From the Archive: Cotesbach and the East London Hospital for Children.

Archive document .3588.1.a : ‘Account of offertory alms, Cotesbach.’

One Sunday in 1872, the Cotesbach Church collection money (more than £5, as documented in the above ledger) was sent to a tiny hospital in Ratcliff Cross in the East End of London. What prompted the people of the rural village to support so generously such a seemingly insignificant cause? The answer involves an epidemic, a hospital romance and Charles Dickens.
There was an epidemic in London in 1866. The cholera outbreak was very localised but claimed the lives of 5,596 inhabitants of the East End, many of them infants for whom no hospital provision existed.  A young doctor from the London Hospital in Whitechapel, Nathaniel Heckford, was so affected by what he saw that he pledged to open his own children’s hospital. His partner in the venture was to be Sarah Goff, a young woman from a wealthy family who was volunteering as a nurse in an East End cholera hospital.

“Children at play in the East London Hospital for Children” by J. Swain after G. W. Ridley, 27th April 1872 [The Wellcome Collection]

The couple married in 1867 and the following year they opened “The East London Hospital for Children and Dispensary for Women”. It was the first hospital in the capital to admit children under two years of age. Originally located in the loft of a sail maker’s warehouse in Ratcliff Highway, it began with only ten beds and was staffed chiefly by the Heckfords themselves, who lived in two rooms on site.

As was usual at the time, the Hospital was funded largely by public donations. The articles published by Charles Dickens, who visited it twice, stimulated financial support from around the country until in 1872 the Hospital was in a position to buy land for the erection of larger premises. Appeals in the newspapers that year elicited donations (including the Cotesbach £5 10s 5d) to fund the building project.

From ‘The Uncommercial Traveller’ by Charles Dickens

I found the children’s hospital established in an old sail-loft or
storehouse, of the roughest nature, and on the simplest means. There
were trap-doors in the floors, where goods had been hoisted up and
down; heavy feet and heavy weights had started every knot in the
well-trodden planking: inconvenient bulks and beams and awkward
staircases perplexed my passage through the wards. But I found it
airy, sweet, and clean. In its seven and thirty beds I saw but little
beauty; for starvation in the second or third generation takes a
pinched look: but I saw the sufferings both of infancy and childhood
tenderly assuaged; I heard the little patients answering to pet playful
names, the light touch of a delicate lady laid bare the wasted sticks of
arms for me to pity; and the claw-like little hands, as she did so,
twined themselves lovingly around her wedding-ring.
First published in “All The Year Round” magazine, 19th December 1868.