LIFE AT WESTMINSTER MEDICAL SCHOOL

Written by Steve Lawes, CW+ Heritage Officer and Celia Halsey, CW+ Oral History Researcher

WESTMINSTER MEDICAL SCHOOL 1834-1984: 150 YEARS OF EXCELLENCE

From the early years after the foundation of Westminster Hospital in 1716, visiting consultants were entitled to teach up to three paying students – known as ‘cubs’ – who accompanied them on their ward rounds, paying handsomely for their tuition.  Clinical training was enhanced by lectures from private tutors in anatomy, physiology and biochemistry.

In 1815, the Apothecary’s Act made it illegal to practice medicine without a licence or formal training, and so in 1834 the Westminster Hospital School of Medicine was opened in Dean Street. The school moved to Caxton Street behind the hospital on Broad Sanctuary opposite Westminster Abbey in 1885 until 1938 when the medical school moved to St John’s Gardens followed by the hospital in 1939 – for the first time in the same location.  It remained there until 1984 when the medical school amalgamated with Imperial College Medical School.

Westminster Hospital with the medical school in the foreground. St John's Square

STUDENT LIFE AT WESTMINSTER MEDICAL SCHOOL

“Those three years of clinical studies were probably the best fun years of my life, and the friends made then are still my best friends in life. The Westminster medical teaching excellence, combined with its small family ambience and core spirit also helped me qualify and set certain standards in my personal and professional life.”

David Woods, student at Westminster Medical School from 1968

Many former staff and students relate warm memories of their life at Westminster Medical School, especially their time in clinical practice on the wards of the hospital on St John’s Square. Westminster Medical School was characterised by a strong sense of camaraderie, companionship and unity which has continued to this day. Bob Phillips, a former student at the Medical School, said of his time at Westminster:

“I quickly joined the Westminster Medical School 69’ Club and we have gathered together every year since then confirming the remarkable affection and camaraderie engendered by this wonderful Alma Mater! The training in medicine is altogether different and generally much longer than other academic fields and the contact with fellow students is closer given the concentration of the academic curriculum and the necessity of excellent attendance at the different disciplines. The nature of the clinical work which enhances the personal contact with colleagues and all teaching staff cannot fail to engender a remarkable camaraderie and passion for the magic of the learning process and the extraordinary loyalty to the institution.”

The Medical School, 1969
The Medical School Library when it opened in 1938
The Medical School Lecture Theatre in use for a public lecture on first aid, 1939

The tradition of The Westminster Medical School Shrove Tuesday Dinner was established by hospital chaplain Rev Hilyard to raise the spirits of the medical staff during the Blitz in 1940, and it has continued uninterrupted since. It has now become a special feature of the social calendar at Imperial College School of Medicine.  At the first dinner, a gifted student drew a caricature of the consultant who gave the after-dinner speech, which was signed by all present. This has continued into this century and the almost complete collection of caricatures is held in Chelsea and Westminster Hospital.

As at many medical schools, women had been permitted to train at Westminster between 1916 and 1928 to redress the shortage of male students following the First World War. They were admitted permanently from 1946 in preparation for the founding of the NHS, increasing gradually in number. This affected the overall social and organisational structure of the medical school. At first, these changes were slow: Diana Werry, was a student from 1956, and was one of six women among an intake of 36 in her year. She noted:

“…we were new on the premises and [the college bar] was not open to us. We had our own sitting room upstairs.”

There were clearly defined ideas about what was acceptable for a woman to do in public, and these filtered into academic and working life. Women were not permitted to attend the Shrove Tuesday Dinner or governing committees of social or sporting clubs. However, in general the atmosphere was familial:

“I keep on referring to the idea of it being brothers, looking after us…. there were some who were not pro females, but at the same time…they were recognising the need for women in medicine.”

Some were concerned that admitting women as students at Westminster might have an effect on the prestigious sports teams at the medical school. However, the effect can’t have been too bad: great sporting success followed the admission of women fairly quickly.

SPORT

“Given our small size and the associated very strong camaraderie, each individual was expected to contribute whatever he or she could to Medical School life and the many extra-curricular activities and previously unknown depths of rich talent were regularly revealed to each and everyone’s complete joy and often utter consternation!”

Bob Phillips

Chris Everett speaking as part of our Oral History research project

Sport – Rugby, football, and Hockey in particular – were taken extremely seriously as extracurricular activity at the Medical School.  In addition, there were clubs for cricket, tennis, squash, rowing, rifle shooting and athletics encouraged particularly by Medical School Dean, Sir Adolphe Abrahams (brother to 1924 Olympic 100 yds champion, Harold Abrahams). The Medical School team was instrumental in the development of Rugby as a game in the late 1800s, and the enthusiasm for the sport did not wane throughout the twentieth century. In 1974, Westminster Medical School won the United Hospitals Rugby Cup for the first time in its 100-year history and went on to repeat the feat the following year. The school developed a string of fantastic players, many of whom ended up playing at the highest professional level. The Cup-winning side featured John O’Driscoll, who went on to play internationally for Ireland and captained London Irish.

