Inside The Derelict East End Hospital That's About To Undergo A Stunning Renovation

Inside The Derelict East End Hospital That's About To Undergo A Stunning Renovation
Behind the hospital clock face.

Anyone would be forgiven for thinking that the grime-caked Royal London Hospital — the majestic, yet almost-jaundiced-looking edifice presiding over Whitechapel Road — is Victorian.

It is after all, famous as the lodgings of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, and where he died in 1890. (Whip round the back of the hospital to find a discover museum with a facsimile of his skeleton on display.)

Here's the thing: when Merrick checked in, the hospital was already almost 140 years old.

This architectural palimpsest dates back to 1752 — a time when it stood like a country manor in the verdant uplands of bucolic east London; herds of livestock driven in front of its grounds, while soot drifted across on the horizon.

The hospital was saving the lives of Londoners for 360 years, before it was finally usurped by the bright blue box that now operates directly behind it, officially opened in 2013 by the Queen.

The London Hospital, Whitechapel: seen from the northern side of the Whitechapel Road. Wood engraving, after an engraving of c.1753. Image: Creative Commons

Right now, the old hospital is a sorry state of affairs. It looks unloved, condemned almost, and even though it found a brief lease of fresh life as the setting for the 2016 Phoebe-Waller Bridge sitcom Crashing, we've heard some developers comment that they'd like to have ripped the whole place down.

The old hospital's facade will be restored and embellished.
What the restored 'Grocer's Wing' of the hospital will look like.

Happily, that's not what's going to happen; instead the hospital is on the cusp of exciting transformation. While bulldozers sweep up rubble outside, architects, developers and councillors pace its dank corridors, former wards and operating theatres, discussing their vision.

The historical staircase will be restored.

It's of a £115m project, turning the existed building into a new town hall and civic centre for Tower Hamlets, featuring council chambers, meeting rooms, a public library (or 'Idea Store') and cafe.

The Idea Store
How part of the extension will look, to the rear of the old hospital.

It's more than a renovation; a huge extension, including a bright and breezy atrium, will be added to the rear of the building, creating space, and exposing the hospital's beautiful old brickwork — including some of the scars it's garnered during its many changes over the years.

A view of the new atrium. The entire ground floor will be dedicated to public use.
An old chapel window

What we like about the plans, aside from its benefits to locals, is that many of the hospital's details will be kept and highlighted. The great lightwells of formers operating theatres will flood sunlight into what will be meeting rooms (perhaps even with some of the old equipment kept in situ). Details, like the chapels windows, will be made prominent again, as will the hospital's great steel beams.

Many of the hospital's detailed floors have been covered up — but these will be exposed again.

Even the old floors — many of which have been covered up, will enjoy re-exposure, while original colour schemes are to be repeated throughout the renovation in new materials.

Some of the old operating equipment remains in situ.
Inside one of the old operating theatres.

The building will be restored all the way up to the roof, which is becoming a terrace (we're unsure yet whether this will be accessible to the public).

Chim chiminey...

Up here, London's Air Ambulance whirrs into action behind you. If you gaze out over Whitechapel Road and beyond, you start to get an idea of just how many Londoners this place has helped and saved in its time. With luck, it'll continue to serve locals for centuries to come, albeit in a different guise.

The new building is due to open in 2022.

Last Updated 25 September 2019