History: How Holborn Union Infirmary housed vulnerable Victorians before becoming part of Whittington Hospital

Whittington Hospital, Archway Wing, in the 1950s. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

Whittington Hospital, Archway Wing, in the 1950s. Picture: Islington Local History Centre - Credit: Archant

Plans to convert a historical workhouse and hospital into homes will be “one of the most important decisions the planning committee ever makes,” a councillor has claimed.

Whittington Hospital in the 1980s. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

Whittington Hospital in the 1980s. Picture: Islington Local History Centre - Credit: Archant

Peabody is consulting the community on plans to build 290 homes, 50 per cent of which will be "affordable", on former Whittington Hospital land in Archway Road which it acquired in 2014.

But, in a time before the NHS and social security, this site was a workhouse and infirmary for some of the most vulnerable people in Victorian society.

Esteemed architect Saxon Snell designed the Holborn Union Infirmary, which included a workhouse and care facilities and was built between 1877 and 1885. Holborn Poor Law Union, founded in 1836, commissioned the site, which included a main building and two wings for patients, plus a workshop building and laundry area, all designed in the decorative Gothic Revival style.

Peabody has committed to keeping "original Saxon Snell hospital buildings", which include the main Holborn Union building, the Charterhouse and Clerkenwell wings either side of it, and the perimeter Victorian boundary wall. But it wants to bulldoze other buildings on site deemed "unsuitable" and build blocks of flats around it.

An artist's impression of the Archway Campus plans. Picture: Peabody

An artist's impression of the Archway Campus plans. Picture: Peabody - Credit: Archant

Cllr Dave Poyser (Lab, Hillrise), a Whitehall Park Area Residents' Association committee member, told the Gazette he's generally supportive of Peabody's plans - but stressed any changes to the site's appearance must be carefully considered.

He told the Gazette: "The important thing is, every time people come into London [down the A1] for the next 100 years, they are going to see it.

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"It's one of the most important decisions the planning committee will ever make. People know the Archway bridge because they drive under it - it's like the Angel of the North - so you will drive past [the Archway Campus] and either hate or love it."

He added: "We are pleased Peabody have come up with some plans and we hope local people like it. It's wonderful the way they have preserved the building."

Cllr David Poyser

Cllr David Poyser - Credit: Archant

A new "poor law" was introduced in 1834 to reduce the costs of looking after impoverished people and take homeless people off the street.

Workhouse inmates would be clothed and fed, with children getting limited access to education The Holborn Union Infirmary, which is now has its own conservation area, included long, airy "Nightingale" wards with windows either side to create a through-draught. This design was influenced by the works of Florence Nightingale, who, in her 1860 Notes on Nursing, wrote: "Always air from the air without, and that, too, through those windows through which the air comes freshest. From a closed court, especially if the wind do not blow that way, air may come as stagnant as any from a hall or corridor."

Clerkenwell and Islington Guide Oonagh Gay takes groups around Archway and talks them through the history of the workhouses that once operated in the area.

"A number of unions, including Holborn, brought up land around Archway because it was cheap.

"Because land was cheap they could sort of export the problem - Holborn is nowhere near Islington but they could build easily there. It's a bit like some councils shipping homeless people to places like Northamptonshire today.

"They would have been reasonably grim places but not awful because people couldn't work and they tried to contain diseases there."

Addressing Archway more generally, she added: "It's a very mixed area. It's not the most striking part of London but I think it's a very visible reminder of a very important part of our history. If you dig into most peoples families, particularly working class Irish families, you'll find someone was in a workhouse - one in 45 people were in workhouses during the 1860s. People did all they could to keep out of the workhouse because it was a punitive environment, but there wasn't social security - so if you had nothing there was no alternative. But, on the positive side, at least they built good buildings for sick people."

The Archway Road infirmary was renamed the Holborn and Finsbury Hospital in 1921, before the London County Council renamed it Archway Hospital in 1930.

When the NHS was founded the site was merged with St Mary's Hospital, in Highgate Hill, and Highgate Hospital, in Dartmouth Park Hill, to create the Whittington Hospital.

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