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.
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”.