4) The Royal London Hospital Museum: Edith Cavell, The Elephant Man and Jack the Ripper.


The Royal London Hospital Museum.

The hospital in 1752. Changed a bit, hasn't it?

  • Location: Newark St, Whitechapel, E1 2AA. In the crypt of the redbrick St Peter’s church behind the main hospital.
  • Type of Museum:  Medical.
  • Admission times/prices:  Tues-Fri 10am-4.30pm, free (donation suggested).
  • Facilities: Small shop.
  • Transport:  Whitechapel tube/ELL, buses 25, 205, 243, 106, D6

The main bit(s).

This is by far the smallest museum I’ve been to so far, though I wouldn’t be surprised if I later find one to beat it.

18th century medicine: less effective, but much prettier.

I’m annoyed that I’ve never been here before – it would have been a much better way to spend the time between visiting hours or when waiting for x-ray results. ‘Better than hanging around between appointments’ sounds like damning this little museum with faint praise, but given that most people have phones and netbooks and ipods and kindles (and real books) these days, there’s a lot of competition for activities to fill dead time, so actually it’s a compliment. It is completely accessible for those with mobility impairments, as you’d expect in this location.

Women only got 'middle diet:' mainly porrage with occasional mutton. Everyone got bread and beer, but no vegetables.

The main part of the museum is divided into centuries, starting with the 18th, when the hospital was founded. It was one of the first voluntary hospitals, founded in 1740, though it didn’t move to Whitechapel till 1752. Voluntary hospitals were funded by contributions from the public; there was no charge to use the hospital itself, and it was mainly intended for ‘the merchant seaman and manufacturing classes.’ Right from the start, it provided for the main ethnic community in the area, with kosher food or money for it.

Free, aimed at the poor, with a focus on equality – once again I’m at a Victorian institution that sounds more progressive than many institutions today.

It was also, naturally, progressive in terms of medicine. When it opened, there weren’t many official medicines available at all, just really laudanum (alcohol and morphine, mmm), a few purgatives and quinine for malaria, which was the called the ague. I’ve come across numerous fictional characters who had the ague and I’d thought it was a sort of general unwellness, not a proper illness like malaria. After all these museums, historical fiction is going to make so much more sense to me.

Edith Cavell, nurse and fighter who was executed by firing quad. Wonder if she requested a nice cup of tea with her last cigarette.

Another section focuses on famous people who’ve worked or studied at the Royal London (which has been a teaching hospital ever since such things existed), and there have been an awful lot of them. Apart from famous medics like Dr Barnardo, Edith Cavell and Claire Rayner (yes, really – she was a nurse and did a lot for psychiatric and bereavement services as well as being earnestly sympathetic on This Morning), the most famous patient here was probably John Merrick, the Elephant Man, who died here in 1890.

Merrick favoured a really extreme form of niqab.

Merrick is also the subject of two of the videos available in the little seating area; the other videos are Casualty 1909 and a documentary about nursing training. I’d like to suggest that they include something about Jack the Ripper, since, as a display further back in the museum explains, some of his victims were brought here and examined by one of the first ever forensic pathologists.

The extra bit(s).

The display of photos at the back, all from the second world war, seems to be a temporary display so counts as ‘extra.’ I particularly liked the Nursing Sisters in their canteen, with linen tablecloths and waitress service even as bombs fell around them. Sisters and Matrons had so much power in those days – the Carry On movies were right.

Those circles are all where bombs fell. I have no idea how the Victorian buildings are still standing at all.

As I heard a visitor mention when he was chatting to the curator, there are extra bits – displays in the Garrod building and the nursing building – but I couldn’t find them and, frankly, it felt a little odd wandering around a medical school when I’m neither a medical student nor 19 again and hanging out with far too many medical students than was good for my health. Oh, and med students have been notoriously ‘sociable’ for a very long time – there’s been a student union here since 1893.

The bits where you end up spending money.

The shop’s just a few postcards and books, all reasonably-priced.

Stuff for kids and people who act like them.

Alex the X-Ray Machine, coming soon to a children's book near you.

This museum isn’t really aimed at kids; given the size and probable funding for it, lots of hands-on exhibits would be pointless. However, you can handle an old x-ray machine and some of the exhibits are gruesome; do those ‘urinary calulil’ really come out of there? Did they really cut people up with those? Did nurses really wear clothes like that? The friendly curator would answer all the questions and more; also, he looks like the Santa from Miracle on 34th St, which is always good.

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About 100museumsinayear

I've challenged myself to visit 100 museums in a year, from the massive to the miniscule, in London and other places.
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