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.

Footnotes. 

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.

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