Founded in 1123 alongside a priory of the same name in Smithfield, the most westerly ward in the City of London, St Bartholomew’s Hospital has stood for longer than any institution of its kind in the country. Almost 100 years older than Parliament, the first recorded patient at Barts came from a village which now lies mostly under the North Sea. Now a modern heart and cancer hospital, St Bartholomew’s has survived turbulent periods in history and several threats to its existence. We look at ten moments that have shaped Britain’s oldest hospital.
A vow made while sick on a pilgrimage to Rome and a vision of St Bartholomew inspired Rahere, a courtier of Henry I, to create a hospital and a priory for the sick poor. In the early medieval period the sick were cared for by the brethren and sisters of the Priory but by 1420 the two institutions had become separate.
A royal petition
The Priory was closed as part of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1539. Although the Hospital was allowed to continue, its future without an income was uncertain. Concerned citizens petitioned the King who relented, granting the Hospital to the City and giving it an income.
The Gibbs rebuild
The medieval buildings were demolished during the 18th century rebuild by architect James Gibbs. The North Wing, which contains the Great Hall, East and West wings are all Grade I listed. The staircase leading to the Great Hall is decorated with two huge paintings by the artist William Hogarth. The Fountain was added in 1859.
A school for nurses
A School of Nursing was established in 1877. A notable early matron was Ethel Gordon Manson, better known as Ethel Bedford Fenwick, who encouraged better training and campaigned for the state registration of nurses. Soon the entire nursing staff was Barts trained and our nurses have enjoyed a good reputation world-wide ever since.
A new National Health Service
Described by Health Minister Aneurin Bevan as “a great and novel undertaking”, the National Health Service was founded on 5 July 1948. Upon the creation of the NHS, the hospital’s legal (and little-used) title, ‘the House of the Poore in Farringdon in the suburbs of the City of London of Henry VIII's Foundation’ was dropped in favour of ‘St Bartholomew’s’.
Sir Bernard Tomlinson’s 1992 report proposed the closure of the hospital sparking an intense public campaign in which over one million people signed a petition to save Barts. The hospital survived and in 1994 joined with The Royal London and London Chest hospitals.
Barts Health is born
In 1999 the Royal Hospitals NHS Trust was renamed Barts and The London NHS Trust, and, in 2012, when Whipps Cross and Newham University Hospitals joined the group, a large new trust was formed called Barts Health serving millions of people across the City and three east London boroughs.
A new vision
At the turn of the millennium, a plan was formed for St Bartholomew’s to become a centre of excellence for heart and cancer care. The Queen Mary Wing was demolished and the façade of the King George V building was retained within a new hospital building. The new Barts Heart Centre became the largest unit of its kind anywhere in Europe.
In 2020 the Coronavirus pandemic placed unprecedented strain on the NHS and no more so than in east London. In the first wave, St Bartholomew’s rapidly expanded its intensive care capacity to treat Covid patients. By winter, Barts was continuing to see thousands of cancer and cardiac patients despite a number of its staff relocating temporarily to Covid wards at The Royal London. The Hospital also vaccinated thousands of patients and members of the public.
Barts is 900
Celebrations began in late 2022 with the arrival of King Charles III. On the eve of the visit, Barts Heritage revealed their appeal to restore the hospital’s Grade I listed North Wing had been successful, with works due to begin this summer (2023). Barts Charity began fundraising for a new breast centre (at St Bartholomew’s) and clinical research facility (at The Royal London) to transform health outcomes for Londoners.
St Bartholomew's Hospital celebrates its Foundation Day on Saturday 25 March 2023.
Image above: An appeal to repair the Henry VIII Gatehouse from 1939; image middle: assessing World War Two bomb damage; image bottom: students join the Save Barts campaign.