History of the Royal Waterloo Hospital For Children and Women

One of the more eye-catching buildings beside Waterloo Station is the former Royal Waterloo Hospital for Children and Women.

Although it’s not been a hospital since 1976, it has an intriguing history stretching back to 1816 including a very dark chapter in its more recent history.

Universal Dispensary for Children 

Founded in 1816, the Universal Dispensary for Children was located within the Doctors Commons in the City of London.

Similar to the Inns of Courts in the City today, this was a cluster of building where a society of lawyers lived and worked.

You can see it in the 1799 R Horwood map, south of St Paul’s Cathedral. Today the Faraday Building stands on the site.

The Universal Dispensary was the first institution in England to dedicate itself to the care of sick children and the ‘universal’ in the name refers to children from any area being welcome.

With patronage from the Duke of York came a name change and from 1821 it became the Royal Universal Dispensary for Children.

It seems hard to believe, but prior to this most hospitals at the time refused to treat children. So now anyone under 12 could come from all over London to seek advice and receive treatment and medicine. 

In total about 250 children a week were visiting but no one was ever admitted, they only provided outpatient treatment. A year later the City premises was too small and dilapidated so a new site was secured at the south end of Waterloo Bridge.

The Royal Universal Infirmary for Children

In 1824 the Royal Universal Infirmary for Children opened and a surviving drawing of the building is held in the London Metropolitan Archives:

After 20 years the ‘universal’ was dropped from the name and an ambitious new recruit joined the team.

Dr Charles West was a Londoner and son of Baptist preacher. He trained at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, studied in Paris, Berlin and Dublin before he was appointed physician at the Royal Universal Infirmary for Children in 1842.

Charles West. Photograph by G. Jerrard. Credit: Wellcome Library CC BY 4.0

He was determined to offer inpatient facilities for children. It’s quite amazing to think that still, in 1842, there was no hospital beds for children in London.

Frustrated by the lack of change at the Royal Infirmary for Children in Waterloo, West struck out on his own. A great public speaker, he raised funds from individual donors and in 1851 he set up the Hospital for Sick Children at 49 Great Ormond Street across the river in Bloomsbury.

It would become the most famous children’s hospital in the world. 


This drawing in 1882 shows the townhouse where the hospital started with just 10 beds. Credit: Wellcome Collection
CC BY 4.0

Now with a serious rival, the management at the Royal Infirmary for Children started fundraising and did treat a young boy with a bladder stone in 1851. However, nothing permanent was installed until a bequest of £450 from the Hayles Estate was granted on the condition of 16 new inpatient beds and that women would also be treated.

Another doctor who worked here was the obstetric physician John Braxton Hicks who in 1872 gave his name to the ‘false contractions’ sometimes experienced during pregnancy. 

By 1875 the building was extended to have 50 beds and cots and it was renamed (again!) to the Royal Hospital for Children and Women, apparently after this extension they even had a playground on the roof for the children well enough to take advantage of it!

The Royal Hospital for Children and Women

The building we can see today was rebuilt between 1903-5 and designed by Charles Nicholson.

A prolific architect for churches and memorials across the UK, but the only other London connection appears to be the Royal Fusiliers Chapel at the Church of Holy Sepulcre on Holborn Viaduct. 

The building today is just wonderful, the typography, the colours and detail are such a joy on the otherwise uninspiring roundabout.

The hospital became part of the NHS in 1948 but sadly, during 1960s and 1970s, it wasn’t always a safe, comforting place for patients. 

Ward 5 was on the top floor of the Royal Waterloo Hospital and was run by Dr William Sargant. Over a decade this psychiatric ward treated 500 patients, mostly young women, who was subjected to experimental and often dangerous treatment.

They included the ‘Narcosis’ or sleep room where patients suffering depression could be effectively put into a coma for up to 3 months at a time. This was done without the full knowledge and consent of the patients and tragically led to the death of some and life changing mental effects on others. In 1973 Sargant retired and took all the medical records from Ward 5 with him. The ward was closed down shortly afterwards.

The hospital closed in 1976 and today it is known as Conway Hall and the accommodation for students at the US-based University of Notre Dame. 

Personally, I’m not sure I’d be totally comfortable sleeping on the top floor.

Detail of the Royal Coat of Arms above the portico corner entrance

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Related Blog: Look Inside the Hunterian Museum

On a related medical note, one of the best free museums in London is the Hunterian which tells the story of advancements in medical practice through the collection of John Hunter, an eminent surgeon and anatomist in 18th century London. Read more here.

Hunterian Museum, London | Look Up London

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