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Prescot Street

Earlier this year, Trust staff from a number of corporate directorates were relocated from The Royal London and Barts to an office building at 9 Prescot Street in Aldgate. The move to Prescot Street brings the Trust closer to its roots than you might realise – it was once the site of the London Hospital. Jonathan Evans, Archivist at The Royal London explains.

London Infirmary drawing by Pamela Dormer c 1962
London Infirmary drawing by Pamela Dormer c 1962

At one time known as Great Prescott Street, and named after its builder Mr Prescott, Prescot Street was one of the first London thoroughfares to distinguish its buildings by numbers instead of signs – this feature being noted as early as 1708.

Number 9 Prescot Street, where the Trust’s new offices are based, was developed by the Co-operative Wholesale Society Ltd in the 1930s and has long been used by the Co-op Bank. But it was at 21 Prescot Street, now home to the Abbey Bank building to the west of Magdalen Passage, that the London Hospital was based for 16 years until its relocation to Whitechapel in 1757.

The London Infirmary, as it was then known, moved to Prescot Street, Goodman’s Fields, in May 1741 from cramped premises in Featherstone Street, Moorfields. A single house was rented there from the executors of the late Sir William Leman at 24 guineas a year, and 24 beds were purchased to accommodate the patients from Featherstone Street. Money being in short supply, the Hospital Secretary sent his servant to call on all the hospital’s subscribers to collect outstanding subscriptions to pay for ‘so extraordinary an expense’ as the move to Prescot Street.

The Prescot Street area, lying just outside the City of London’s boundaries, was then considered to have a very bad reputation. It had a number of brothels, disorderly taverns and theatres, such as the notorious Goodman’s Fields New Wells Theatre (opened in 1703), many of which had been forced out of the City of London by the authorities.

Prescot Street old infirmary
Prescot Street old infirmary

Nevertheless, no site other than Prescot Street was considered by the governors of the London Infirmary, which aimed to treat ‘sick and diseased manufacturers, seamen in the merchant service and their wives and families’. Soon it was treating the rapidly growing seafaring population of the East End of London and an apothecary’s shop, which prepared medicines, was purchased lock, stock and barrel from Mr Harris of Aylott Street, Whitechapel, for the benefit of the infirmary.

The house in Prescot Street quickly became very congested. As well as male and female wards, it included a doctors' room, matron’s room, nurses’ room, and a committee room. To the original house, another was added, known as ‘the Lock’. This was originally intended for the benefit of patients suffering from sexually-transmitted diseases, who were expected to pay for their treatment. But, within a few years, it offered free treatment and no longer specialised in venereal diseases.

Due to the increase in work, three more adjoining houses on the south side of Prescot Street were leased (at £15 a year each) and £300 was spent on alterations to adapt them for hospital use, providing 68 patient beds. One of the infirmary’s five houses was described in 1745 as ‘the Jews House’, but there was no special provision, such as a kosher kitchen, for Jewish patients until the 1830s.

Sanitation in Prescot Street in the 1740s and 50s was rudimentary at best. The hospital committee noted that it was expensive to have their cesspool emptied regularly, so opted instead to let effluent overflow into a common cesspool via a neighbour’s garden. A mortuary was built in the gardens behind the Prescot Street houses, and a post-mortem room erected above it. A herb garret was also erected for drying and storing medicinal herbs. The hospital’s first physician, Dr John Andree was an exponent of the therapeutic value of cold bathing, so a cold-water bath was also built in the Prescot Street gardens for the benefit of patients.

By 1746, the five houses in Prescot Street were already dilapidated and were costing so much to maintain and repair that the committee began to seriously consider buying a site in the neighbourhood on which to erect a purpose-built hospital. After looking at a site in Lower East Smithfield (rejected as being too small) and another at Tower Hill (where negotiations failed), a site was selected at Mount Field, facing the Whitechapel Road

The builder Samuel Worrall had taken a 61-year lease of the Whitechapel site from the City Corporation, who held it on a 500-year lease from Lady Wentworth. Building at Whitechapel commenced in 1752, but, with limited funds, the first phase of the new London Hospital took five years to complete. When the new London Hospital, designed by Bolton Mainwaring, was finally completed it would provide accommodation for 396 patients: 161 of beds were ready when the hospital opened its doors to patients in September 1757.

The hospital building committee was glad to report that they were able to let the houses in Prescot Street. The next tenant was the Magdalen Hospital, also known as the Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes.

Afterwards, the Magdalen Hospital moved to Streatham and the old hospital buildings were used for different purposes, including offices for the National Cigar Makers & Tobacco Workers Union. Damaged in the Blitz, they stood derelict until the 1970s, when they were demolished to make way for the present structure. Today, only two Georgian buildings remain on the south side of Prescot Street, numbers 23 and 30 – a reminder of how The London Hospital’s former home would have looked.

The Royal London archives storage and research facilities moved to the Trust’s new office accommodation at 9, Prescot Street in July. The Royal London museum was not part of the relocation and is still located at St Philip’s Church, Newark Street, Whitechapel (Opening hours: Monday to Friday, 10am-4.30pm; closed over Christmas and New Year).