The grand staircase in front of St Paul’s Cathedral once had underneath it a small hospital staffed by volunteers in the days before the NHS. It’s not well known but still, it seems that it was there for many decades in the years before we had a national health service in the UK.

Described in The Graphic in April 1910 as a “most curious hospital”, it’s actually more of a first-aid facility in a small storage space underneath the steps of the Cathedral.

The Graphic, 9th April 1910 (c) British Library

Opened in 1890 by the St John Ambulance Association, and called an Ambulance Station, the cost of fitting out the voluntary facility, including a two-wheeled litter was covered by the philanthropist, Dr Edwin Freshfield.

In it’s first year it treated over 200 people.

The ambulance station was typically staffed by one paid attendant, usually a retired soldier from the Army Medical Corps, and a number of volunteer assistants.

A person was initially based in the station Mon-Sat, but shortly afterwards, volunteers from other St John Ambulance locations around London would be rostered to volunteer on Sundays, with each team covering one week per month – but only for the afternoon and early evenings.

Within 20 years it had treated nearly 8,100 patients.

There weren’t too many reports about this particular Ambulance Station, but it did come to notice in the newspapers in February 1901, for tragic reasons, as they were on hand when a suicide took place just inside the Cathedral doors.

Although this ambulance station wasn’t unique, with a couple of others nearby, at St John’s Gate and the Duncan memorial, the permanent station underneath the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral seems to win the prize of the oddest of them.

The idea grew though, and by 1927, it was reported that there were now 380 ambulance stations across the UK, treating around 80,000 patients a year.

It’s unclear when the St Paul’s Cathedral site closed, the records are incomplete, but was likely closed around the time the NHS was created. There is a photo from 1940 for example that — if you zoom in — shows someone peering out of the window, and St John Ambulance signs on the doorframe.

Today you can peer inside when the lights inside are switched on – it’s a storage cupboard.

So the next time you walk past St Paul’s Cathedral with a friend, point to the cupboard doors and tell them the tale of the “most curious hospital”.

Other sources:

Morning Post Wednesday 22 January 1890

St James’s Gazette, Thursday 23 January 1890

Wellington Journal, Saturday 09 February 1901

St John Ambulance First Aid Journal 1918 – 1920

The Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem

Ambulance Work in London

Ambulance services in London and Great Britain from 1860 until today


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  1. Indy says:

    Even during a poorly handled pandemic, you deliver. Fascinating, as usual.

  2. Bob McIntyre says:

    As usual a nicely crafted and informative article. It make me wonder how many of the casualties fell on the steps outside the cathedral?

  3. Liam says:

    Fascinating and thank you Ian. I’ve let my friend at the London Ambulance Service Museum (yes they have one) who’ll no doubt find it really interesting too. Worth noting is the Police Ambulance trolley in the lower left of the picture. Litterally a wheelbarrow to pick up people and push them to Hospital or places such as this. But they had to store them in key locations as you couldn’t just push them about ‘just in case’. They have all sorts of historical things and vehicles at the Museum. They even rent props and vehicles out to film companies for accurate representation in their movies and TV series. He’ll be delighted with this.

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