Today in London healthcare history, 1981: work-in launched at St Mary’s Hospital, against closure

In our continuing series documenting hospital occupations in the UK, of which a number took place between the late 1970s and early 1990s… As ever, any more info on this occupation anyone out there has would be great…

In 1981, 400 staff at the Harrow Road site of St Mary’s Hospital, in West London (which served the Paddington and Kilburn area) decided to organise an occupation and work-in to try to prevent the closure of several departments.

St. Mary’s had been under threat for the preceding four years; only the vigorous opposition of the staff had prevented its total closure. Rheumatology and Rehabilitation wards only opened in 1977 (the first in the District) had been shut in 1979, when the first serious financial cuts affected the NHS.

In 1981 the Hospital had 431 beds, but the Area Health Authority decided that there were too many acute beds in the District, and that the service would be concentrated at the Praed Street site and at St Charles’ Hospital.

Threatened with the immediate loss of the Casualty Department and 100 beds, and eventual closure, (with surviving services to be moved to the prestigious St. Mary’s Teaching Hospital in Paddington), staff declared a work-in on June 26 1981. In the course of this workers twice occupied areas of the hospital—the first time the administration offices were occupied for 13 days, and the second time a ward was occupied for five days, to prevent its closure. On both occasions court orders were used to evict the occupiers.

At a press conference in December 1981, Terry Pettifor, NW Convenor of the London Ambulance Service Shop Stewards, described the effects of the run down of the Casualty at Harrow Road (the major accident unit in the

District) and pointed out that the remaining casualty facilities in the District would be inadequate to cope with the number of casualties which could easily arise in an accident at the nearby Paddington Station or in a major fire. Three wards had already been closed by then.

Police and security guards were brought into the hospital at least four times to support management’s plans. A TGWU shop steward was sacked, and a nurse was suspended for a week, for attempting to prevent the forcible removal of patients from a ward.

At least one report claimed that “Throughout this struggle no more than token support has been gained from the unions involved – TGWU, NUPE, COHSE and the failure of the labour movement to evolve its own strategy on health care has been partially responsible for this state of affairs… The leadership of the TGWU – which has been most centrally involved in the struggle – has effectively washed its hands of any responsibility.
Despite policy won at the 1981 BDC it has consistently refused to mobilise its great industrial strength behind this key battle.”

Several trades unionists active in resisting the closure of St Mary’s were targetted, victimised and sacked by management… Rita Maxim, a TGWU shop steward who stood up to management all the way, was threatened with the sack for refusing to do two jobs; a telephonist was also sacked for leaving work at the end of his shift without waiting for a relief.

This occupation succeeded, at least temporarily, in preventing immediate ward closures, but by 1985 St Mary’s had just 166 beds. The Hospital was due to be closed once Phase 1 of the rebuilding of its mother hospital in Praed Street was completed but, due to financial pressures, it closed prematurely. The wards finally closed on 22nd November.

Services were transferred to the St Mary’s Praed Street building.

Part of the Harrow Road site was taken over by the Paddington Community Hospital, the rest was bulldozed and converted into flats, its canalside location making it an attractive proposition for the middle classes (though the developer apparently later went bust, so it never quite achieved its yuppie promise).

NB: In 1993, when the Accident & Emergency Department, at St Charles Hospital was due to be closed, campaigners resisting this move occupied the office of Chief Executive Neil Goodwin, based in the old St Mary’s building in Praed Street.

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