diamond geezer

 Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel

the Royal London Hospital, photographed on its 250th birthdayExactly 250 years ago today, on 20th September 1757, the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel opened its doors to the public. This doesn't make it the oldest hospital in the country, but a quarter of a millennium is still a very long time to have been serving the medical needs of some of the poorest communities in the country, and well worth celebrating. If you live in East London this'll be a hospital you'll know well. It's huge, for a start, and the hospital's benefactors also had the sense to build right next to a busy main road. None of this modern greenfield miles-from-anywhere rubbish, where every hospital visit means hopping in your car or catching two buses. The Royal London is where the capital's Air Ambulance service is based, so you've probably seen their big red helicopters either in real life or on a TV documentary. And later this year the BBC will be bringing you Casualty 1907, a historical drama series based on genuine Royal London medical records of the era. Alas infamous hospital resident Joseph Merrick (the "Elephant Man") won't be appearing in any of the stories because he died two decades earlier.

As part of my continued commitment to report back to readers on important London events, I paid a special 250th anniversary visit to the Royal London back in May. It's ever so easy to gain free admittance - just dial 999 from any home in the neighbourhood and a kindly chauffeur will arrive at your front door within minutes to whisk you off to the main entrance. I arrived at half past six in the morning, when admission queues were at their quietest, and was given exclusive access to the A&E department's resuscitation room. This is a long off-white gallery with three separate trauma bays, each with various screens, scanners and gadgets hanging from the walls and ceiling. Most visitors only ever get to see the ceiling. As I waited on my trolley for the day shift to arrive it was sobering to reflect that more people have probably died here, four feet off the ground in this windowless room, than in any other location in the whole of Tower Hamlets. Mine, thankfully, was always going to be a two-way visit.

My grand tour next took me to one of the nearby wards, in a desirable location overlooking the snooker club and McDonalds in Whitechapel High Street. I was one of eight special guests taking advantage of the 24 hour full board experience, although not everyone was enjoying the experience (or even conscious of it). Here the courteous staff attended to my every need with a smile, perhaps because I wasn't the moaning one-legged bitch in the corner repeatedly demanding that the nurses remove his catheter, lift him out of the bed and wheel him to the toilet. There was a genuine tropical atmosphere in the ward, due in no small part to the air conditioning having irrevocably broken down some weeks earlier, and those of us tethered to our beds were forced to endure permanent sweaty steam-room conditions.

Brief respite came when I was offered a wheeled excursion of the hospital's lower levels. Naturally I leapt at the opportunity to explore more of this fascinating building. My tour guide pushed me straight through the main entrance hall, past the little shop that sells flowers, chocolates and souvenir model helicopters. On along the main ground floor corridor, its dour architecture somewhat reminiscent of a crumbling Victorian asylum. Then down a level in the spacious silver lift, avoiding the spiralling institutional staircase with its shiny stone steps and curly iron banister. And finally along a grim basement corridor, deftly avoiding oncoming electric vehicles transporting their cargoes of pristine bedlinen, stained gowns and discarded swabs. As I rose from my chair to wait for my two o'clock appointment, I stared out of the back entrance towards the vast building site at the rear of the hospital. 250 years on, the Royal London is being almost completely reborn. A twin-towered 17-storey glass block is being erected immediately behind the existing main building, and within a few years it'll completely dominate this part of East London. My local hospital will be the biggest, most cutting edge, gleaming-est hospital in the whole wide NHS, so they promise. Let's hope they fix the air conditioning as well.

I enjoyed my anniversary visit so much that I've booked to go back again at regular three monthly intervals. It's lucky I'm not sick or anything.

A history of the Royal London Hospital
The Royal London Museum (open weekdays 10-4:30) [hmm, I must go]
Attend the Royal London's annual Open Day [damn, sorry, that was yesterday]
Proposals, siteplan and images of the new Royal London redevelopment

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