Nowadays, when one thinks of a hospital in Harrow, they are perhaps more likely to think of the likes of Northwick Park than anything else. Yet until relatively recently, there was another hospital – one much older and closer to the borough’s centre. This was Harrow Cottage Hospital, the provider of healthcare and treatment for the borough for over a hundred years. Its story is an interesting one that sheds light on the experiences in Harrow in the Victorian era, and one with, like much of the history to be found in Harrow, a tangible and enduring legacy in the present.
Founded in the nineteenth century by Dr. W. Hewlett, Harrow Cottage was intended to mainly serve the residents of Harrow, Roxeth and Greenhill. Initially, it had nine beds and occupied two leased cottages on Roxeth Hill, with the staff consisting of a paid nurse alongside a team of volunteer helpers. The hospital’s managing board was comprised of a number of significant local people – chief among them the Vicar of Harrow and the Headmaster of Harrow School.
In many ways, the experience of Harrow Cottage in these early days was not exactly pleasant. Part of this was due to the hospital’s own premises. Resembling a large private house, Harrow Cottage was ill-suited for the function of a working hospital. Wards were small and spanned several floors, while the staircase, as was soon discovered after the hospital’s opening, was too narrow and steep for bed-ridden patients to be easily moved. Indeed, a few days before Harrow Cottage’s official opening, the Lady Manager Constance Hewlett discovered that the house’s builders had failed to provide a wash house, forcing the Lady Hewlett to convert, somewhat morbidly, the intended mortuary into a laundry, the coal house becoming the hospital’s mortuary instead.
Yet problems also emerge out of the hospital’s Victorian origins, with it, by today’s standards, having been deeply oppressive. For one thing, patients were responsible for their own laundry – there being no word on whether bid-ridden patients were afforded an exemption to this rule – and were also expected to help with the housework, needlework, gardening as well as similar such chores (again, without, seemingly, any distinction for how sick the patients in question were). But perhaps most significantly of all, was the fact that patients were allowed only to read publications which had been sanctioned by the Vicar of Harrow. Between the controlling of their free-time, the ill-suited nature of the house, and the fact that they were expected to work whilst recovering, life in Harrow Cottage in this era was perhaps not likely to be an enjoyable one – at least, not by modern tastes.
Nevertheless, the hospital continued to grow in the years that followed – both physically and in terms of patients, with some sixty-five people being treated at Harrow Cottage by 1897. Around this time, plans were made for an expansion of the grounds, and after an architect was chosen – one Arnold Mitchell, who was behind another local Harrow site: Orley Farm School – 3.5 acres of land in Roxeth Hill were purchased in 1905, paving the way for a new hospital building in 1907. Soon after, with the outbreak of the First World War, Harrow Cottage was affiliated with the Bethnal Green Military Hospital, leading to some twenty of its beds being reserved for sick and wounded servicemen.
In the decades that followed, the hospital continued to grow under various names, with the highpoint arguably being the 1930s, when a major extension saw royal witness – with the Duchess of York, later the Queen Mother, opening the extension in 1932 – and when a training school for nurses was opened and old Roxeth Vicarage, opposite the hospital, was chosen as the student’s accommodation. By 1935, Harrow Cottage had reached its peak – with eighty beds and a matron in charge of some thirty nurses.
From this point, however, and especially from the 1980s, the hospital began to shrink – reducing its patient intake to fifty-five in 1984, which was reduced further to fifty-three by the 1990s, until it finally closed its doors in 1998; one hundred and thirty-two years after its opening all the way back in the nineteenth century.
Its building, however, endures – with the original building, at one point having been described as the ‘prettiest cottage hospital in the country,’ being a Grade II listed site; one of the many to reside in Harrow. More recently, in 2006 the existing hospital buildings were converted into twenty luxury apartments, with further accommodation for some seventy-one dwellings also being built on the site.
The hospital’s presence in Harrow, then, endures just as much as it stretches back to the 1800s, to early (and harsh) Victorian beginnings, through world wars and cold wars, until its demise at the twilight on the twentieth century. When next you find yourself on Roxeth Hill, it might pay to consider this long lineage, and to its continued presence on the Harrow landscape in Cottage Close.
Know any other stories of long-running hospitals in or around Harrow? Let us know in the comments below.
Written by Harry Turner.
Image Credit: South Harrow Then and Now