In 2023, St Bartholomew’s Hospital (Barts) celebrates opening its doors to Londoners for 900 years. It is the oldest hospital still running on the same site in England. Through the Black Death, the Great Plague, Spanish Flu and Coronavirus, Barts has survived to become a pioneering cancer and heart disease centre today.
This online exhibition accompanies a touring outdoor exhibition being shown in locations across the City of London during summer 2023. Find more information here.
The Hospital’s archive and museum collections hold evidence of this unbroken thread of history. The archives date from 1137 to the present day. The hospital collection includes over 15,000 catalogued items, held by Barts Health NHS Trust Archives.
From medieval manuscripts to the NHS, Barts Health Archive documents London’s plagues, Great Fire, changing streets and hundreds upon thousands of staff and patients. Glimpses of lost London lives fly from the pages of ledgers and records, telling stories of care, crisis, agony and inspiration. Through archives and photographs, Barts has saved its own story as well as the lives and livelihoods of countless patients and staff.
THE FOUNDATION AND FIRST CENTURIES
‘That place [Smithfield] before its cleansing… was very foul and like a marsh, at almost all times abounded with filth and muddy water’
The Book of the Foundation of the Church of St Bartholomew, c1180
According to legend, St Bartholomew’s Hospital was founded by Rahere – a favourite courtier of King Henry I. Whilst on a pilgrimage to Rome, Rahere fell ill and experienced a terrifying vision of St Bartholomew. The saint commanded Rahere build a church and hospital in Smithfield, then a marshy outer district of London.
Rahere was ‘an ingenious gentleman’ and used his contacts and charm to secure land from the King and money from London’s wealthy. In March 1123 the site on which the hospital still stands today, was dedicated by the Bishop of London. Rahere died in 1144 and his tomb is in the Church he founded, St Bartholomew the Great.
From 1170, the hospital received grants, which attracted valuable endowments of property, and the hospital continued to receive much of its income from property for many centuries.
‘Cok’s Cartulary’ is a compendium of hospital property records recording Barts charters, grants and property rights. It was compiled by John Cok from 1418 and continued by other clerks until around 1506.
Barbara Adams worked for over a decade as Barts’s first barber, living around the corner at Little Britain. She earned 27 pounds and 18 shillings a year ‘shaving patients by order of the surgeons’ but in 1761 Barbara lost her job and her rented home when she was fired for ‘improper conduct on diverse occasions’.
John Hunt ran his business from Goswell Street, as a ‘nightman and rubbish carter’, emptying Barts’s cesspits. Hunt’s bill, held in the archives, has a handwritten note stating that the hospital Treasurer found his prices ‘reasonable’.
Many Londoners left money to Barts in their wills including Matilda de Kersinger who ‘a linen towel, a brass cauldron, basin, cushions and thirteen and fourpence annually to St Bartholomew’s Hospital’ in 1280. John Bedham gave ‘six shillings and eight pence annually to the Master of [St Bartholomew’s] Hospital… to provide a conduit of water’ in 1468 and Dr John Radcliffe, physician and Barts governor gave ‘To St Bartholomew’s Hospital £500 a year for mending the patients’ diet forever’ in 1714.
ST BARTHOLOMEW’S HOSPTIAL ARTISTS
William Hogarth was the son of a bankrupt Smithfield coffee-shop owner, His paintings The Good Samaritan and The Pool of Bethesda were gifts to the Hospital and can be seen on the North Wing’s Grand Staircase today. William’s sisters Mary and Ann Hogarth ran a dress-making business on Long Walk, facing the hospital cloisters.
Zita Stead became the first full time medical artist in the Anatomy Department of St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College in 1933. Stead created hundreds of illustrations of surgical procedures and pathology specimens with her work featured in Gray’s Anatomy.
The Hospital’s medical illustration and photography department was established in 1947 thanks to Stead’s work. Photography recorded a patient’s condition and progress while drawings were used when an interpretive approach was needed.
In 1875 Leonard Portal Mark began his career as a London physician but became increasingly ill with acromegaly – a rare and painful condition causing tissues and bones to grow more quickly. Mark was asked by Barts if: ‘I would come to their help by putting my capacity for drawing to use…. A table was placed in a good light where I could work at any specimen set up, or make a patient sit who was well enough to come up from the ward.’
CARE AND DIAGNOSIS
Enslaved teenager Jonathan Strong was brought to London from Barbados by slave owner David Lisle. In 1765, Lisle beat Strong and left him for dead in the street. Strong made it to Dr William Sharp’s free surgery in Mincing Lane, and Sharp’s brother, Granville, brought him to Barts.
Strong recovered and took a new job, but two years later he was spotted by Lisle in the street. Lisle began a legal fight to claim back his ‘property’. Strong ultimately won his freedom but died aged just 25 in 1773. Strong’s case was the first in series of legal battles which ultimately proved that slavery was not legal in England.
