Health and Sickness

Mortlake was, historically, a small village but the contrasts in the living conditions were stark. There was considerable wealth and extreme poverty. During the 18th and 19th centuries houses in East Sheen and along Thames Bank, for example, were spacious and set in acres of land. Princes Court, however, also on Thames Bank, was a particularly poor group of tiny cottages, overcrowded, notorious for overflowing privies and with no running water. Many other families in Mortlake lived in similar wretched conditions and these had a fundamental effect on their health.

Infectious diseases were common and accounted for about a half of all childhood deaths nationally – there were no vaccines or antibiotics, so children were cared for as well as possible at home, and parents hoped they survived. 1891 and 1892 were bad years locally - there were cases of mumps, influenza, whooping cough and diphtheria. Ringworm, impetigo, chicken pox, measles and scarlet fever were always present. Some of these diseases proved fatal especially to under-nourished children living in impoverished conditions. Information on children"s illnesses derives from school logbooks where the head registered diseases and recorded school closures when the building had to be fumigated. As late as 1911 in Mortlake there were child deaths from diphtheria, scarlet fever, measles and typhoid.


The plague of 1665 was a terrifying disease. The plague bacillus is carried by the bite of the rat flea. Rats were commonplace in 17th century England, living behind walls and in roofs and so were always in close contact with humans. The overcrowded and unsanitary conditions of impoverished homes, streets filled with household detritus, carcasses and sewage, saw huge numbers of rats and plague cases. London lost between 15 and 20 per cent of its population. Plague peaked in the late hot summer months and declined during the winter.

Mortlake was not spared. The plague of 1665 resulted in many local deaths. Anderson notes that there were 170 deaths more than was usual in that year, and that in September and October alone, 122 persons were buried, up to seven a day.

Mortlake had been, for many centuries, a poor parish. It struggled therefore to improve sanitation, housing and fresh water supply that were necessary for a healthy population. Black Ditch, a notable problem, flowed sluggishly from the gas works on Manor Lane to the river near Ship Lane causing stagnant ponds.

Cholera was inevitable, and in 1831 Mortlake succumbed to its first case. In November the vestry discussed the best way to preserve the health of the residents of Mortlake and to halt the spread of the disease. A Board of Health was appointed. Three doctors were appointed - Drs King, Scott and Mathias were to attend the poor of the parish. By July 1832 the Board had issued a notice to the local inhabitants strongly advising them to observe thorough cleanliness in their homes and in their person; to remain strictly sober; to avoid unwholesome food and to wear flannel next to their skin. These measures did little to alleviate the disease. There were 35 cases of cholera which resulted in five deaths. Later that year there was a serious outbreak of smallpox.

Cholera appeared again in Mortlake in 1849. Again it hit the poor hardest - those living in the meanest houses, the most overcrowded alleys, yards and courts. The medical officer reported the fact that "the illness occurred in Princes Court is mainly attributable to the inhabitants drinking the water of the Thames, highly impregnated with the contents of the sewers from the Court, and frequently also from the dropping from the manure barges unloading close to the spot". Twenty-two deaths were recorded mainly from these overcrowded cottages.


Historically, the medical profession consisted of physicians, surgeons and apothecaries. The apothecary's shop was often a sick person's first point of contact. In 1829 the vestry accepted the tender of Drs King, Scott and Palmer to supply medicines and give medical and surgical assistance, including midwifery, to the parish poor including the workhouse inmates – they were appointed parish doctors. Dr Palmer died in 1832 and his place taken by Dr Mathias. Drs King and Mathias lived in Mortlake and Dr Scott in Barnes. Between Lady Day 1833 and 1834 the two doctors attended 338 poor persons of whom 29 died.

From the mid-19th century many doctors practiced in Mortlake – for example, Drs Willis and Marshall were partners, Dr Henry Palmer later held the office of parish doctor and practiced from St Leonards. From the late 1800s into the 20th century, Dr Robert Mackintosh practiced from his surgery on Mortlake High Street and lived in Marsham Lodge, opposite White Hart Lane.


There has never been a general hospital in Mortlake. From the 18th century Londoners relied on voluntary general hospitals, the oldest being the Westminster Hospital, established in 1720. And for maternity care Queen Charlottes Lying In Hospital, was "for poor married women and deserving unmarried women with their first child". There were also general hospitals in Twickenham and Fulham which opened during the mid-1800s. From February 1868 Mortlake residents could go to the Richmond Infirmary on Kew Foot Lane. This was a voluntary general hospital, funded by donors and annual subscribers.

The infirmary was housed in Rosedale, once the home of the poet James Thomson where he lived from 1739 until his death in 1748. Initially the infirmary had 15 beds, and treated accidents, surgical diseases and acute medical cases.

In 1895 Queen Victoria became the Infirmary's Patron and from that date it was known as the Royal Hospital, Richmond. The hospital was enlarged over the years; in 1892 a new wing was built; in July 1896 Princess May's Ward for Children was officially opened and a new Nurses' Home was built. The Hospital then had 40 beds and cots. In the 1890s it cost 4s 5d to keep an in-patient per day.

