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The History of London By Walter Besant Characters: 5280

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

The oldest of the City Hospitals is that great and splendid Foundation which stands in Smithfield-the Smooth Field. It was first founded by one Rahere, of whom we know little or nothing except that he lived in the reign of Henry I., and that he founded the Priory and Monastery of St. Bartholomew. In the church of St. Bartholomew the Great you may see a very beautiful tomb said to be his, but the work is of a later date. It is related that while on a pilgrimage to Rome he fell ill and was like to die. And he vowed that if he were restored to health he would erect and establish a hospital for poor sick people. He did recover and he fulfilled his vow. He built the Priory of St. Bartholomew, whose church still stands in part and beside it established his hospital. The place called Smithfield was then a swampy field used for a horse fair: it was also a place of execution without the City wall. At first the hospital was a very small place. It consisted probably of two large rooms or halls, one for men and one for women-with a chapel. If it had any endowment at all it must have been very small, because the Master or Hospitaller had to go every morning to the Shambles, Newgate, in order to beg meat for the maintenance of the sick. Two hundred years later the hospital was taken in hand by Edward IV. and provided with an establishment of Master, eight brethren, priests, and four sisters, who served the sick. They were all subject to the Rule of St. Austin. After the death of Whittington, the hospital buildings were repaired by his bequests. On the dissolution of the religious houses, the Priory and Hospital of Bartholomew fell with the rest, but five years later the hospital was refounded and endowed by the King and the City.


(Showing the screen with minstrels' gallery over it, and the brazier for fire in the middle; built about 1340.)

If you visit a hospital and are taken into a ward, you see a row of clean white beds arranged in orderly position on either side of the long room: the temperature is regulated: the ventilation is perfect: there are means by which the patient can be examined in private: the diseases are apportioned to separate wards: every thing is managed with the greatest cleanliness and order: if an operation is performed the patient is kept under chloroform and feels nothing. The physicians are men of the highest scientific reputation: the nurses are trained assistants: the food is the best that can be procured. The poorest man brought to the hospital is treated with the same care, the same science, the same luxuries as the richest.

Look, however, at the hospital as founded by Rahere.

There is a great hall with a chapel at one end: at which mass is daily sung. The room is narrow and lofty, lit by Norman windows, two or three on a side: there is a lanthorn in the roof: under the lanthorn a fire is burning every day, the smoke rising to the roof: the hall is dark and ill ventilated, the air foul and heavy with the breath of sixty or seventy sick men lying in beds arranged in rows along the wall. There are not separate beds for each patient, but as the sick are brought in they are laid together side by side, in the same bed, whatever the disease, so that he who suffers from fever is placed beside another who suffers from palsy. There are four in a bed, and in times of pressure even more. Sometimes one arrives who develops the plague, when the whole of the patients in the hospital catch the infection and all die together. The surgeons are especially skilled in the dressing of wounds received in battle or in fray: the sisters can tie up a broken limb and stop a bleeding wound. The brethren go about the beds administering the last offices of the Church to the dying. The food is scanty: the appliances are rude: there is small hope of recovery: yet to die in hospital tended and consoled instead of in the hut where life has been passed is something for which to be grateful.


(Date, about 1350.)

Consider into how great, how noble a Foundation the little hospital of Rahere has grown. The modern hospital contains 676 beds: it receives about 150,000 patients every year, of whom 7,000 are inpatients, 18,000 out patients, and 130,000 casuals. The eight brethren have become 30 physicians and surgeons besides the assistants called clinical clerks and dressers. The four sisters are now 159 sisters and nurses. There is a noble school of medicine: there are museums, libraries, lecture rooms, and there is a residential college for medical students: there is a convalescent hospital in the country. No hospital in the world has a larger or a more noble record than this of St. Bartholomew. And it all sprang from the resolution of one man, who started a humble house for the reception of the sick in a poor and despised place outside the City wall, but near to the Shambles where one could beg for broken victuals and for the pieces of meat that the butchers could not sell. Thus out of one good deed, apparently of small importance, has grown a never-ending stream of refreshment and healing. It has lasted for 700 years already: there seems no reason why it should ever stop.

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