1974 cup winners
Cup final match in progress, 1974
Cricket tour to Bromyard, 1970

The sporting teams at Westminster and other London Medical Hospitals enjoyed a fantastic sense of rivalry and competition between them all. The football team’s home pitch and clubhouse were at Cobham, which has subsequently become the training ground of Chelsea Football Club, forging another link between the old hospital and modern sporting excellence. David Woods said this about that venue and its atmosphere:

“After our home matches at Cobham, all the teams would join together for post-match revelries, which usually included a great sing-song, accompanied by Mike Parker on piano and George Offord on his accordion. Our sports pavilion at Cobham was the smallest of all the 12 medical schools at the time, but it was the most atmospheric and the envy of all the other London students. The many, many wall hangings of “acquired” signs decorating the clubhouse walls was again seriously envied by all visitors, and the subject of several unsuccessful attempts to steal them by raiding parties from other student establishments!!”

Sport really was a social glue, and Westminster’s unique sporting success was partially down to the fact that during the 1950s and 1960s, high academic achievement was not the only quality sought.  The school wanted a broad range of people with different gifts and talents who could contribute to medical school life.  Former student Chris Everett said that in his interview, Dean Harding told him he sought in medical students “the three A’s: Availability, Affability, and Ability.”

Chris Everett speaking as part of our Oral History research project
The Medical School student magazine, 'The Broadway' presented a commemoration edition to mark the opening of the new pavilion at Cobham, 1954

PANTOMIME

“Being part of the Westminster pantomime was almost a rite of passage; to be involved certainly made us feel very much part of the medical school, and was fantastic in forging the best possible team spirit, camaraderie and loyalty. I had never been part of amateur dramatics before, nor since, but being part of those two productions was instrumental in building confidence and team bonding.”

David Woods

Another important aspect of the social life of medical school was the yearly pantomime. All the music and lyrics were written by the students, as well as the graphic design for the programmes. However, not many women were invited to participate.

“The  Annual Pantomime was an iconic part of the life of the school with regular, penetrating  impersonations of our much admired consultants often stopping the show and stripping them of some of their personal privacy by revealing individual foibles and mannerisms usually with great reverence especially on the night they chose to view the Pantomime themselves!”

Bob Phillips

The pantomime was highly anticipated, and students were eager to be involved. By all accounts, they were hilarious and thoroughly enjoyable. Music from Pantomimes in the 1950s were recorded on to LPs each year.

WOLFSON SCHOOL OF NURSING

Westminster Hospital was pioneering in the development of nursing education.  From the 1840s, Matron Elizabeth Eager revolutionised nursing practice at the hospital, introduced a formal uniform and was the first to use the term ‘trained nurse’ in 1843 – a full nine years before Florence Nightingale set up her training system at Scutari in the Crimea.   She also introduced the practice of offering cups of tea to patients, thus dramatically reducing the consumption of alcohol on the wards.

The Westminster Nurses Home and Training School was founded in 1873 becoming the Wolfson School of Nursing in 1960 following a significant endowment by the Wolfson Foundation to build new teaching premises on Vincent Square.

Sister Tutor and Nurse De Stefani demonstrate nursing practice to students, c1965
Nurses training at the bedside

The three-year training consisted of a few months in the classroom, followed by a rotation of 6-month placements on a range of wards, across the various hospitals in the Westminster Group.  Student nurses trained in ‘sets’ admitted twice a year and remained in a close-knit group throughout training.  Many training sets continue to meet regularly having become lifelong friends.

Uniform was strictly monitored by ward sisters.  Matron was feared and discipline was almost military in style.  On graduation, nurses received the prized Westminster buckle (showing the portcullis of Westminster) and a ‘frilly’ – a lace-edged netting cap, folded and stitched into a fan shape at the back of the head.  A short cape, lined with red wool, was worn to walk between the wards and the nurses’ home between shifts, with a longer navy cloak and felt bonnet worn when travelling on public transport.  This uniform remained almost unchanged until the early 1980s.

A major social event was the annual Nurses’ Ball, held in a variety of hotels around central London.  The planning committee met throughout the year and was a major commitment and responsibility for its members.

The nurses also put on a Revue or pantomime occasionally, although these productions were not as elaborate as those of the Medical School, they are fondly remembered, and were a chance for the community to let their hair down among their studies and work together to create important memories

The 73/1 set (1973, January intake). Photo courtesy of Pat Marriott (front row, 2nd left).

Many customs developed around Christmas time.  Nurses would gather on Christmas Eve to sing carols to the patients, wearing their capes turned inside out to show the red lining, and carrying lanterns.  On occasion they were joined by Westminster Abbey choristers.  On Christmas Day, the consultant surgeon on duty was asked by the Ward sister to carve the turkey for the patients.

The League of Nurses was set up in 1922 by Matron Edith Smith to keep nurses in touch with each other after their time at Westminster had ended and to continue the legacy of the nursing school. It disbanded in 2013 due to the closure of the nursing school in 1992 and consequent lack of new members. The Hospital Archive holds copies of their yearly journals, stretching back over a 40-year period. These journals contain memoirs, epitaphs, and articles written by members.

Christmas tree on the children's ward, 1945
Carol singing on the wards