In 1901 the Richmond Royal had 60 beds and had attended to 4,116 outpatients. It was considered a modern hospital and enjoyed a good reputation in the area. It treated all cases from appendicitis and fractures to TB and heart disease. During the First World War 50 of its beds were reserved for sick and wounded servicemen. By 1930, the Hospital had 88 beds, and it continued to improve and expand so that by 1948, when it joined the NHS, there were 121 beds.

By the 1960s however expansion had ceased and in 1974, it joined the Kingston and Richmond District Health Authority. The wards closed in 1977, but the Hospital continued as an Out-Patients Department. This building is now the Richmond Community Mental Health Resource Centre and the old heritage buildings, which are listed, are being developed into private apartments.

But there was one hospital in Mortlake. Not a general hospital but the Barnes Isolation Hospital (even though it was in Mortlake) on South Worple Way. This hospital opened in 1889 for patients with infectious diseases such as diphtheria and scarlet fever. The wards were broad, spacious and light; and the doorways were fitted with ramps so that patients could be wheeled outdoors in fine weather.

Barnes Isolation Hospital joined the NHS in 1948 and as antibiotics were curing many of the infectious diseases formerly sent to the hospital, it was little used. It then became a hospital for chronic long-term patients, and it was renamed Barnes Hospital. Part of the site is now being developed for new housing.


In 1820 the London Hospital advised that nurses should be able to read and write. But nine years later this requirement was dropped due to the difficulty in finding suitable candidates. However nurses were not to be drunkards, and their main duties were to keep wards and patients clean. Nursing techniques were primative at the time of the first cholera outbreak in 1831, and nurses were frequently uneducated and often had no formal training.

However, in 1849 a nurse was sent from St Johns House in Twickenham to Mortlake to attend the sick. Later a second nurse was acquired from Middlesex Hospital. These nurses were seen to be so efficacious in helping with the recovery of patients that the medical officer advised that a permanent and experienced nurse should be appointed.

In the 1840s nursing sisterhoods were founded to improve standards of nursing, and a fund was raised by public subscription to enable a training school for nurses to be set up. Voluntary hospitals and workhouse infirmaries established their own training schools. District nurses cared for the sick poor in their own homes. In 1888 there were 2,023 nursing visits in Richmond Nursing District, and by 1904 there were 5,597.

Nurses were generally funded by public subscription and gifts in kind. In 1929 people could be charged 1s 6d for each visit by a nurse but the very poor and old age pensioners were generally nursed for free. From 1919 the General Nursing Council maintained a register of nurses to ensure that all nurses were properly trained.


Apothecaries, later called chemists or pharmacists, have long been available to the residents of Mortlake. They dealt mainly with minor ailments. Mr Phillip Palmer opened his chemist shop at 28 Sheen Lane in 1865. He was chemist to the Queen, the Duke and Duchess of Teck, and the Compte and Comptess de Paris. Mr Palmer created many of the medicines he sold including Antibilious and Liver Pills, Extract of Mulberries for coughs and colds, and Palmer's Painless Corn Solvent.

On Thursday afternoons Mr Hodson, Surgeon Dentist had a surgery at Mr Palmers. Mr Hodson advertised: "Artificial teeth made and adjusted to the mouth on the most improved principles, ensuring complete mastication and articulation, and so closely simulating Nature as to defy detection. Extractions, Stopping, Scaling, and all other operations conducted with the greatest care. Fees strictly moderate. Consultations free." But there were no anaesthetics. Palmer's pharmacy, later called Stewarts and finally owned by Alex Mulholland, closed in 2000. The contents of the shop were transferred in their entirety to a site at Holly Lodge in Richmond Park where groups can visit and experience the pharmacy as it was in Victorian Mortlake prescribing such medicines as Cinnamon and Quinine Essence and Syrup of Hypophosphites.

James Bowen was another dispensing and family chemist who practiced from his premises on Mortlake Green. He was also chemist to the Queen and to the emperor Napoleon III as well as the King of the Belgians. His preparations included Bowen's Antibilious Pills and Bowen's Anti-Doloric Mixture.

Into the 20th century

Surrey County Council ran a Health Centre on the corner of North Worple Way and Worple Street in the mid-20th century. In 1952 there were facilities for diphtheria immunisation and whooping cough inoculations, there was a chest clinic, maternity and child welfare services, a school medical clinic and children's dentists. In 1959 it offered polio vaccinations and there was also an eye clinic. The health centre has been converted into offices and is now called the Old Clinic.

The NHS came into being in 1947. Before that everyone paid for all medical care or relied on charitable donations. Now Mortlake has the Sheen Lane Medical Centre that cares directly or indirectly for all Mortlake's medical needs.

Mortlake has clean water and safe sanitation, access to vaccinations, antibiotics, x-rays, scans, and free GP and hospital treatment. But pandemics can still create widespread upheaval to all aspects of local life.