Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
The church of St George the Martyr in Borough High Street built the parish workhouse in Mint Street in 1729 and by October 1731 there were 68 men, women and children resident. The able-bodied spun yarn which the women then knit into stockings, and children, as well as working, were taught to read and recite the catechism. A new workhouse that could accommodate 624 inmates was built on the same site in 1782 to cater for the growing population and increasing numbers of paupers. It was a brick structure of three storeys, that formed three sides of a square with separate male and female accommodation. The Lancet ran a series of articles that investigated workhouse conditions and in 1865 published a damning report on the St George’s workhouse which concluded “We cannot doubt that, with such a history and so many surroundings, it is our duty to condemn this workhouse, which ought to be removed, and one built better adapted to fulfil its duties to the poor and sick of the neighbourhood.” It remained as a workhouse until 1920 and was mostly demolished in 1935.
Built to the west of the workhouse, the Evelina Children's Hospital was the thirteenth children's hospital to be founded in Great Britain, the result of a great personal tragedy to its founder, Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild. Baron Ferdinand left his native Vienna in 1860 to live in London and five years later married his cousin Evelina. In 1866, whilst pregnant, Evelina was involved in a train crash and a short while afterwards both she and their son who had been born prematurely died. Baron Ferdinand wanted to build a hospital to perpetuate the memory of Evelina and first thought of founding a maternity hospital but finally decided to build a children’s hospital which opened in 1869. He found a site in one of the worst slums in London and cleared courts which were insanitary and home to cholera to make way for the hospital. More about the history of the hospital can be found here. The hospital closed in 1976, a sadder event than the closure of the workhouse, and became a part of Guy’s Hospital.
The hospital building was demolished but by the end of the 20th century, the resulting open space had a acquired a bad reputation for crime and anti-social behaviour. The Bankside Open Spaces Trust stepped in and to quote from their website, they “brought together the local community, with support from Southwark Council and the then ODPM, to meet the needs of key user groups including homeless people, parents, and young people, all of whom were to play a role in improving the space, resulting in the transformed park you see today.”
Mint Street Park is a lovely, modern park with striking planting, a five a side football pitch and an adventure playground. It has a stage with seating for spectators formed from tiered grassed areas, giving the feeling almost of an amphitheatre. It is a community focussed park and a happier place than a hundred years ago when the site was home to the Mint Street Workhouse in the east and the Evelina Children's Hospital fronting onto Southwark Bridge Road in the west.
Plaque on the wall of Mint Street Park commemorating the Evelina Hospital