In 1979, despite opposition in the form of a day of action and a march attended by over a thousand people, St Leonard’s Hospital Accident & Emergency Department was closed.
By the early 1980’s the future of the whole hospital was looking bleak; by late 1983 the Health Authority was actively looking to close the hospital under pressure from a Conservative Government keen to make cuts.
At a Health Authority meeting to ratify the cuts and closures at Hackney Town hall on 26th September 1983, the Health Authority and its multi millionaire, Jockey Club chairman Louis Freedman were overwhelmed in a turbulent day of protest, (later described as a “riot”) which ended with them being forced to abandon the meeting after the town hall was surrounded by thousands of angry locals opposing the closure plans. Freedman refused to use his casting vote to settle the closure issue; demonstrators demanded increasingly vocally that he use his vote to save the hospital.
As he dithered, the doors to the Council chamber were barred and padlocked, and after a 20 minute stand off he was escorted out of the building with the help of local Labour MP Brian Sedgemore.
Freeman, who lived in a central London penthouse, and had private health insurance, said in the Daily Mail “We might as well be living in a dictatorship”.
The incident was labelled a riot in the Evening Standard and Daily Mirror, though no-one was reported as being injured on either side. Admittedly there was an attempt to keep the Board members in the meeting and to stop them voting in private…
The disturbance was carried on all the main news channels that night and newspapers the next day and ensured health moved nationally up the political agenda.
On the 7th June 1984 Norman Fowler, Tory Secretary of State announced his decision to close all wards and remove all beds at St Leonard’s and leave just a first aid unit and a handful of community based services.
In response a small working group was established by the staff and Hackney health emergency to look into the possibility of the 180 staff working at St Leonard’s organising an occupation or work-in of the hospital. A decision was made to occupy the hospital on the 3rd July 1984. The occupation was ratified by a staff meeting of eighty staff on 4th July.
But by the 5th July (NHS Day) the management had somehow managed to secure and issue writs and summons against the key stewards. As NUPE had not made the occupation official, and fearing an injunction (similar to that used against the Miners) NUPE officers removed NUPE placards and began to distance themselves from the occupation.
Despite this thousands of people in Hackney were supportive of the occupation.
On the 16th July management repossessed the hospital, sending in security staff and bailiffs (probably illegally) to end the occupation. In the next three days management systematically interviewed staff and reps and suspended key stewards. Disciplinary action was taken against Andrea Campbell, a shop steward for COHSE, and Geoffrey Craig, a NUPE shop steward. They were dismissed as a result of that disciplinary hearing, and they then appealed.
However, local trade unionists organised a 24-hour picket line outside the hospital and the drivers from the London Ambulance Station refused to move the patients out.
On top of targeting union representatives and other members of staff involved in the occupation, the management also made life uncomfortable as possible for the patients remaining in the hospital (who refused to move) by threatening legal action. Frail, elderly patients were bundled out in the early morning or late at night, driven to other hospitals, torn away from staff they knew and their possessions being sent on much later because they hadn’t been told they were to be permanently moved.
After the Occupation was smashed, management employed a whole private army of security guards to ‘protect’ the building, costing the Health Authority almost £1,000 a day, money clearly better spent this way rather than used to maintain the crumbling local health services.
Much more on Hospitals occupations can be found in past tense’s pamphlet, Occupational Hazards, available from our publications page.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online