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Hospitals in the port

The 'Small Star in the East'

Dickens and the East London Hospital

Scenes from the East London Hospital for Children.
View full size imageScenes from the East London Hospital for Children. © NMM
Charles Dickens was more than a superb novelist. He was a close observer of society and its problems, and his work shows a clear understanding of injustice and a deep sympathy for the downtrodden.

In 'The Small Star in the East', published in All the Year Round in December 1868 and later included in The Uncommercial Traveller, he described the hospital and its patients.

His account may seem highly sentimental today, but Dickens understood his readers perfectly and knew how to move them. His support did much to help the Heckfords and their hospital.

Dickens on the hospital:

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I found the Children's Hospital established in an old sail-loft or store-house, of the roughest nature, and on the simplest means... In its seven-and-thirty beds I saw but little beauty; for starvation in the second or third generation takes a pinched look: but
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I saw the sufferings both of infancy and childhood tenderly assuaged...

Dickens on the Heckfords:

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A gentleman and lady, a young husband and wife, have bought and fitted up this building for its present noble use... Both have had considerable practical experience of medicine and surgery; he as house surgeon of a great London Hospital; she as a very earnest student, tested by severe examination, and also
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as a nurse of the sick poor during the prevalence of cholera...


Outside the children's hospital, Shadwell.
View full size imageMothers and children waiting for admission. © NMM
A year and a half after writing these words, Dickens was dead. A year later, the 'young husband' Nathaniel Heckford was also dead, dying of overwork, aged only 29.

Sarah Maud Heckford (1839-1903) left the hospital after some years. She led an eventful life, visiting the Transvaal in 1881, at the time of the first war with the Boers. She described her adventures in A Lady Trader in Transvaal (1882) and settled in what was to become South Africa.