St George's Fields, Southwark: From a grand 18th century suburb to 19th century inner-city slums

New charitable institutions

At the same time as some of the area was being developed for housing, a number of ground-breaking charitable institutions moved to St George’s Fields. They were attracted by the same things as the new residents: recent development, new roads, fresh air and (initially) clean water, space to build and expand, and none of the hustle and bustle, and vice, of London. These institutions were distinct from parochial charities as they had a remit spanning all of London or even further, and often provided care of a type not seen before.

Bethlem Hospital

The largest of the institutions in St George’s Fields was the Bethlem Hospital. This was an ancient institution, originally established in the City, to care for the mentally infirm. Its name was corrupted to bedlam – now a universally used term for uproar and chaos. By the late-18th century its premises at Moorfields were unsuitable, and the hospital started to look for a new location; St George’s Fields was particularly suitable as it offered them a home on land owned by their parent organisation, the City of London. The hospital took the lease of a plot of land in the south-eastern corner of the fields, on the site of the Dog and Duck tavern.

The new building was designed by James Lewis, the hospital’s surveyor, and was opened in August 1815. It was in an austere classical style with long wings to the east and west and had space for 200 patients. In an attempt to improve hygiene – if not the comfort – of the patients, the windows of the wards were initially unglazed. By the 1830s the cells and wards were overcrowded, prompting the addition of two new wings to the rear of the building; the north front was modified when Lambeth Road was realigned. The dome, of which the present is a modern replica after the original was destroyed in a 1968 fire, was added in 1844-5. In the mid-1850s the inmates’ windows were glazed and furnishings improved, reflecting a more compassionate treatment of patients’ conditions.

Among Bethlem’s inmates were the painter Richard Dadd, who had murdered his father, and Louis Wain, the artist famous for his humorous and sentimental paintings of cats. By the late-19th century the hospital’s focus was to give humane and progressive care to private (and often well off) patients. However, its buildings and its location were no longer suitable: the building was designed for a more austere age, and the area had become poor, unhealthy and overcrowded. In 1930 the hospital moved to new purpose-built accommodation at Monks Orchard in Beckenham, Kent; the building was later converted into the Imperial War Museum.

Other charitable institutions

Although the Bethlem Hospital was the largest of the institutions to move to St George’s Fields, it was not the first. This was the Magdalen Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes, founded in 1758 by Robert Dingley and Jonas Hanway with the aim of reforming and retraining prostitutes (a hospital in the more encompassing, mediaeval sense of the word). In 1772, it moved from its previous home in Whitechapel in 1772 to a site on the west side of Blackfriars Road, just north of St George’s Circus. The hospital flourished in its early years, benefiting from its uniqueness – it was the only body in London carrying out such work – and a good location some distance from the vice of central. The Magdalen Hospital was unusual in two respects. First, although highly moral in its aims and methods, it was not a religious foundation. Secondly, it depended entirely on donations – usually collections made at public services in its chapel – for its income; most charities of the time had land or investments from which they could gather resources. Its reliance on donations, although adequate in its early years, could leave it vulnerable to changing fortunes. Curiously, although the hospital’s records are vocal about its staff, funds and premises, they say very little about the number of women they worked with, exactly how they helped them – or how effective their work was.

As the 19th century progressed the hospital became dissatisfied with its site for much the same reasons as the Bethlem: the area had become poor and overcrowded, and the vice they were trying to remove their women from was openly flourishing in the immediate vicinity.

A near neighbour of the Magdalen Hospital was The Philanthropic Society, a charity for the care of children involved in crime, or who had criminal parents. The society was founded in 1788 in Hackney and moved to St George’s Fields, on a site near London Road, in 1793; like the Magdalen Hospital it received income from collections made during services at its chapel. Boys were taught manual trades and girls domestic service. As the character of St George’s Fields changed during the 19th century the Philanthropic Society suffered the same problems of falling income and a location too close to the vices and temptations it fought as the Magdalen did; this spurred a move to Redhill in 1848.

The School for the Indigent Blind was a secular institution that took people from all over London and which provided an entirely new form of care. The school was established in 1799, initially using space in the Dog & Duck tavern and, after 1810, in purpose-built premises at the junction of Lambeth and London Roads. The school raised income through donations and through sales of goods produced in its workshops. Its work was less affected by the change in character of St George’s Fields, but it too was forced to leave in 1901 when the Bakerloo Line Underground railway compulsorily purchased its site for a railway depot.

Other new institutions established in the area were more exclusive. The Royal Freemasons’ School for Girls was established on the north side of Westminster Bridge Road in 1788. It provided schooling for 100 girls, who were the daughters of freemasons, aged up to 15. Like other institutions it left the area as its character worsened, moving to Wandsworth in 1852. There were also two sets of almshouses for members of City Livery Companies. The Fishmongers’ Company’s almshouse was established in 1618 at the corner of St George’s Road and Newington Butts; another member founded an adjacent almshouse in 1719. Both these institutions moved to Wandsworth in 1851. In 1820 the Drapers’ Company built almshouses in Glasshill Street. Although now used for other purposes these still stand.