History of Mildmay Mission Hospital

William Pennefather (1826-1873)
by Unknown artist
stipple engraving, mid 19th century
NPG D11183

© National Portrait Gallery, London

The Mildmay Mission Hospital has its origins in the work of The Rev. William Pennefather and his team of Christian women, later known as Deaconesses*, who began their work of visiting the sick of the East End during the Cholera outbreak of 1866.

The Mildmay Medical Mission was opened in 1877 by William's widow Catherine Pennefather and eleven other women, in a converted warehouse behind Shoreditch Church, in Turville Square/Cabbage Court in the Old Nichol slums.

Dedicated to the memory of William, who had died in 1873, it consisted of twenty-seven beds in three wards, one doctor, three nurses and five deaconesses in training. The Hospital was recognised for the training of nurses in 1883.

Although the hospital did not require letters of admission, like many other voluntary hospitals of the time, and it did not discriminate by religion, throughout its existence the Mildmay stressed its role as an evangelical Christian centre as well as a general hospital; prayers were held on the wards, and biblical quotations were painted on the walls. Staff regarded their work as a religious as well as a medical vocation. Despite this, the hospital had a strong tradition for treating Jewish immigrants to the East End.

In a bid to improve the living conditions of the poor, Pennefather recruited a team of christian women, who became known as Deaconesses, and whose training as missionaries had included biblical tuition, sewing, cookery, housekeeping, singing and book keeping in preparation to work in a Mildmay Mission or abroad.(1) Pennefather's missionary projects included; a Men's Night School, Sewing classes for widows', a Flower Mission, Lads' Institute, a Servants' training home and a Missionary Training Home, he took some inspiration from a Lutheran 'Order of Deaconesses' in Germany.

'Florence Nightingale had the greatest respect for both groups, hailing 'Every attempt to train in practical activity all female missionaries'... Her interest was no doubt particularly stimulated by the fact that, some of them [in other Mildmay Institutions] specialised in nursing and so were among some of the first trainee nurses in the country' (2)

1. D.Taylor-Thompson, 'Mildmay- The Birth and rebirth of a unique Hospital'. London, 1992

2. D.Taylor-Thompson, 'Mildmay', pg 8

Mildmay Mission Hospital Badge awarded to Mary Richard 1931-1934

Mary Richards entered training at the Mildmay Mission Hospital in April 1931 and left after completing her training and receiving her certificate in May 1934. Mary was from Brixworth, Northants and aged 22 years when she started her training; she had previously learnt dressmaking, housewifery, and cookery, all skills previously required by women who became Mildmay Deaconesses prior to Nurse training becoming an option.

 Mary had worked in a Girls Village home for nearly two years, and her religious faith was described as C of E. Many applicants to train as nurses at Mildmay were also Church Missionary Society candidates. Her report describes her as 'A kind, reliable capable nurse.'

Mary returned in 1938-9 working for six months as a Nursing Sister, for the last eight days she was in charge of the male ward, Mathieson.

With thanks to Sarah Rogers for the information and image contained above.

*The Mildmay Deaconess Institute was also responsible for the Mildmay Memorial Hospital in Islington.

Before 1874, the Mildmay Mission operated from a warehouse in Cabbage Court in the Old Nichol (Little Bacon St), south of Bethnal Green Rd.

The slum clearances carried out by the London County Council in the 1880s and 1890s threatened the original site, and in 1890, a foundation stone was laid for a purpose-built hospital at Austin Street and Hackney Road.

In 1892 the new Mildmay Mission Hospital opened, with 50 beds in 3 wards; male, female and children's. (The Mildmay Mission itself was based from c.1870s-1950s at Central Hall, Philpot Street, close to the Royal London Hospital).

The 1892 Mildmay Mission Hospital

Women's Ward - from a postcard donated to us by a member of the public in April 2021

The hospital with a difference

This is a fundraising booklet for the new hospital extension, circa 1939, featuring a visit by Queen Mary. Towards the back of the pamphlet are some great adverts from local suppliers to Mildmay of all kinds of goods, from paint to laundry services, affirming the hospital's place within the local community.

This booklet was sent to us recently by someone who has a story about their aunt, who worked at Mildmay. Read it here.

In 1948 the hospital was incorporated into the National Health Service as part of the North East Metropolitan Regional Board's Central (No. 5) Group of Hospitals and transferred in 1966 to the East London Group. In 1974 it became part of the Tower Hamlets Health District. As a hospital with less that 200 beds the hospital was regarded as uneconomic and was closed down in 1982.

In 1985, the hospital was reopened outside the NHS as a charitable nursing home, with a GP surgery attached and caring for young chronically sick patients; in 1988, it became Europe's first hospice caring for people with HIV/AIDS and their families, acquiring a worldwide reputation. 

Mildmay was famously visited by Princess Diana in the 1980s and 1990s. Diana made 17 unofficial visits to our Shoreditch hospital, arriving at 11pm and staying until the early hours. She would sit with dying patients and hold their hands.

By 2014, the old hospital was demolished and the new, purpose-built specialist HIV hospital was opened.

Timelapse of the demolition of the 1892 hospital in 2011

See the Bert Miller Archive for more photos taken in the hospital in earlier times.

Registered Charity: 292058

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