NHS at 70 (1): History of the Forest Gate Maternity Hospital

Sunday 1 July 2018

This is the first of two articles celebrating the 70th birthday of the NHS, 5 July 2018 - recording the history of its largest local presence. The second article - to follow - will examine the state of NHS services in Forest Gate, today.

We have written before about the building on Forest Lane, which is now Gladys Dimson House, principally in its role as a Workhouse school (see here, here and here). 

Originally an Industrial School, later a hospital
and now a housing block - Gladys Dimson
House - on Forest Lane.
This post celebrates its time as a hospital, and a key part of the NHS estate from its inception in 1948 until its closure as the Newham Maternity hospital, in 1985.

The building was constructed on land owned by Samuel Gurney (see here) in 1854 as a public institution.  To mark the centenary of its establishment, as an Industrial school, the 1954 occupants, Forest Gate hospital, published a commemorative brochure and history. 

In passing, the authors noted that during that century the building had had one major change of use, at least four titles and controlled by six public bodies. Sixty-four years later a further change of use and title and at least three more public bodies could be added to the list.

Our most recent article on the building (here) described how progressive Poor Law Guardians closed the school as a workhouse/industrial school in 1906, because of its unsuitability and moved the, by now named Poplar Training school, to Hutton, in Essex.

The Illustrated London News shows
the effects of the 1890 new year's
day fire on the Industrial school
The Forest Gate building was closed for two years, when its then owners, the Poplar Board of Guardians opened it as an annexe to their Workhouse, in 1908.  They built additional accommodation there, for "sick paupers", at a cost of £8,000, and gradually the site took on its hospital role. They soon looked to close it down, and after some further alterations to the structure, sold the building to the West Ham Board of Guardians in 1911, for £41,000.

The West Ham Guardians decided the institution should be used for housing semi-sick and bed-ridden occupants of their other premises. It was designed to accommodate 600 occupants.

According to documents using language that would be totally unacceptable today, these consisted of:

Imbeciles: men, 62, women, 36. Epileptics (sane): men, 34, women, 36. Chronic bedridden: men, 75, women, 243. Sick: men, 50, women, 50. Maternity: women, 50.

It was re-opened in 1913 as the Forest Gate Sick Home. The official history notes that "the Great War and the "20's" saw little event of note under the new administration". Local folk lore has it that the institution was used as an isolation unit during the outbreak of Spanish Flu in 1919, which killed more people than WW1 combatants. We have been unable to find any surviving records that confirm this.

School children, however, used the swimming baths at the site, which was attached to the laundry building, during WW1. These baths were subsequently filled in and the space was later used to house firstly a women's patients' handicraft centre and later an ante and post-natal clinic.

The swimming baths on the site, used
by local children during WW!, later built
over to become an ante and post natal clinic
Under the 1929 Local Government Act, which replaced Boards of Guardians with Public Assistance Committees, the sick home was transferred to West Ham Council and renamed the Forest Gate Hospital.

At the time of the transfer there were 500 beds for maternity, mental health and chronic sick cases. In 1931, as a temporary measure, an additional 200 beds were provided, to meet rising demand, at a cost of £17,000.

These additional beds were given to general use, but 75 of them were allocated to, what as  recently as 1956, the authors of the history describe as "mental defectives coming under municipal care."

Hospital staff photo, 1936
Public institutions in the 1940's rapidly tried to disassociate themselves from the baggage and terminology of the old Poor Law/Workhouse traditions. In 1942, therefore, responsibility for the hospital was moved from the Public Assistance committee of the council to the Social Services committee, and two years later to the West Ham Public Health committee.

A mayoral visit to the hospital in 1936.
 Daisy Parsons (floral dress) was
West Ham's first lady mayor

Hospital dressed in bunting for mayoral
visit, celebrating George V's silver jubilee in 1936

Staff photo, taken at time of 1936 mayoral visit
During WW2, most of the non-maternity patients were evacuated to South Ockenden, in Essex. And just as well. Much of the accommodation they had previously occupied was destroyed by bombing.

On 23 September 1940 a high explosive bomb fell just outside the north-east boundary wall, causing damage to the roof and windows of M block.

On the same day an anti-aircraft shell fell and exploded on the temporary kitchen, causing severe damage. This necessitated the evacuation of a further 25 patients.

Evidence of 1940 bomb damage
On the night of 2 October a further hit caused considerable damage to the boiler house - resulting in additional patient evacuations.

On 9 October, yet another high explosive bomb caused a large crater near the maternity block. The roadway was entirely demolished and the external wall of the children's ward badly damaged. More patients had to be moved out.