Children have always been among the patients at Barts. In 1556, seven shillings was paid ‘for the healing of children’s heads’ – known as ‘scald-head’ or ringworm. Adults and children were housed together until 1930 when the first dedicated children’s ward opened.
The hospital’s central square has been at the heart of life at Barts since it was built in the 1700s. A fountain and flower beds were added later, and it became a meeting space and a place for patients to get fresh air and sunshine – considered essential treatment for many.
‘This house is visited. Forbeare sending any sick person hither during these contagious tymes’ Governors’ Minutes, September 1665
When the Great Plague struck London in 1665, physicians fled the City and only one Barts surgeon stayed to “officiate the cures and business for the plague in the Hospital.”
Care was given by apothecary Francis Bernard and matron Margaret Blague, assisted by 15 nurses ‘to the great peril of her life’.
Blague and Bernard were rewarded for ‘their apparent danger, paynes, dilligence & faithfull care in this late dangerous & pestillentiall tymes’. A widow with four children, Margaret Blague continued at Barts as matron until her death in 1675.
‘In the last 24 hours, the Prime Minister has put us all on notice that life will not be the same for the foreseeable future. The reasons for this change in policy and approach are simple. To save lives; to reduce suffering; and to give us in the NHS a fighting chance to help the country manage the coronavirus’
Dame Alwen Williams, CEO, Barts Health NHS Trust, 2015-2022, all staff email, 16 March 2020
Film maker and artist Derek Jarman was diagnosed HIV positive in December 1986. Jarman wrote to The Independent newspaper in 1993 while he was a patient at Barts. His letter protested against Barts planned closure by the government and was published it in full on the front page. Jarman died of an AIDS-related illness in February 1994 at Barts.
St Bartholomew’s Hospital was founded to care for the ‘sick and poor’ of London. The first trained medics are recorded in 1549 when three surgeons were appointed. There were just four physicians and four surgeons until 1895. By 1872 there were 676 beds with 6,000 in-patients admitted every year and 101,000 out-patients.
‘In the year 1562 I did see in the two hospitals in London called St. Thomas’ Hospital and St. Bartholomew’s Hospital three hundred poor people that were diseased of sore legs, arms, feet and hands so infected that a hundred and twenty of them could never be recovered without loss of a leg, arm, a foot or a hand, fingers or toes… or else undone for ever’.
Thomas Gale, Serjeant-Surgeon to Queen Elizabeth I.
‘No description could do justice to the strange hubbub [in the Casualty Ward] …the rattle of carts in the street, the hum of voices inside, the slamming of doors… the coughings of all kinds, the crying of babies, the scraping of impatient feet, the stamping of cold ones, the chinking of the bottles and zinc tickets’ Robert Bridges, 1878, Bart’s casualty doctor, later Poet Laureate.
‘William Harvey, Doctor of Physick came before the Governors and is contented to execute the office of the physician of this house… without any recompense for his pains herein’
St Bartholomew’s Hospital Governor’s minutes, 1609
William Harvey was physician to the Royal family, but in his job at Barts he provided free care to the poor. Harvey was the first to describe the circulation of blood around the body in his book De Motu Cordis, 1628. On 23 March 1639 Harvey’s recipe for a ‘Scurvy grass drink’ was written down in Barts Governor’s minutes. This bitter drink was made by the Hospital Apothecary and used to treat scurvy when fresh fruit was not available:
To a barrel of 8 gallons of beer take of the fresh juice of scurvy grass 18 pintes; of the juice of watercress 10pints; of the juice of brooklime 6 pints; of horseradish root 1lb; of sassafras 2lb, of long peas 3oz; grains 3oz; calamine aramatins 2oz; nutmeg 1oz; agrimony, sage, betony, hart’s tongue and soldanella, of each six handfuls – and after putting all these into the beer to lie 14 days… to be kept by the Matron under lock and key.
In 1960 Parveen Kumar was one of the first female students from India to study at Barts, and one of very few women in her year. She became a gastroenterologist and later President of the Royal Society of Medicine and the British Medical Association amongst many senior positions. She is a champion for women in medicine and co-author of Kumar and Clark’s Clinical Medicine.
Psychologist Lucy May (Maisie) Holt initiated the first effective treatment of dyslexia at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in the 1950s. Then called ‘word-blindness,’ dyslexia was only just beginning to be understood.
St Bartholomew’s Hospital relied on donations and endowments until 1948 when the government took over funding through the UK’s National Health Service.
Everyone gave to Barts. From Kings and Queens to pub landlords and sailors. Money poured in through gifts of farmland and property, giving the Hospital an enormous rental income. By 1600 Barts had been given 100,000 acres across England and acres of land and property in London across 60 parishes – becoming one of the richest landowners in the country.
Fleet Street journalists supported Barts with an annual fundraising week. In 1926 they raised £1,500,000 (in today’s money) which paid for a new operating theatre and two wards.