Band of Friends vow to save historic wing of St Bartholomew’s Hospital

Marcus Setchell, the doctor who delivered Prince George, wants to save a historic hospital wing at St Bartholomew's Hospital in Smithfield.
A Grade I*-listed wing of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, with a magnificent Great Hall and Hogarth murals, is under threat, claims a band of Friends who have vowed to save it.

They are led by retired royal gynaecologist Sir Marcus Setchell, 70, recently knighted after delivering Prince George. His new baby, he says, is the task of preserving the hospital’s North Wing, designed in 1738 by James Gibbs, who also designed St Mary le Strand church.

The future of the wing in Smithfield, EC1, he argues, is under threat from an NHS Trust-backed scheme to attach at one end a Maggie’s Centre for cancer care and support, designed by acclaimed American architect Steven Holl. Sir Marcus and The Friends of The Great Hall and Archive of St Bartholomew’s Hospital have their own ideas to develop the heritage site and re-use the wing, which they will present to City of London planners on April 29. 

Time and neglect have mistreated Gibbs’s Great Hall. Clumsy, mismatched 20th-century buildings have been jammed on each end, while the windows of the banqueting hall are rotting and the plumbing in the lavatories is failing. With little disabled access, the building is used to less than 30 per cent capacity. Its future is part of a big London debate: can the city’s historically important architecture be preserved and maintained while also contributing fully in the 21st century?

The Friends are adamant that they can secure the wing’s future, but not if the Holl-designed Maggie’s Centre is attached. They say this would render the building unviable by making it impossible to provide sufficient access and lavatory and catering facilities to bring it up to standard. 

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New look: how American architect Steven Holl envisages the entrance to Maggie's cancer centre at Barts in Smithfield

The Friends’ plan is based on the ideas of London architect Michael Hopkins, who designed the 2012  Olympics “Pringle” Velodrome. Under his scheme, the ugly 20th-century additions would be demolished and two slim extensions put at each end of the wing to carry lifts and other facilities to make the building fully accessible. 

The Friends say they fully support the building of a Maggie’s Centre at Barts, and that a possible site has been identified only yards away. Hopkins has suggested a modest two-storey structure, in keeping with the original Maggie’s concept of building homely places for rest and recuperation.

The Friends claim this alternative building could cost about £1 million, whereas Holl’s glass-clad, bamboo-lined modernist box with a towering atrium — rejected by planners when first submitted last year — will cost five times as much. Sir Marcus says: “The Great Hall and the rooms around it are a unique part of modern medical history. They are beautiful, and the public deserves to have better access to them.” 

A rich history
St Bartholomew’s Hospital and priory were founded in 1123 by a courtier of Henry I called Rahere, whose life was saved in Rome by monks in a small hospital dedicated to the saint. Once home, with the king’s support Rahere built the priory and hospital in Smooth Field (now Smithfield). The hospital became independent of the priory in 1420. In 1539, Henry VIII dissolved the priory, and in 1546 gave the hospital to the City of London. Uniquely, the hospital is a parish in its own right, with its own church, St Bartholomew-the-Less. 

In 1729 a new hospital was designed by Gibbs. Its North Wing was for receptions and a magnificent banqueting hall was built, reached by a stairway with two huge murals, The Good Samaritan and The Pool of Bethesda, painted free of charge by William Hogarth between 1734 and 1737. Gibbs, too, worked on the wing for nothing.

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NHS Trust backing: the Maggie's Centre by Holl would be joined on to one end of the North Wing

Maggie's cancer care centres: 'We just want to do the best thing'
Laura Lee, chief executive of Maggie’s cancer care centres, says: “From our perspective, we are honoured to be working with Barts to help fight cancer and we spent a lot of time working with them to find the right place.

“You can’t escape the fact that the Great Hall is an amazing piece of architecture, and the NHS Trust understands it has a commitment to the Great Hall. It has been working with a leading conservation architect, Donald Insall Associates, to make sure it is maintained. 

“The trust decided it wanted to work with the firm to appraise the needs of the Great Hall, and we appointed Steven Holl as someone with empathy who would achieve a positive effect and wouldn’t harm the Great Hall in any way. My understanding is that Insall has developed a scheme that will ensure the building can have all the access it needs to work in the future.

“We have met with the Friends, and the trust board has met with them, and I know that the board is committed to the heritage of the hall. Using Donald Insall, I believe that the Great Hall can thrive. 

“The site the Friends propose would blight light from another trust facility and doesn’t provide the space that the Holl design does. Barts sees 5,500 new cancer patients each year so it is important that the Maggie’s Centre isn’t sandwiched into a corner. 

“I understand the Friends’ passion. I trained at Barts, I’m a Barts cancer nurse, and I feel positive that Barts is acting in the best interest of the estate, and of its patients. I just want to do the best thing and think this meets the needs of the patients and of the Great Hall.”

For more on Maggie’s cancer centres, visit maggiescentres.org.

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