In sickness and in health

Another loss for the City Road healthcare district by Vera Owen

Thoresby House
Thoresby House

Thorseby House, on the boundary of EC1 and N1, is soon to be demolished to make way for a new tower block housing visiting students from Arcadia University, a private US institution. Local residents were unsuccessful in their bid to preserve the local gem, despite its significant local historic interest. Thorseby House is a 120-year-old nurses’ home, built of honey coloured brick and good intentions. 

It is one of the last surviving buildings, not only of the former Royal Chest Hospital, which was damaged beyond repair in the Blitz, but of the once substantial and historically significant City Road healthcare district. 

In the 1800s, the healthcare facilities around City Road covered everything from the isolation and confinement of plague victims to specialist hospitals, such as the Royal Chest Hospital and what we now know as Moorfields Eye Hospital. The facilities were predominantly charities for the treatment of the ‘deserving poor’, since, as captured by Dickens in an after dinner speech on 10 May 1851 in London: “the air from Gin Lane will be carried by an easterly wind into Mayfair”.At its peak, the City Road medical district contained seven hospitals. 

The Royal Chest Hospital grew out of a modest East London infirmary, which was started in 1814 by physician Isaac Buxton, who is buried in Bunhill Fields. Buxton’s busy specialist practice in ‘chest diseases’, fuelled by the prevalence of smog and tuberculosis, evolved into a purpose-built charitable hospital. 

By 1862, the hospital occupied purpose premises on City Road and had earned the patronage of Queen Victoria. It was widely acknowledged as Europe’s first specialist chest hospital. Buxton and his successors oversaw extensive fundraising efforts in support of the hospital, many of which are documented in the hospital’s annual reports, now held at the London Metropolitan Archives. 

The reports record donations from the great and the good of the time alongside modest but no doubt deeply heartfelt donations from ordinary local people. Purpose-built nurses’ homes became more common in the late 1880s, in the wake of Florence Nightingale’s campaign to professionalise nursing and to provide nurses with dedicated accommodation. Thoresby House was built as part of this wave of reform. It was similarly financed by donations, including a large legacy from a wealthy estate (which came with a wrangle about a suitable dedication in the name of the deceased).

 A subsequent fundraising campaign was reported in the Evening Standard of 11 April 1901, where a short piece invited potential benefactors to a fundraising “festival dinner” at Hotel Metropole in London, the object of which was “to build and furnish a Nurses’ Home”. The hospital’s annual reports at the time again record modest donations from individuals towards the new nurses’ home, making it a truly community-supported endeavor. 

The Royal Chest Hospital, and its nursing staff residing at Thoresby House, served the local population during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. Few records are available from this time, but that chapter of Thoresby House’s history feels far more familiar of late. 

Between 1927 and 1954, the Royal Chest Hospital was also home to pioneering female doctor Norah Schuster, who worked as a pathologist at the hospital between 1927 and 1954. Her archived papers, also held at the London Metropolitan Archives, glow with affection and pride for the work of the hospital, the lives saved and advances made, sometimes against considerable odds. 

What remained of the medical district by the 20th century was damaged or destroyed during the Blitz, including the original eye hospital complex, which was rebuilt in 1946, and the Royal Chest Hospital, the remnants of which were briefly used for outpatient care after the war but subsequently demolished in 1954, due to the building having been deemed beyond repair. Thoresby House alone survived the extensive Blitz bombings intact.

With it, some elements of the Royal Chest Hospital itself have been preserved, such as the hospital’s original railings and side gate. The foundation stone of the Royal Chest Hospital 1876 extension remains on site and, while not accessible to the public, reportedly reads: ‘This foundation stone was laid by Her Royal Highness the Princess Louise (Marchioness of Lorne) on Wednesday the 19th day of July 1876’.

Recent official descriptions of Thoresby House by Hackney Council also record the existence of two ‘unusual’ timber doors above the ground and first floors, their purpose unknown. 

The NHS eventually sold off Thorsby House as surplus to requirements and it came to be owned by Arcadia University, whose proposals to replace the building with a 12-story tower block were regrettably approved by Hackney Council in October 2020. 

Perhaps the building’s impending demolition is also its last act of public service. Its history has come into the spotlight at a time when we are again grappling with air pollution and a pandemic. Perhaps Thoresby House’s story is there to both reassure us and to spur us on.