Address given at a Service of Thanksgiving to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Westminster Hospital

We honour the men and women who have served over the years and those who continue to serve in our own day.

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster

Thursday, 23rd May 2019 at 12.00 PM

Last Wednesday, we honoured, as we do every year, the work of Florence Nightingale, in company with the Florence Nightingale Foundation. 2,000 or so nurses and midwives joined us from across the United Kingdom. The preacher on that occasion was a former Chief Nurse, Dame Sarah Mullally, now bishop of London.

But there was another element to our celebration, since last Wednesday we marked the centenary of the funeral and burial of Edith Cavell, who, nursing in Belgium during the First World War, had been arrested by the German authorities for having treated and smuggled out of the country thirty or so wounded British soldiers. She was shot at dawn on 12th October 1915, and buried locally. Her body was exhumed and her state funeral took place here in Westminster Abbey on 19th May 1919, in the presence of Queen Alexandra. Thousands of people lined the streets and solemn music was played by military bands accompanying the coffin from Victoria Station to the Abbey. Later in the day, the remains of Edith Cavell were buried at Norwich Cathedral. Both Florence Nightingale and Edith Cavell are recognised by the Church of England as heroes of our faith.

As we mark the three hundred year history of Westminster Hospital, and its continuing story as part of the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, we honour the men and women who have served over the years and those who continue to serve there in our own day. We can be truly grateful that not many doctors or nurses or other hospital workers are called to give their lives as a result of their faithful service. But we recognise the heroic and self-sacrificial service they offer even so.

In 1966, on 19th January, a great service was held here in Westminster Abbey to mark the 250th anniversary of the moment when Henry Hoare and his three friends in St Dunstan’s Coffee House in the City of London, dreamt up the idea of a hospital. Fifty years ago, the Lord Chancellor attended and the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Presidents of the Royal Colleges of Surgeons and Physicians and many others. So, there was a great procession of robed dignitaries before the service began. My predecessor Eric Abbott preached the sermon. That day, The Queen, as Patron of the Hospital, sent a message of congratulations and encouragement, as the hospital planned expansion and development.

As you will know, from 1833 until 1939, the Westminster Hospital was very close indeed to the Abbey, in front of the present Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, and the relationship was strong. One of the Abbey’s Minor Canons, Christopher Hildyard, was Chaplain of the hospital before and after it moved to Horseferry Road, and gave the Bidding Prayer at the 1966 service. He also inspired the purchase of the Veronese altar piece, still in the hospital chapel, which apparently cost only a few thousand pounds.

The original idea for the foundation of the hospital in 1716 came at a fascinating moment in the history of England. There were at that time very few hospitals in the country. In London, there were two, each of them originating in the early Middle Ages, St Bartholomew’s Hospital, founded in the 12th century, and St Thomas’s Hospital, already described in the 13th century as well established. They had been established, as had all hospitals, by monastic orders, and had somehow survived after the Reformation and been preserved, although the monasteries had all closed. No new hospital was founded thereafter in England until the future Westminster Hospital in 1719, though development then was rapid: Guy’s Hospital was founded in 1721, St George’s Hospital in 1733, the Royal London Hospital in 1740 and Middlesex Hospital in 1745.

I have wondered whether any impetus was given to this development by the death of Queen Anne in 1714 and the end of the Stuart era and the arrival on the throne of George I, the first Hanoverian king. It seems however more likely that the impact was that of the foundation of the Royal Society in 1660 and the life and work of the great scientist Isaac Newton, born in 1643 and still flourishing until his death in 1727, when he was buried here in the Abbey. The scientific revolution, a part of the new movement in England and elsewhere known as the Enlightenment, must have opened up possibilities for the development of medicine.

Even so, the beginnings of the hospital were not altogether easy. The four founders only gave £10 in 1716, which they used to buy food for sick prisoners in the local jail. In 1719 they met again to rent a small house in Petty France for £22 a year and opened an infirmary of ten beds. The neighbours were doubtful, fearing infectious diseases and undesirable vagrants. In 1724, the Infirmary moved to a larger house nearby with 31 beds but two years later the medical staff, dissatisfied with the Board of Governors, resigned en masse and later founded St George’s Hospital. The Infirmary moved to new larger premises and added property, so that by 1757 there were 98 beds and by 1760, the time of the death of George II, it was known as Westminster Hospital, moving to Broad Sanctuary in 1834, the site and building had cost £40,000. Enough history.

Visiting the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital a few months ago and recognising the former St Stephen’s Hospital with its major work around HIV, and the new amalgamations, I was moved to meet a group of people suffering from dementia, working with painting and drawing and enjoying the music of a piano. One elderly man displaced the professional pianist at the piano and played for some time. He showed no signs of dementia as he played and everyone seemed moved by the music. It was a charming moment. Visiting later the intensive care unit, I heard of plans for re-development with the purpose of enabling the patients, as their condition began to improve, and their visitors, to have a more positive experience, enjoying the views of the neighbourhood.

What became clear to me was that the nature of the hospital’s physical structure and the care given there together conduce to an experience for patients that goes beyond immediate physical health needs. We are all a complex amalgam of body, mind and spirit. If our spiritual needs are not met, as well as our immediate physical and mental needs, we cannot truly become well. We heard earlier that all healing is ultimately a gift of God and we heard of Jesus Christ described in the gospels as the true source of healing. Our spiritual well-being sustains our physical and mental well-being. A service of health care that did not acknowledge this deep reality would inevitably be ineffective. The service offered is of course for all, high and low, rich and poor, religious, agnostic, humanist and atheist, and its service is offered by an equal variety of people. However, we must also always remember the roots of healthcare in our country. At a service here last year to mark the 70th anniversary of the National Health Service, Simon Stevens, the chief executive, in his address, quoted words of the current archbishop of Canterbury that ‘our NHS is the most powerful and visible expression of our Christian heritage.’ There is no doubt that the work and ministry of the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital Foundation Trust is a great force for good and a powerful example. and so highly worthy of this celebration.