had a terrible accident at work and lost his leg. I am wondering if Whitechapel hospital will have old records of him as a patient there and I shall be very grateful if you could look up or suggest me where to look for. If he lived at West Ham, he must have worked somewhere at Stratford station and Whitechapel Hospital must have been the nearest hospital. I reckon the accident happened between 1887 and 1888. I look forward to hearing from you soon. Thank you for your help. Yours Rosemary Hackforth

    1. Hello, what a fascinating story. I would suggest contacting Barts Hospital here – http://www.bartshealth.nhs.uk/about-us/museums,-history-and-archives/the-royal-london-archives/

      The archives of The London Hospital (now The Royal London) date back to 1740, although patient records are only complete from 1883. The archives hold records of numerous other hospitals, charities, training institutions and individuals and most of these are available for research.

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