Two further bombs hit the hospital on 15/16 October, causing serious damage to the kitchen block. Until repairs could be conducted, the hospital was without heating or lighting. Further temporary transfers, away from the hospital were required.

Having overcome this serious three-week spate of bombings, the hospital escaped the rest of WW2 unscathed.

And so, to the establishment of the National Health Service on 5 July 1948.
In the year immediately prior to its foundation, the hospital, which was by now almost exclusively a maternity facility, witnessed the birth of 1,261 babies (including six sets of twins and one of triplets). And. astonishing as it is to us today, when many mothers are in and out of hospital within 24 hours, the average number of days "confinement" was 11.7 days for the mothers.

On the "appointed day" for transfer of responsibility of the hospital from West Ham council to the NHS, in 1948, it was moved under the wing of the "West Ham Group (no 9) Hospital Management Committee of the North-East Metropolitan Regional Hospital Management Board."

The building in a state of disrepair - between
its closure as a maternity hospital and its
opening as residential apartments
The NHS continued to develop the facility as a specialist maternity hospital. New wards were opened by 1950.

In the early 50's there were 102 designated maternity and 5 gynaecological beds at Forest Gate Maternity Hospital - making it the largest unit of its kind within its hospital group. The hospital became an approved centre for the training of midwives.

It was still not, however, exclusively a maternity hospital. By the mid 1950's the regional hospital board was still seeking alternative accommodation for what the centenary brochure charmingly described as the remaining "mental and mentally defective patients", as soon as suitable accommodation could be found.

Change is never far from occurring within the NHS, and the Forest Lane hospital was no exception. In 1974, the hospital, which by now had 116 beds and was called the Newham Maternity Hospital, became part of the Newham Health District, under the City and East London Area Health Authority (Teaching).

With the construction of Newham General Hospital, and maternity beds and a Special Baby Care unit within it, in 1985, the Forest Lane hospital - which by then was down to 106 beds - was deemed surplus to requirements, and was closed by the Newham Health Authority.

An oak sculpture of a nurse
in the grounds of Forest Lane
park recalls the history of
the building as a hospital
After closure, the back of the original Victorian main building was demolished and houses built on the site. In 1993 the rest of the building was demolished, apart from the front facade.

The Lodge survives as well as the facade of the original building, which is now an apartment complex. It is used for education and other community activities. Gladys Dimson House is one of the original maternity buildings, and has been converted into residential accommodation. By popular demand, most of the site was developed as Forest Lane Park, between 1991 and 1994.


1. Few of the archives of the hospital survive, and many of those which do are closed, under the 100 year rule. Those which have survived and are accessible are to be found at the Royal London Hospital Archives, in Whitechapel.

2. Gladys Dimson was a Labour politician, and housing expert on the former Greater London Council. She died in 1999 and had no known connection with Newham or the buildings named after her.


  1. Hello, would like more information on my late mother. She was born in the Forest Gate sick home on the 6th of April 1921. Her name was Dorothy Walker and he mother was Rose Amy Walker. Please can anyone help me? Thank you. Chris Jones Anglesey, Wales chrjo671@aol.com

  2. Chris, I have emailed you regarding you Family Tree - Karen Nichols-Juniper

  3. My father was born at this hospital in 1938, strangely our son was born here in West annex of the hospital in 1980.
    I wouldn't recommend the care we received by the nursing staff.. they gave my healthy son dextrose water instead of milk to feed him, my mother bought bottles of milk up for me to feed him, I tearfully did report them to their Nursing Matron. Things improved slightly over the 9 days we were there.

    1. My nan was born here, FOREST GATE SICK HOME 1920s , can anyone help me get more info or give me any? Pleas

  4. Her name was Rose lilian Richardson

  5. I was born there 27th March 1961 (about 7pm apparently although I don't recall it personally!). Now living in Cornwall and watching West Ham v Wolves on the TV. Small world.

    1. I was born there two days earlier, on the Saturday at 6pm, so we may have seen (heard!) each other! Now in Melbourne, Australia, "enjoying" being 60 haha! (and still supporting the Hammers - COYI!)

  6. I was born here in 1957.The Mayor was visiting,and came to see me and my mother , because she was 46 ! What were the hospital conditions like at that time?

  7. Thank you a wonderful article. I was born in the hospital in 1979. My mother had always mentioned it and how good the staff were. I had always wondered what the hospital had looked like. It was until now that I decided to search for any articles for the hospital as I am now writing a brief article on my life for my wife and children to read.

