Today in London healthcare history, 1979: St Benedict’s Hospital, Tooting, occupied by its workers.

The staff at St Benedict’s Hospital, Tooting, South London, began an official work-in to prevent closure of their hospital on November 15th 1979. A strong support committee was organised in the local community with backing from Battersea and Wandsworth Trades Council, local pensioners and others who wanted to maintain the high level of geriatric care at St Ben’s. Local London Ambulance Service ambulance drivers pledged their support and refused to cross the picket line except for normal transport.

“We could have gone on for ever” recalled leading light of the occupation, COHSE delegate Arthur Hautot, “They had to end the occupation because we were doing the work better and so much cheaper.” Also involved in the occupation, on a daily basis, was Ernest Rodker, who was later a supporter of the South London Women’s Hospital occupation 1984-5, and was later still a mainstay of the anti poll tax campaign in Wandsworth, being jailed for non-payment of the poll tax.

The success of the Work-in led management (with the agreement of Patrick Jenkin, secretary of state for Health and Social Security) to resort to intimidation, confrontation and violence to break the staff and campaign organisation, and force closure of the hospital. Wandsworth, Sutton and East Merton Area Health Authority (AHA) took legal action, serving injunctions against eight leading members of the work-in. This included 4 staff members (from COHSE, NUPE and the RCN), 3 union officials (NUPE and COHSE) and 1 local campaigner.

The injunctions prevented those named from doing any thing to prevent the removal of patients and to prevent the union-officials from entering the building.

For six days in mid-September 1980, the Hospital was raided, and patients moved out, by force by the AHA, backed by a large force of police and a scab private ambulance company, Junesco.

Under the new Employment Act, the police were able to impose an arbitrary limit of two pickets on picket lines outside St Benedict’s…

Then on the fourth day of the raids, they refused to allow any pickets on the gate at all, and the private ambulances got through.

By September 19th, sixty three patients had been forcibly removed from the friendly security of their beds and wards and dispersed in chaos to a variety of other hospitals in the area. Twenty-three pickets were arrested during the raids, and charged with a number of offences, ranging from wilful obstruction to criminal damages. One woman who worked in admin at a nearby hospital was suspended from duty, although she was at the picket line on her day off.

After the closure of the long stay geriatric hospitals, reports began to emerge of the devastating impact on patient care of “relocation effects” – the impact of speedy closures on patients. Close to a third of patients forcibly moved in the “raids” on St Benedict’s died within the following six months.

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An entry in the
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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