NHS Southwark has opened another round of ‘consultations’ with local residents on the range of health services they would wish to see established or expanded in the Dulwich area. It has produced a new explanatory document (with a young, healthy smiling family on the cover) including a questionnaire which residents are invited to complete. Copies of this can be obtained at Dulwich Hospital by telephoning 020 7525 7888 or emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

We encourage residents to participate in this process, but warn that they should not be misled by an impression created in the document that consultation has been a continuing process over the past three years. Discussions on transforming Dulwich Hospital into a new Community Hospital began as long ago as 2002. Residents devoted considerable time to consultations and to joint working parties. Plans for the Primary Care Trust to proceed were brought to an advanced stage, including a full set of consultancy recommendations and architect’s drawings, no doubt at considerable expense, before the NHS suddenly dropped the idea completely and put into abeyance all conclusions up to that date.

The new consultation document carefully excludes proposals on the future use of Dulwich Hospital. Before any of these are considered: “early discussions are about improving health and health services so at this stage we are not asking specifically about buildings, the transport infrastructure, or the use of the Dulwich Hospital site”. There is a promise that “later in the year there will be a formal consultation on how service should be provided and what buildings will be needed.” The time frame now envisaged is that “we want to have developed a business case within eighteen months, and any completed building within three to four years.”
Even if this new time frame is again not adhered to, it is important that we should begin urgently to consider conservation issues related to the present Dulwich Hospital building that will affect local visual and functional amenity. For this purpose we need to give more attention both to its history and its architecture.

The present hospital was built by the Guardians of the Poor of the St Saviour’s Union, Southwark and completed in 1887. It was designed on the best model then known, with the long wards and airy open corridors advocated by Florence Nightingale as the most effective way to dispel ‘foul vapours and miasmas’ which transmitted disease. This determined the shape and size of the hospital building, designed and executed to a high standard by Henry Jarvis and Sons, architects, with a sound local reputation. The building was given an unusually decorated quality of finish, with an arched open arcade on the first floor connecting the whole width of the building’s five blocks. These included a central ‘pavilion’ which has the external appearance of a Flemish town hall and still contains a dignified upper chamber with good, potentially usable public space. The appearance was a stipulation of Mr E J Bailey, the landowner, who in 1881 wrote that he would sell the land on condition “that a public building only should be erected thereupon and the elevation thereof should be of an ornamental character.”

During the 1914-18 Great War Dulwich Hospital became Southwark Military Hospital. A full account of its wartime history was given in the summer 2010 edition of this Journal. There is now a war memorial, recently restored by subscriptions (including £1000 from the Dulwich Society) commemorating the 119 ‘non-commissioned officers and men of the armies of the British Empire’ who died at the hospital; a very creditable small proportion of the 12,522 wounded soldiers who passed through it.

Two world wars, long periods of economic austerity between and after them, continuing changes in medical and social needs during the twentieth century are reflected in a cumulative neglect of Dulwich Hospital’s fabric. There have been unsightly accretions which obscure some of the original lines of the 1887 building. But its basic structure and appearance have remained largely intact until recently.

There have been two unsuccessful recent attempts to have the building listed but it has not hitherto been considered sufficiently unusual or significant to justify this protection. We hope that the Victorian Society is now sufficiently persuaded that it is worth saving and to support our further representations to do so. These would be consistent with editorial declarations recently made in the English Heritage Journal by Simon Thurley, its Director, that his organisation strongly favours moves by local interests to find sustainable alternative uses for sound and attractive older buildings rather than have them demolished, even when they have not been thought worthy of legal protection (although some other very curious examples of English building clearly have).

Unfortunately this case has not been made soon or strongly enough to save the two blocks of Dulwich Hospital’s eastern wing from being abruptly demolished when plans were thought to be at an advanced stage to construct a new Community Hospital on this part of the site. The area demolished remains entirely level and vacant after several more years have passed. The new Consultation Paper relates that “some of the premises, including the existing Dulwich Hospital building, are in poor condition despite significant sums being spent on their maintenance over the past five to ten years”. Problems have included an expensive need to eradicate asbestos pollution. This no doubt indicates the case which NHS Southwark will continue to make.

The community’s need to make an alternative stronger case for conservation becomes correspondingly more urgent. This would have to include proposals which are economically realistic and sustainable. Since part of the hospital has already been demolished it may now be too late to make a plea for re-instating its original architectural symmetry. The open arcade and onion domes may have to be lost while our attention focuses on finding a convincing alternative use for the central ‘pavilion’ block.

Several suggestions have been made as to the most pressing local needs to replace an earlier requirement to provide more hospital beds. These range from more affordable and sheltered housing to a wider range of social services and more primary school provision. Priorities clearly need to be considered carefully but it is important that this process should not take too long. Above all, the best community use should continue to be the guiding criterion and the hospital site should not be allowed to become another example of the long delay which has classically preceded becoming overripe fruit for another speculative developer.

Architecturally, the long Florence Nightingale wards contained in the remaining two wings of Dulwich Hospital may just be too difficult to convert into any realistic modern use, however sound the external structure of the building may be. Nevertheless, it is still worth asking a good architect familiar with this kind of conservation objective to consider what best could be done. If it is then decided reluctantly that they should be demolished we should urge that the design of any replacement building should at least be sympathetic to the retention of the central ‘pavilion’ and, if possible, do something to restore the site’s generous nineteenth century symmetry. This would make the site a fitting background to its history and to the memorial that will continue to stand in front of it.

Bill Higman