  8. I think this must be where I was born in 1974. My mum tells me she remembers there being roses in the grounds just before I was born at the end of June. It’s wonderful to see this article and the photos as, not having lived in London since being a baby, I had no idea what the hospital looked like. Thank you,

  9. Hi how can we find out details of our birth time. I was born there in 1967. Unfortunately, my parents have passed on, so I cant ask my Mum my for my birth time so is there a way to access hospital records for this?

  10. I was born here 26th October 1955 then put into an orphanage. Later on I was lucky enough to be adopted by the 2 best parents any child could have.

  11. A truly wonderful article that I wasn't even aware of! I too was born here (12/07/1960) and was fascinated to read the hospital's past.

    Thanks for your hard work and time

  12. Hi All who visit this site. After ages I have decided to try and find out more about my father who was born here July 1916 - so now over the 100-year closure rule for hospital records. His mother was unmarried. Hopefully I will return this year and post what 'success' I have on having sight of the original documents held in Barts Health Archives. Keith

  13. Further to my post 17th March it may be helpful to others that I found (via Ancestry subscription) I could access (by payment of £2.99 to E.R.O.) the original baptism record of my father at the Sick Home. The registers are held by Essex Record Office but have been scanned to the Ancestry website. Excellent. Look under search "UK parish records". Person's name & year born.

  14. I was born here 6th October 1966. Went past it today with my mum, on a trip down memory lane. So glad that at least, the front facade still stands & according to my mum, looks unchanged 😊

  15. According to my birth certificate I was born there in Dec 1975. The certificate states Forest Gate Hospital not Forest Gate Maternity Hospital or Newham Maternity Hospital (as I understand it was renamed to in 1974). I wonder why this was ? If anyone could shed some light on this it would interesting.

    1. forest gate maternity hospital closed in 1985 when the maternity care was moved over to Newham General were a new maternity wing was built so forest gate hospital was never called newham maternity. I worked at both hospitals .

    2. Hi , yes my son was born at Forest Gate Matetnity Home in 1984, long labour and had appalling nursing care in filthy conditions, this maternity wing had to be demolished! My daughter was born in Newham General in 1986, much better care!

  16. Finally made a trip to Forest Gate to see where I was born, even if the hospital itself is gone. I took several photos and was hoping to post some here, mainly so that someone with greater knowledge than me could verify that it was indeed the hospital, but I’m not sure how to do that. In any case, I saw the Gladys Dimson building, plus the lodge by the front gates, which I understand are the only parts of the original hospital site remaining.

    1. I was born in Forest Gate hospital in 1976. I lived in the area for 25 years and just by coincidence I now work in Forest Gate. The hospital has been a housing estate for many years now but the front of the building still has the hospital facade.

  17. I was born at the hospital 8th March 1953. I lived in Lavender Street just off off Maryland Point. Twenty years later my son was born there May 1973. First time Mothers and Babies had to stay in for 14 days. I was reluctantly let out after 11 days!!
    Great care and treatment. Everything was supplied, bottles,terry napkins,baby nighties, babies were put in the nursery each night and fed by the night staff so mum's could get a good night's sleep .you were also shown how to bathe your baby. Such a wonderful experience and brilliant NHS care. Shame it didn't continue, what went wrong, too expensive I assume. Now young mums are lucky if they get 24 hours.

    1. When I was born there in June 1974, my mum and I were kept in for ten days apparently.

  18. I was born there as the illegitimate child of a destitute Irish immigrant in August 1971. Today I‘m a businessman and landlord living in Germany.

  19. Born there in 1950, lived in Geere road West Ham for 30 yrs.

  20. I was born here 1st July 1971

  21. My daughter was born in the hospital in November 1979 and we had to stay for a week. I remember the nurses and midwives saying that they felt the cuts that Margaret Thatcher made only six months after she was elected.

  22. I was born there on 26 February 1960 at just after 10pm. I lived in the east end until the age of 22. Now I live in east Sussex. The building has seen some interesting history!

  23. I was born here in October 84. My mum said it was infested with cockroaches.

    1. My son was born there June 84, it was filthy, so not surprised by your comment about cockroaches

  24. I was born in 85 there hope I was not to blame lol

  25. My sister was born in Forest Gate Hospital 29th January 1960. I have reason to believe my mother was given the wrong baby to take home. Was there any Asian babies born on and around that date?

  26. I was born at the hospital on 23 December 1939 at 6.30pm. My Mum said that most of the nurses were Irish and helped her to celebrate my birth with singing!

  27. I was born in this hospital in 1953 along with my cousin 4 days later and because we were both baby Fenn they kept giving us to the wrong mums !

  28. I must have been one of the earlier arrivals born there April 1948 , but cant remember a thing about it

    1. Didnt leave my name , born April 1948 John Miller


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