Royal Free: The lost Liverpool Road hospital where thousands of Islington babies were born
- Credit: Archant
This year marks 30 years since construction of the Old Royal Free Square estate in Liverpool Road. Previously one of Islington’s main hospitals, the Gazette tells the site’s story, starting from its origins as an infirmary “for the very poor”.
Thirty years ago, construction began on the Old Royal Free Square estate in Liverpool Road, Barnsbury.
With its original Victorian hospital features intact, the estate was described as “bringing a new dignity to city centre housing”.
Its history goes back to 1850, when the London Fever Hospital was built in what was then a rural site.
At the time, though, the villagers of Islington weren’t keen on sick people with infectious fevers.
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An original poster from April 1848 can be found at Islington Local History Centre, showing how a public meeting was called at 107 Upper Street (today the home of the Chinese Laundry restaurant) to “consider what further steps should be taken to prevent the erection of the hospital on the proposed site”.
But construction went ahead. The hospital depended on voluntary donations and mainly took paying patients. It was described as a “small fee”, with three-quarters of the cost of each patient borne by the hospital. In fact, it was labelled as the “hospital of the very poor”, these being the days before the NHS.
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It contained 130 beds, and in 1872 its income was £12,500 (equivalent of £1.3million today, according to the Bank of England inflation calculator) with an annual expenditure of £9,000 (equivalent of £933,000).
It remained a voluntary hospital – characterised by its independent status and private fundraising – until the founding of the NHS in 1948. At this point, it amalgamated with the Royal Free, Holborn, as a general hospital.
It housed women’s wards and a private wing until its closure in 1975. It happened as the massive new Royal Free opened in Hampstead in 1974 – and was met with huge opposition in Islington.
In a marked difference from its editorial policy today, Time Out magazine reported how Islington mums were staging an all-out campaign to save the Liverpool Road hospital.
About 1,000 babies were born there every year, with 40 operations carried out each week. The hospital was said to be “particularly sympathetic” to abortions.
Health worker Rosemary Martin said: “I want to keep Liverpool Road for Islington people. It’s not that easy to get to Hampstead. Not everyone has their own transport.”
Speaking to the Morning Star, Marie Betteridge, Islington South and Finsbury’s prospective Communist candidate, also pitched in. “This new hospital is fine for the people of Hampstead,” she said. “But we are protesting at the loss of a hospital which has given many years of service to the people of this area.”
But a last minute appeal by Barbara Castle, social services secretary of Islington’s National Union of Public Employees branch, failed.
After a brief spell as the office of Islington Disablement Association, the site spent several years empty and unused.
A number of plans were mooted, including an alcoholism treatment centre and offices, until the most obvious scheme – social housing – was given clearance.
In a joint venture between Circle 33 and New Islington and Hackney Housing Association, building work started in 1988. It provided 182 new homes “for people who most needed them”, and preserved the original frontage of the old hospital.
At the time, the Gazette described it as “pucker”. In 1992, an Independent article praised it with slightly more eloquance. “Calmly and with dignity,” it said, “threads and patches of Georgian and Victorian London have been stitched back into the fabric of the city.”
The estate won awards, including one from the Islington Society, and was described by the Architects Journal as “urban renewal at its best”.
Were you or your children born at the old Royal Free? Get in touch to share your memories of the hospital: firstname.lastname@example.org.