Time capsules at the National Temperance Hospital (1873-c.1986): Alcohol, medicine and temperance

Last year I helped Museum of London Archaeology to identify the contents of two time capsules found under the former National Temperance Hospital in London. They remind us that there was much more to temperance than a narrow focus on its political dimension can tell us. And of course there are all the other issues raised by the destruction of the burial ground within St James’ Gardens. I was asked to write a blogpost about the capsules, but it doesn’t appear to have ever been published. So here it is (slightly tweaked).

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One of the time capsules found under the National Temperance Hospital, London, 2017.

In the summer of 2017 contractors working on the High Speed Rail link project (HS2) discovered two time capsules under the former National Temperance Hospital. Deposited under the memorial stones for the East and West Wings in 1879 and 1884 respectively, the two sealed glass jars contained a number of documents related to the Hospital and the wider temperance movement. The Hospital’s original purpose had largely been forgotten; its name, still visible on the derelict building, confused passers-by and local residents alike. Why was it a temperance hospital? Did it only treat total abstainers, or specialise in the treatment of alcoholics? The capsules remind us of the purpose of the hospital and its importance as an experiment to prove that the sick could be treated without the medical use of alcohol. How might its founders have felt about its demolition in 2017?

The Hospital began life on Gower Street in 1873 as the London Temperance Hospital. It was established by total abstainers to provide an alternative to other hospitals, which followed the prevailing medical opinion of the day that alcohol could be an effective form of treatment. Drink was used as a stimulant, to treat some kinds of illness – particularly fevers – or for pain relief, and drugs were given to patients in wine. In 1870, for example, both the Middlesex and University College Hospitals spent more on spirits, wine and beer than they did on bread and milk for their patients. Patients in workhouse infirmaries and asylums were also given daily rations of alcohol. Medical authorities were still suggesting that children and the elderly could be given alcohol as medicine in the 1870s, though sherry or port were preferred to brandy in these cases. At the Temperance Hospital, alcohol was only to be used ‘in a case of dire necessity’ and this was to be recorded in the Register of Exceptional Cases. The Hospital treated 22,000 patients in its first twelve years, but alcohol was used only three times, and always as a last resort (in fact all three of those patients died). The records of the hospital – clearly showing that its patients did as well as, or better than, those treated with alcohol elsewhere – provided evidence for those doctors involved in ‘medical temperance’ in their struggle with the medical establishment.

The Hospital prospered and the directors looked for a site on which to build a larger institution. Raising money from donations, they found space on Hampstead Road next to St James’ Church and built the first two wings of the new hospital. The list of guests invited to the laying of the first memorial stone in 1879, found in the first capsule, illustrates something of the character of the temperance movement. There are many Liberal MPs associated with the UK Alliance, the premier political temperance organization of the day, but also representatives of the Conservative, Labour, and Irish Nationalist parties, advocates of pacifism, women’s suffrage, and popular education, as well as critics of Empire and slavery, alongside the wealthy manufacturers we think of as the typical advocates of temperance. The time capsules remind us that temperance was a broad movement composed of many different groups, some (but not all) of them connected to wider liberal or radical social and political currents.

Over time other buildings were added to the hospital before the Insull Memorial Wing – still standing at the time of writing – was opened in 1932, and the institution was renamed the National Temperance Hospital. In 1946 it became part of the National Health Service, and it ceased to operate as a hospital in the 1980s. Remaining within the NHS estate, it was closed sometime in the 1990s, and in 2015 the site was sold to the Secretary of State for Transport to enable HS2 to be built at Euston. HS2’s demolition of the hospital revealed the time capsules, which has prompted some discussion of the original purpose of the hospital in the media.

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The HS2 site on Hampstead Road today. The Insull Building can still (just) be seen on the right, under its wrapping.

I think we’ve forgotten the Hospital’s original purpose because medicine has moved much closer to the convictions of its temperance founders. Doctors, the press, and other commentators condemned alcohol-free treatment as a dangerous and radical idea in the 1870s, but by the turn of the century other hospitals in London and elsewhere had begun to reduce their dependence upon drink. The amount spent on alcohol per patient halved at nineteen London hospitals between 1884 and 1904, and only two (Poplar and Westminster) increased their spending on drink. One supporter of the hospital – James Clark, of the famous shoe-making family – described the hospital as “an institution for educating the medical men,” and it does seem to have been partially successful in that aim. While mainstream medical opinion would never adopt the total abstinence principles of the Hospital’s founders, the influence of medical temperance and the Hospital’s records clearly played a part in establishing that moderation was safer than heavy drinking. New understandings of the effects of alcohol on the body and developments in drug treatment further undermined the association of alcohol with good health in the first half of the twentieth century.

Ironically this success explains why the Hospital seems strange to us now. Its archives, and the time capsules, tell us that while some patients were suffering from what we would now call alcoholism or ‘alcohol-related harm,’ the Hospital treated both drinkers and abstainers in roughly equal numbers in its first dozen years. The Hospital was not designed for abstainers or alcoholics but for everyone, and what had seemed radical in the late nineteenth century is quite uncontroversial today.

As it disappears forever it is worth reminding ourselves of its founders’ hope that “this great building will stand as a visible and permanent memorial of the vitality and determination of the struggle” to abolish drinking entirely. They might have been unhappy that the Hospital and the wider movement had not achieved that aim, and they would surely mourn the loss of the institution they had worked so hard to build, but they would have been glad of the opportunity, provided by this discovery, to contribute to contemporary discussions of the relation between drinking and health.

Thanks to MOLA, Magnus Copps, and UCLH Archives.

James Kneale

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