PortCities London

Hospitals in the port

The first dockers' hospital
 

Danger in the port

Unloading a collier.
View full size imageUnloading a collier. © NMM

By today's standards, the port was a dangerous place. Safety was a low priority and accidents were common.

As most work relied on muscle power, workers often suffered serious injuries while loading and unloading heavy cargoes.

Few wore any protective clothing, and injury or illness often followed the handling of poorly packed or unsafe goods. 

 

The full cost of accidents

Gentleman giving alms to a beggar.
View full size imageA gentleman giving alms to a beggar, by Edward William Cooke. © NMM
Accidents could damage more than a worker's health. As most port workers were never far from poverty, even a temporary loss of earnings was a serious blow.

A permanent injury or a fatal accident could mean the workhouse for the whole family. In the days before social security, most people no longer able to work had only poverty, begging or crime to look forward to. 

 

The need for a hospital

Despite this grim situation, the dock and wharf companies did almost nothing for those they employed. As with so many other things in Victorian Britain, private philanthropy provided a solution.

The main initiative came from Samuel Gurney and William Money Wigram. Gurney (1786-1856) was a Quaker banker and philanthropist who had campaigned on many social and moral issues of the time. His sister was Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer. Money Wigram was one of the partners in the shipping line of that name.

The Poplar Hospital for Accidents opens

The Poplar Hospital for Accidents in 1858
View full size imageThe Poplar Hospital for Accidents in 1858. © NMM
Gurney decided to set up a hospital for dockers after the notorious death of a labourer injured at the East India Docks.

The man had died on the way to the London Hospital in Mile End - the nearest hospital to the docks.

It was clear that many such deaths could have been avoided had medical facilities been available on the spot.

Gurney's committee provided funds and the Poplar Hospital for Accidents was opened in 1858. The hospital occupied a former Customs House across the road from the entrance gate to the East India Docks.

 





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