Friday, December 11, 2020

A short history of New Cross Hospital

Heading south-east, the A2 changes its name from the Old Kent Road to New Cross Road shortly after the junction with Ilderton Road. On the north side, the change is marked by the entrance to Deptford Ambulance station - the last surviving health provision on what was once a substantial hospital site.

Epidemics of small pox in London in the 1870s led to the decision by the Metropolitan Asylums Board in 1876 to erect 'six temporary wards' to provide for up to 220 patients at Deptford (South London Chronicle, 9/12 /1876).  By March of the following year, the Metropolitan Asylum District Hospital, Deptford (or the Deptford Hospital as it was known) was taking patients.
As small pox cases declined later in the year the hospital was briefly closed and there was a proposal to convert it into a 'female imbecile asylum' (Morning Post, 22/10/1877). By early 1878 though a further outbreak of smallpox saw the hospital being reopened. Another smallpox epidemic in 1881 saw the hospital running out of space, and having to turn away hundreds of people 'perhaps to infect whole districts' (Birmingham Mail, 2 May 1881). The hospital was further expanded to 400 beds with its buildings occupying most of the space to the west of what was then Hatfield Road in New Cross (now Avonley Road). The site included an ambulance station  (opened 1883) and a nurses' home (from 1893). As well as smallpox cases it catered for patients with Scarlet fever and other fevers. Renamed the  South Eastern District Hospital in 1883 and then the South Eastern Fever Hospital in 1885, it continued as a fever hospital until 1941.

A vaccine for smallpox had been developed by Edward Jenner at the end of the 18th century, the first vaccine for a contagious disease, and the 1853 Vaccination Act had made smallpox vaccination compulsory for children. Nevertheless, then as now there was an anti vaccination lobby and not everybody was vaccinated. The vaccination did not always prevent infection but it did limit the severity of the disease - the Medical Superintendent of Deptford Hospital  reported in 1881 that 3% of vaccinated smallpox patients had died in the previous year, compared to 38.5% of those who had not been vaccinated (Express & Echo, 24/6/1881)

The existence of the hospital in this area, which came to be 'the largest small pox hospital in the Metropolis' ,was not universally popular. There were complaints that patients from all over London were being sent there and at a meeting of the Camberwell Board of Guardians in 1882, the hospital was blamed for the high levels of smallpox in nearby Peckham and for the fact that 'the value of property in that neighbourhood had gone down considerably' (South London Chronicle, 14/1/1882).

1890s map of site

The hospital denied that it posed any risk to the community. Strict rules were applied to prevent the spread of infection, with visitors only allowed if a patient was dying  and then all visitors were disinfected with 'all contact with the patients discouraged' (Evening Mail, 8/10/1877).  There was a risk though to those working in the hospital, highlighted in 1894 by the death of the Reverend J.B. Mylius, the vicar of the nearby All Saints church in  Hatcham, who lived at the Vicarage in Pepys Road. The young vicar - he was 32 when he died - acted as chaplain to the hospital 'paying daily visits to the patients' before he caught the fever himself and died at the hospital (Kentish Mercury, 19/1/1894). I presume that Mylius Close, off nearby Kender Street, is named after him.

The hospital continued in use through the First World War, when incidentally the artist and later psychoanalyst Grace Pailthorpe (1883-1971) worked there as a medical officer in 1917. She was to become a member of the British Surrealist Group with a particular interest in the unconscious and automatic writing and her work featured in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London. After the First World War, the hospital catered for ex-solders with TB.

In the Second World War the hospital suffered extensive bomb damage, being hit by 16 high explosive bombs and 300 incendiaries in 1940-41.  On 7 September 1940 - the first night of the Blitz - four nurses and a hospital porter were killed after a bomb hit the hospital. The porter, Albert George Dolphin, was awarded a posthumous George Cross for saving the life of an injured nurse as the building collapsed.  The hospital was closed in 1941, but buildings continued to be used for nurses training and day nursery provision.

Under the new National Health Service it was reopened as the New Cross General Hospital in 1953, closely linked to Guys Hospital who took over the control of New Cross Hospital in 1965. Various clinics and specialist units were based there such as the National Poisons Information Service, a chest unit, breast surgery etc. The hospital closed in 1988 though health provision such as the Medical Toxicology Unit and Drugs Research Library continued on site until the early 21st century.

Today only the Deptford Ambulance Station (1 New Cross Road) remains active, the rest of the site having been redeveloped for housing including the conversion of nurses' quarters into the flats of Mendip Court on Avonley Road (pictured below).

NUPE trade union leader Roger Poole joins ambulance workers at Deptford Ambulance Station, New Cross Road, during the 1990 ambulance workers dispute

Ambulance workers picket Deptford Ambulance Station in 2014 NHS pay strike

No comments: