History of the Lanesborough: Hospital to Luxury Hotel

One of the most famous hotels in the world, the Lanesborough on Hyde Park Corner was previously St George’s Hospital between 1733-1980.

History of the Lanesborough Hotel | Look Up London

Hyde Park Corner was mostly fields right up un the late 18th century. 

On the John Rocque map of 1746 you can see how this area surrounded by green space would make an attraction location for a hospital.

Image Credit: www.layersoflondon.org John Rocque, 1746

However it started life as a grand house.

Lanesborough House 

In 1719 James Lane, 2nd Viscount Lanesborough had a house built facing onto Knightsbridge. Sadly he died in 1724 without heirs and the title died with him.

In 1733 a group of four doctors took over the lease of Lanesborough House and established a hospital.

They had previously been based in Petty France at the Westminster Public Infirmary established in 1720. Their names were Henry Hoare, William Wogan, Robert Witham and the Reverend Patrick Cockburn.

One of the most famous figures associated with the hospital is John Hunter who started working there in 1768.

Image credit: Print based on the 1789 Reynolds painting, Wellcome Collection CC-BY-4.0

Thoroughly radical and a pioneer of surgery, he was by far the most popular of the staff surgeons with pupils and was constantly followed around by a group of eager young men scribbling down his every word.

The reason he was considered so radical was his approach to learning. He despised the idea of simply parroting ancient ‘wisdom’ and preferred to champion scientific inquiry and the challenging of the status quo. Unsurprisingly this earned him few friends amongst his more traditional colleagues.

A memorial archway commemorating John Hunter was erected at Hyde Park Corner in the early 20th century, designed by Charles Holden.

Image Credit: St George’s University Hospitals

You can visit the phenomenal (and free) Hunterian Museum in Holborn to discover more about his life and work.

An Old Leper Hospital

Interestingly there’s an even earlier record of a medical institution close by, the 15th century lazar-house (leper hospital) which was a little further along Knightsbridge.

In the mid-1590s there were around 40 ‘diseased, lame and impotent poor’ being treated on the site, some staying as long as three years.

In 1629 the dilapidated chapel of the leper hospital was rebuilt as a chapel which stood on Knightsbridge. It was rebuilt 1860 and then finally demolished in 1904. 

Today a new chapel now stands on Prince Consort Road by the Albert Hall, built in 1901.

St George’s Hospital

By 1825 the earlier building was falling apart and a new one was needed. The commission went to William Wilkins (who did the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square) and a suitably grand neo-classical stone building was erected on the site.

The exterior has barely changed when you look to old photographs for comparison.

Image Credit: Wellcome Collection (with the wrong caption describing it as Westminster Hospital)

Even the words “St George’s Hospital” are still emblazoned on the Grosvenor Place Facade where the main entrance was located.

Famous staff associated with the hospital include Henry Gray (1827 – 1861), who published the seminal book Gray’s Anatomy in 1858 which continues to be the ‘Doctor’s Bible’ today.

The Mother of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale, also has a close connection with St George’s Hospital. At the end of the 19th century she became the UK’s first female hospital Governor of St George’s, implementing sanitary reforms and pushing for a new wing to be built because the patient beds were too close together.

After the Second World War St George’s Hospital became part of the NHS and by the late 1970s it was clear that the building was no longer viable as a hospital.

Instead of rebuilding on this – now – prime real estate they opted to move the hospital to Tooting where it currently stands. It opened in 1980 and today it covers a 35-acre site and treats half a million patients a year.

If you ever visit (hopefully for nothing serious!) on Perimeter Road  you can also find the relocated John Hunter Gateway with a replica bust (the original is inside the hospital).

Image Credit: CC.BY-4.0 BeckenhamBear

The Lanesborough Hotel 

So what to do with the Hyde Park Corner building? The Government were now sitting on a chunk of space worth approximately £60 million but the Grosvenor Estate had an ace up their sleeve.

The Grosvenor Estate (still) own the majority of Belgravia, developing the area from fields and marshland in the 1820s. 

In 1906 the Grosvenor Estate sold a portion of the Hyde Park Corner site to St George’s Hospital. However (and this is why you should always read the smallprint!) If it ceased to be used as St George’s Hospital the Grosvenor Estate are entitled to regain ownership of this land for a mere £23,700. 

The full monetary breakdown and ownership of land is incredibly complicated but this sum above is based in hansard from the Commons in August 1980. The Independent also said in 2001 that the Duke of Westminster had only paid £6,000.

Whatever the final deal, it was clearly a good bit of long-term planning by the Grosvenor Estate. In terms of what would replaced the hospital, for years various plans were mooted by planning authorities until in 1987 Fitzroy Robinson Partnership were appointed to transform the site, working closely with Anthony Blee.

What’s Left of the Hospital at the Lanesborough?

As discussed, the exterior facade is relatively unchanged but (happily for the hotel guests) the interiors are unrecognisable.

However, the doorman and concierge were tremendously helpful in pointing out some of the internal features that do survive.

The most striking is this original cantilevered staircase.

And looking up…

As well as the majority of the former entrance foyer.

Today this is a short walk from the main hotel entrance on Knightsbridge but it is still used as the Royal entrance wherever Royalty come to visit.

(You can just about spy the double doors behind the statue and green curtain).

Here is the view from the outside on Grosvenor Place. (Sadly, I wasn’t allowed to use it!)

Around the corner on Grosvenor Crescent is another historic part of the former hospital, a drinking fountain erected in 1860 for the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association.

If you’ve seen other examples of these across London you might be struck be how different this one appears. That’s because it’s one of the first. Founded in 1859, The Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association aimed to provide free, fresh water to the public and added the cattle trough to the name in 1867.

Here’s a more typical-looking former fountain in Wimbledon which is Grade II listed.

Belgravia: Behind the Facades

To learn more about the surprisingly history behind the stucco facades of Belgravia, I offer a public walking tour of the area and you can find out more here.

Related Blog Post

Across the river in Waterloo is another former hospital with a fascinating history. Read about it here.

Royal Waterloo Hospital for Children and Women | Look Up London

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