Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
The Post Office in Borough High Street is on the block between St Thomas Street and London Bridge Street, literally in the shadow of The Shard. It seems tacked on at street level to a more imposing building that, built of stone with pilasters that extend two storeys, appears to have grand origins. With the exception of the Borough High Street elevation, it is surrounded by newer buildings and it is only by going through an arch in London Bridge Street that it’s possible to see the front elevation. A Historic Southwark plaque says it is on the site of the original St Thomas’ Hospital, 1225 – 1865. In fact, the building actually was a later part of St Thomas’ Hospital, one of two ward blocks rebuilt in 1842-4 to accommodate the new approach road to London Bridge Station.
St Thomas’ Hospital has a long history that goes back to the 12th century. It was part of the Augustine Priory of St Mary Overie at a time when a hospital’s role was very different to that of today and offered accommodation to pilgrims and poor vagrants and also tended the sick poor. In 1207 the Priory and hospital were destroyed by fire and in 1223 the Bishop of Winchester re-endowed a new hospital with £344 and a call to the pious of the diocese to provide funds for its maintenance by way of donations and bequests. Those who offered alms to the hospital would be rewarded by a 20 days indulgence. The new hospital was built on “a more commodious site where the air is more pure and calm and the supply of waters more plentiful.” It was probably at this time the hospital was dedicated to St Thomas a Beckett who had been canonised as Thomas the Martyr in 1173.
Gradually, the role of hospitals changed to what we know today as pilgrimages became less frequent and the introduction of the parish relief system gave indoor or outdoor (workhouse) relief. Thomas Guy, one of the hospital’s benefactors, purchased some land from St Thomas’ where he built a new hospital, Guy’s, for incurable and mental patients who were denied admittance to St Thomas. By 1800, St Thomas’ Hospital had about 450 beds.
London Bridge Station opened in 1836 and the ward blocks were rebuilt to accommodate the approach road. But just as these were completed, there were plans to build an extension to the railway line to go from London Bridge Station to new stations built at Charing Cross and Cannon Street which necessitated building the railway right across the site of St Thomas’ Hospital. This was viewed as catastrophic to the survival of the hospital and despite litigation the hospital was compulsorily purchased for just under £300,000. Many sites were considered, including moving the hospital out into the country, but finally the present site in Lambeth opposite the Houses of Parliament was selected. Queen Victoria lay the foundation stone in 1868 and three years later the hospital opened. The hospital in the meantime had moved temporarily into accommodation at the former Zoological Gardens in Newington. 200 beds were sited in a building that had formerly been a music hall, a laboratory was housed in a pavilion, and the elephant house became a dissecting room.
Two views of the South Ward Block of Old St Thomas' Hospital.
Left: the west elevation facing onto Borough High Street
Right: the north elevation to the rear of London Bridge Street
An amazing photo (courtesy of Wellcome Images) of St Thomas' Hospital just before the Charing Cross railway extension was built. The new railway line was built from just to the left of the large building (London Bridge Station) just left of the centre top to about the middle of the photo at the bottom edge. It is easy to see how the new line cut right through the hospital. The remaining South Wing is on the right where it is also possible to see St Thomas' Church and Guy's Hospital.
Florence Nightingale was a huge influence on choices that were made regarding relocation and rebuilding of the hospital. She had opened the first nursing school at St Thomas’s in 1860 and had persuaded the hospital administration that it would be preferable for the whole site of the hospital to be compulsorily purchased rather than just those parts needed for the building of the railway. She also made a large contribution to the design of the new hospital which accommodated 588 patients and comprised six parallel ward buildings, linked by other buildings at right angles. A new nursing school, Nightingale House, was built within the grounds.
Most of the hospital at London Bridge was demolished including the second ward building built at the same time as the one that still remains. A row of houses in St Thomas’ Street which were part of the hospital also still remain. Next door to them is the former St Thomas’ Church which probably had its origins as the hospital chapel but later became a parish church. The existing building was built at the very beginning of the 18th century and had a large garret in the roof space which was used to store herbs by the apothecary at St Thomas’ Hospital. Later the space became an operating theatre for the Hospital which has been restored to form a museum today.
Old maps show the South Wing became a Bazaar for a while and later a Parcel Post Depot. Today there is a sign up which indicates it is an office for the British Transport Police, while the Post Office has space on the ground floor. It was Grade II listed in 1972. Tucked away as it is between other buildings, it can’t really be seen to good advantage, and though occupied in part, it does have the look of a building abandoned.