The National Temperance Hospital: Painting With Light

CASA (in the form of Duncan Hay and me) took a little trip to the National Temperance Hospital (the “NTH” to its friends) on Friday with James Kneale, Carina Schneider, and a small but enthusiastic group who’d volunteered to help us to create a brief history of the hospital and get a chance to see the place while it’s still around.

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St Thomas’ Church sat on this leafy site next to what is now Hampstead  Road. The view you can see is into the graveyard, the only remnants of  the church itself. We’re stood where the back of the church would have been – the drawing is from the perspective of Hampstead Road, looking at the front. Here’s a photo from the same side of Hampstead Road:

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The London Temperance Hospital (which later became the NTH) was born down the road in Gower Street, relocating to its current site in 1885. Despite being built on the church site, is foundation was motivated not solely by religious piety, but by scientific concerns about the mortality (rather than morality) of alcohol.


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Here, in the foyer of the Insull Wing, we see a chart from a sphygmagraph tracing the pulse of a man after drinking a dose of brandy, and providing an early data visualisation in the form of chalk and slate; it was evidence like this that motivated the foundation of the hospital.

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The Insull Wing is now being used as a co-working space, but in the heyday of the hospital treated patients without using alcohol (unless absolutely necessary); prior to the NTH, alcohol had been used as an anaesthetic, even for treating women’s labour pains. This bar graph from a magic lantern slide from the 1880s shows some of the data associated with alcohol mortality – showing the high death rate of publicans and barstewards. This approach to public health was led by Life Assurance companies, one of the more important actors in the Temperance movement, as they sought to reduce their risks (and costs) associated with ill health and alcohol.

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The NTH’s ideas were eventually adopted by mainstream medicine, and it waned from its peak in the early twentieth century. Today, the older part of the building stands derelict, inaccessible and fragile –  compared to the vibrant life it led a century ago.

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This is the earliest image we could find of staff at the hospital, walking its floors at the start of the twentieth century – stood shoulder to shoulder with our visitors, among the last to enter this largely forgotten chunk of medical history. In the coming years, infrastructure development will mean an end to the building – in the meantime, we felt honoured to celebrate its history with others, and thankful for those who now call it home to let us intrude for an evening.
Huge thanks to Adam Richards of the Camden Collective and HS2 for giving us access to their space, and to Penny McMahon, Cataloguing Archivist for UCLH Arts and Heritage. Thanks to Nick Shepley and Catherine Thomson of One Day in the City and the UCL for ticketing and support, and the UCL Public Engagement Unit (especially Hilary Jackson) for their guidance and help; the pixelstick was funded by a UCL Pathways Grant led by Martin Zaltz Austwick and Steven Gray.

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