University Hospital Lewisham on Lewisham High Street was originally a workhouse and infirmary run by the Lewisham Union Board of Guardians. The workhouse had been constructed in 1817 and effectively became a pauper hospital with the majority of its inmates being elderly, infirm or sick as well as taking in patients suffering from mental illness.
On the eve of the First World War, the War Office anticipated that there would be a need to increase the capacity of the military hospitals. Before the outbreak of the war there were 7,000 beds in UK military hospitals and 2,000 of these beds were occupied. By the time the armistice was signed on 11th November 1918 there were 364,133 beds for the treatment of wounded soldiers. One of the ways in which the War Office achieved this expansion was to establish a new military hospital in existing buildings such as poor law institutions.
Poor Law Union Infirmaries were to prove ideal for conversion into military hospitals as they often had attractive gardens for patients to enjoy, recreation fields and halls which could be used for sports and other entertainments, ample stores, kitchens and ready access to water, light and electricity. As one anonymous Red Cross Probationary Nurse wrote on the subject in 1916;
“Man had designed it for a workhouse. Necessity had decreed it must be a hospital, and a wonderful compromise resulted. The ruthless hand of the reformer seized upon the dwellings of the poor. Wooden partitions were swept away, walls pierced with arches, doors inserted and windows made to open.”
Immediately after war was declared, many Poor Law Unions offered the use of their workhouses to the War Office. The possibility of Lewisham Workhouse and Infirmary being taken over for the duration of the war was first discussed by the Board of Guardians in committee in February 1915. The general conditions under which buildings were transferred for military use were that the War Office would cover the costs of adapting the building, compensating the staff, relocating the inmates of the workhouse and any other additional running costs so that no extra expense will fall upon the poor rates but also so no profit will be made from the transaction. The medical superintendent of the workhouse was also normally granted a temporary commission in the Royal Army Medical Corps and would take command of the new hospital.
Lewisham Workhouse and Infirmary was transferred to the military authorities in April 1915. The inmates of the workhouse were transferred to the institutions belonging to the Guardians of Camberwell, Greenwich, Lambeth and Woolwich. Dr Frederick Sherman Toogood, the medical superintendent of the infirmary was made a Major in the Royal Army Medical Corps, eventually obtaining the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
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