Whipps Cross Hospital began life as Forest House infirmary in 1889 when it had just 23 trained nurses. Now the hospital has 3,400 members of staff and 700 beds. Nicola Macbeth looks back at the history of the Leytonstone hospital.


Nurses and the country’s hospitals seem to make a regular appearance in the headlines, usually for the wrong reasons. 

Of course, healthcare and nursing has improved greatly since the late Victorian/early Edwardian times, but it may be interesting to see what has changed and could the NHS learn anything from the past?

The West Ham Infirmary as it was then known, was completed in 1903, a couple of years after the end of Queen Victoria’s reign,  and as it held its 110th birthday last year, it may be interesting to see how much (or little) has nursing changed in the last century.

It was the West Ham board of guardians that bought Forest House in 1889 with the intention of building a Poor Law school or using the site as a cemetery. But it was eventually agreed to build an infirmary, and although Forest House itself was converted into a workhouse, it was later used as an add on to the infirmary.

When it first opened, the infirmary has just 23 trained nurses and 63 probationers, but 672 beds over 24 wards. It also had its own horse drawn ambulance and facilities to care for two mentally ill patients (or ‘lunatics’ as they would have been referred to in those times). 

Today Whipps Cross hospital has over 700 beds and 3,400 members of staff, from domestics to doctors.

Nurses of that era would have still been influenced by the likes of Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole, who both placed emphasis on orderliness and hygiene, realising the link between unhygienic conditions and infection.

It was Florence Nightingale that proposed providing separate beds for the sick-poor as opposed to the just poor (they had the workhouse), recognizing that they had different needs. 

This was a new idea that followed on from the Liverpool workhouse Infirmary, which was the first facility of its kind for the sick-poor. Nurses were now properly trained and nursing was considered a respectable profession for women.

The hospital and staff of that time had the pioneering doctors Joseph Lister and John Snow to thank for their input into medicine. 

Dr Lister discovered that carbolic acid was useful in keeping wounds and dressings clean and encouraged fellow surgeons to wash their hands and instruments before operating on a patient. Dr Snow played an integral part in reducing the number of deaths from the cholera outbreak that affected London in 1853-1854.  He discovered that drinking water contaminated with sewage was the culprit; people thought that it was bad smells that transmitted disease!

So what was nursing at the West Ham Infirmary like? The salary of a first year probationary nurse was £5 a year with board, lodgings, laundry and uniform. Their uniform would have been a soft crinoline skirt with full apron, pinafores, stiff collars, puffy sleeves and removable cuffs. 

Most nurses now opt for the more practical tunic and trousers, colour coded depending on their position.  Wards were scrubbed and sheets regularly cleaned. Patients were also made to wash and kept clean to prevent cross infection. The age of 21 was considered a good age to begin nursing, whilst 40 a good age to retire. Nurses worked for 12 hours a day with one day off a week. 

A book published in the 1890s for nurses, described the qualifications required to be a nurse;

“She must be not only physically, but constitutionally strong. The best type of girl for nursing is one who is tall and strong and has a certain suppleness of movement. One who is accustomed to playing lawn tennis, who can ride, skate and row makes the best material”. 

Other attributes included being able to dance and good looks! Fortunately the qualifications and qualities required for a nurse in 2014 are open to anyone that has good communication skills, compassion and care, regardless of their looks and social status. 

Matron was a formidable figure, although well respected, even the doctors were a little afraid of her. Matron, as described by one nurse who trained and worked at the London Hospital; “having once seen, shall never forget!  When she presents her hand there is an uncomfortable feeling that a low curtsey and a kiss on the finger tips would be the most correct method of dealing with this plump and beringed article”.

1917 saw the infirmary take on the role of general hospital rather then poor law institution and changed its name to Whipps Cross. The hospital cared for many injured servicemen during the First World War and it was visited by George V and Queen Mary. A plaque commemorates the royal visit.

The name Whipps Cross is thought to have come from what was once an important cross road and in 1374, the family name of a local – John Phipps.  Although over the years the name had several changes to Phypps cross,  Fypps cross and, finally in 1636, to Whipps Cross.

Hygiene is still of course of high importance, with staff regularly attending training to ensure they are up to date with infection control. A lot of hospital equipment is single use only and disposable, thus reducing the potential for cross infection. Visiting friends and relatives are educated on the importance of good hand hygiene and are asked to avoid visiting if they are infectious themselves.

So are hospitals cleaner now? Our understanding of bacteria and how infections are spread has obviously increased, which has greatly improved infection control and naturally this will continue to progress with scientists discovering new germs and new ways to eradicate them. 

However the orderliness and tidiness that the Edwardian matron insisted on has become difficult to achieve. Nurses are no longer required to clean the wards, this role being given to contracted companies; this therefore makes it difficult for the ‘modern’ matron to regulate, resulting in departments and wards that have been overlooked. 

But let’s not forget the increasing workload for the NHS in general, people are living longer, birth rates are high, so the sheer volume of patients creates a very different environment to monitor and manage effectively.

So yes there may be some areas that need improvement and perhaps the leadership of the Edwardian matron shouldn’t be dismissed, but Whipps and its staff do an amazing job in some very difficult circumstances and for that they should be commended.