The water tower is one of the more dominant features of Hither Green – it is included in the festival’s logo and a reference point for photos from the air or higher vantage points. It is one of the remaining parts of one of the bigger Victorian hospitals – which has gone by various names – although was the Park Fever Hospital for just over half of its existence. The hospital closed in its centenary year of 1997.
The known history of the site goes back to the Middle Ages – as was covered in one of the early posts in Running Past, part of the site seems to have been covered by a medieval village that was probably wiped out by the Black Death.
The site was home to a pair of large houses, Hither Green Lodge and Wilderness House owned by the Desvignes family (as of the road name) for many years. The map from the mid 1860s shows (1) that the area had lots of big houses – some of which have already been covered by Running Past such as the inappropriately named Laurel Cottage. The houses were sold in 1892 to a barrister who seemingly also speculated on land values.
The roots of a hospital were in a Scarlet Fever epidemic in 1892/93, the health system was unprepared and there was a severe shortage of beds. It was an area overseen by the Metropolitan Asylums Board and five new fever hospitals were planned on the edge of London, including one in Hither Green and the relatively nearby Brook Hospital – covered a while ago in Running Past. Hither Green was still largely rural at the time – the station was not yet open and the neighbouring North Park Farm was still being farmed by the Sheppards. Cameron Corbett was hovering though and before the new hospital was finished, the farm was sold and early development started.
The site of Hither Green Lodge and Wilderness House, along with some adjoining land, had been bought in 1892 by the barrister Edward Boyle – he sold on to the Metropolitan Board of Works little more than a year later at a £10,000 profit (2). He also owned the site for the equivalent hospital in Tottenham, St Ann’s. Questions were later asked by a Board member about the level of profit involved and asked about whether there had been insider knowledge or corruption (3). It doesn’t seem to have led to any investigation by the Board though. However, it is just possible that’ given the site’s position on the edge of a developing city, Boyle was just a land speculator.
There was much local opposition to the development of the hospital site at an Enquiry Board (4) – effectively the equivalent of the hearing by Planning Inspectors. The opposition fell into two main camps with concerns over
- Spread of disease –one witness who was a doctor noted ‘the erection of a fever hospital may theoretically involve no risk of infection, but practically it does, in my opinion.’ He and none of the other similar witnesses presented no evidence of contamination or disease spreading even from locations where there were existing fever hospitals amidst housing; and
- Property values falling – there was a lot of speculation about value falling by 25 to 30% if the hospital was built – although there seems to have been no independent advice presented (or at least reported) – there were linked concerns from schools about falling rolls.
The Local Board of Works grudgingly accepted the need in the area, although appears to have suggested a site that is now Oak Cottages adjacent to the cemetery, where there was an existing small hospital (5).
Interestingly they were issues raised by Ernest Alves, Charles Booth’s researcher when putting together the poverty map for the area in 1899. The ‘walk’ was covered in relation to the Corbett Estate a while ago. Alves had assumed that the hospital would have had ‘a bad effect on the district.’ The local policeman that he conducted the walk with felt that it hadn’t.
There was a competition for the design of the hospital (pictured above (6)) which was won by Edwin T. Hall, who was design several late 19th and early 20th century hospitals, including Manchester Royal Infirmary; although perhaps the best known surviving building he designed is Liberty & Co. store in London’s West End. The contractors were Leslie and Co of Kensington – while the tender was for £210,000 it seems that costs escalated during the project and the final bill was £280,000.
It was officially opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales on the afternoon of 12 July 1897 (7). It was a large hospital with 548 beds and employed 3000 when it was built; quite a lot of the staff lived on site in the early days. (Source for postcard below (8))
As the number of fever cases declined, the hospital was briefly a children’s hospital in the early 20th century before housing war refugees during the First World War. By the beginning of World War 2 the hospital was controlled by the London County Council before joining the NHS in 1948 under the Lewisham Group Hospital Management Committee, ‘Fever’ was dropped from the name at this point and it was renamed Hither Green Hospital in 1957.
The number of beds reduced during the 1950s to around 500 from a peak of over 600 pre-war. It was again used as a fever hospital but also for those with skin disorders, tonsil and adenoids operations as well as some strange treatments for whooping cough already covered in Running Past. (Picture source (9))
There was a polio epidemic in the early 1950s and a vaccine did not became available until the mid-1950s and widespread through sugar cubes until the early 1960s. Hither Green was to specialise in the treatment of the disease and built a hydrotherapy pool.
It evolved into a more general hospital, treating many of the survivors of the 1967 Hither Green rail crash, including a young Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees. From the 1970s it became a largely geriatric and psychiatric hospital but changes in the way in which both groups of patients were dealt with as Care in the Community evolved in the late 1980s. Part of the hospital was effectively mothballed in the early 1990s and in the centenary year of 1997 the last patients were transferred to Lewisham Hospital.
The site was surplus to requirements for the then Lewisham NHS Hospital Trust who saw the development opportunity of the large urban site and secured a series of outline planning permissions from 1996 for housing development of the site before selling on to developers. Much of it was bought by Bellway, a large developer based in the north-east and contains over 500 homes – now ‘badged’ as Meridian South, so named as the Prime Meridian passes the very southern edge of the site and is marked in a pavement on Woodlands Street – covered a while ago in Running Past.
The housing is generally low rise, particular the earlier development around the edge of the site facing onto George Lane and Stainton Road, with some higher densities and higher buildings in later phases.
A few of the buildings close to the George Lane entrance remain – these include a porter’s lodge, the medical superintendent’s house, an office and discharge and waiting rooms – the latter names still visible.
- Map on a Creative Commons from the National Library of Scotland. http://maps.nls.uk/view/102343453
- Woolwich Gazette 02 June 1893
- Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper 08 December 1895
- Woolwich Gazette 02 June 1893
- source e Bay June 2016
- The Times (London, England), Tuesday, Jul 13, 1897
- Source e Bay May 2016
- Source e Bay Sept 2016