In sickness and in health: the story behind St Ann’s

From two world wars to the present day, Francesca Baker explores the fascinating history of St Ann’s Hospital

Around the back of a hospital in Haringey you’ll find some names etched into a wall with dates alongside them: ward names and ship names. These marks offer a fascinating glimpse into the lives of people who have passed through the walls of St Ann’s Hospital.

Now a psychiatric hospital and home to an acute assessment ward, short stay unit, home treatment team and eating disorders unit, the building began life as a fever hospital. A violent outbreak of scarlet fever rendered existing hospitals unable to cope, and forced them to turn people away.

Desperate, the Metropolitan Asylums Board purchased a site in Tottenham, land once in pos- session of Clerkenwell Abbey and later Knights of St John, for just £12,000. Over the next few weeks, as the Building News magazine reported at the time, under the direction of architects A & C Harston, 50 buildings housing 500 beds were erected within seven weeks. Opening in October 1892 by The Metropolitan Asylums as The North Eastern Fever Hospital, it treated patients suffering from fever and diphtheria.

Local residents were vehemently opposed to the building, fearing that the infectious diseases were spreading, as had been the case in Fulham, Homerton and Hampstead hospitals.

Mr J Howard of Middlesex, Tottenham stated in a parliamentary debate: “I beg to ask the First Lord of the Treasury whether the Local Government Board is aware of the alarm which the renewed application by the Metropolitan Asylums Board, for the erection of a fever hospital in Tottenham, is exciting amongst the large population there, and of the opposition to it by all the Public Bodies in the district.”

The North Eastern Fever Hospital opened on 8th October 1892. Two years later, the site was expanded to 33 acres, two adjacent cottages were acquired, and in 1896 the brick wall, the high boundary that stands today, was built.

The gardens are believed to have been laid out in the 1920s by a former

Kew Gardens worker who chose some trees which are reputed to have therapeutic value, including the Judas Tree, Strawberry Tree, yellow blossomed Golden Rain and apple trees. A number are now subject to Tree Preservation Orders under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990.

During the First World War, the hospital was placed at the disposal of the United States military authorities, as American Expeditionary Force Base Hospital No.29. The unit arrived in England on July 17, 1918, and was assigned to duty at North Eastern Fever Hospital, London, where it arrived on the night of July 19, 1918. It took over the hospital from the British on August 1, 1918 and cared for 3,976 cases. Seen on the walls of the blocks in are the names of patients, their ship names or battalion troop numbers alongside.

During both the First and Second World War the hospital paid a significant role in treating local casualties and receiving wounded soldiers returning home from the front. As part of his research for the Tottenham Summerville site, Alan Swain identified a number of people treated at the hospital after bombing in Tottenham and north London in World War Two. The ‘Downhills Shelter Tragedy’ during the Blitz in September 1940, in which 41 local people lost their lives, caused particular anguish for local residents, as members of the same families were sent to different hospitals.

“We were buried under the shelter rubble and had to be dug out. My mother remembered being dragged out and having a leg wound (shrapnel I think) and then seeing the searchlights overhead,” recalls local resident Lillian Love.

We were buried under the shelter rubble …in sickness and in health, it’s touched people personally

“We were all taken to different hospitals as there were so many casualties. My Mum was taken to St Ann’s, although at that time this was called the North-Eastern Hospital, and my sister and I went to the Prince of Wales Hospital,” Love said.

After the liquidation of The Metropolitan Asylum Board in 1929 the hospital came under the administration of London Country Council and then the NHS in 1946. In the immediate post war period the fever hospital was redeveloped, including the construction of an ambulance station and a row of prefabricated bungalows. By 1950, the hospital had been renamed St Ann’s General Hospital.

His name isn’t on a wall, but according to research by St Ann’s Re-development Trust, amongst the hospital’s more famous patients was the punk musician Sid Vicious, who was treated for hepatitis in 1977.

St Ann’s is a striking structure. The hospital’s northern boundary is defined by a tall Victorian stock brick wall, and two gabled lodges sit either side of the gates. The porters lodge is the original. Old cobbled lanes lead down to the engineering area, and there’s an old water tower that has been used for arts programmes. You can see the locally listed Orchard House, a red brick Victorian building with tall chimney stacks and a slate roof, and Mulberry House with a projecting hexagonal bay and pyramidal roof. The East Gate Lodge & Reception building are also part of Haringey Borough’s Conservation Area No. 17.

But why does all this matter? Consultations are still on going, but the substantial cost of keeping a partially used site like this open means that land has been sold to developers for housing. As a result, some of the history of the people and the place will be demolished.

More striking is the role that the hospital has played in changing lives. Whether for the better or worse, in sickness and in health, it has touched people personally. Whatever happens to the buildings, it is important that those memories are not lost.