The Bethnal Green Hospital in East London served the local population as a community hospital valued for its continuity of care and accessibility to local residents. Hospital staff at Bethnal Green were told in October 1977 that the local Area Health Authority wanted to reduce services at the hospital to just care of the elderly. A campaign was mounted to safeguard its future.
In the early-mid 1970s, with pressures on the NHS mounting as life expectancy became longer, but global economic meltdown having a sharp effect on resources, successive UK governments made decisions which would have a long term effect on hospital building and closures. This would have a particular impact in London, considered to have a disproportionately high number of acute hospital services compare to the rest of the country, especially the north of England. The Labour government elected in 1974 adopted a policy of relocation of resources from the southeast to the north of Britain; in NHS terms this was focused through the Resource Allocation Working Party, set up in July 1975.
In reality, however, RAWP represented not a massive increase in resources to other regions of the UK – in the context of the recession, it meant merely that these areas were being cut slightly less severely than in London.
And cuts in London were to become very harsh.
The Bethnal Green Infirmary in London’s East End opened in 1900, built on land purchased from the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews. The 4.5 acre site had previously contained a chapel – the Episcopal Jews’ Chapel – and had been known as Palestine Place. The clock from the demolished Chapel was installed on the tower of the administration block.
The three-storey red brick building was designed to accommodate 669 patients and was intended mainly for the chronically ill (by 1901 it had 619 in-patients) and this remained so until WW1.
In 1915 civilian in-patients were moved to St George-in-the-East Hospital or to the workhouse in Waterloo Road and the military authorities took over the building for wounded soldiers – it became the Bethnal Green Military Hospital under the London District Command. It had 709 beds for wounded and sick servicemen. During this time a pathology laboratory was installed.
Only in 1920 did all the patients and staff return. A wider range of services were added, including an Orthopaedic Clinic, established at the request of the Ministry of Pensions, to provide treatment for ex-servicemen with damaged joints. By 1929 Casualty and X-ray Departments and admission wards had been opened and an operating theatre was being constructed. There was also a VD clinic (which closed in 1952).
The LCC took control of the administration in 1930, when the Hospital had 650 beds, of which 551 were occupied.
During WW2 the Hospital suffered minor bomb damage. In 1948 it joined the NHS as the Bethnal Green Hospital and came under the control of the Central Group of the North East Metropolitan Region. By this time it had considerably fewer beds, just over 300.
In 1953 there were 313 beds, with an average occupancy of 260.
A geriatric unit was established in 1954. In the same year the Group Pathology Laboratory was sited here and served the Central Group hospitals – Mile End Hospital, St Leonard’s Hospital, East End Maternity Hospital, St Matthew’s Hospital, Mildmay Mission Hospital, the London Jewish Hospital and the Metropolitan Hospital(all of which have now also closed).
During the 1960s a new dental hospital, a pathology institute and a School of Nursing and Midwifery were established. In 1966 the Postgraduate Medical Education Centre opened. In the same year the Central Group was dissolved and the Hospital joined the East London Group.
The Obstetrics Department closed in 1972. In yet another NHS reorganisation in 1974, during the first wave of cutbacks in the NHS, the Hospital passed to the control of Tower Hamlets District, under the auspices of the City & East London Area Health Authority. In the same year the Gynaecology department closed.
From 1977 the role of the Hospital changed from acute to geriatric care, with 167 acute beds closing and being replaced by 120 geriatric beds for the patients transferred from St Matthew’s Hospital.
When plans to heavily cut the hospital services were announced in 1977, a campaign to defend them and try to overturn the decision was launched. The hospital was still working to capacity, and its patients would have nowhere to go if its facilities were withdrawn, except to extend already over-long waiting lists.
As socialist doctor David Widgery noted, the cuts took “no account of social deprivation or incidence of disease in awarding resources, relying simply on out-of-date mortality rates. The result is a geographical interpretation rather than a class one, generating the lunacy of designating areas like Tower Hamlets, hackney and Brent as possessing more than their fare share of resources, which are therefore deemed suitable for siphoning off to East Anglia.” Widgery, a junior casualty officer in the hospital, was elected hair of the Save Bethnal Green Hospital Campaign.
A Tower Hamlets Action Committee was established with over 700 people attending the first meeting held on 24th November 1977. The campaign included support from GPs, regular picketing of the hospital, huge meetings and strikes and stoppages across East London…
On the 28th January 1978 over 500 attended a march from Weavers Field to the London Hospital to protest at the closures.
In March it was agreed that a regular picketing of the hospital should take place to highlight the plight of the hospital
On the 16th March 1978 at another huge meeting Bethnal Green Hospital was declared unanimously a “protected hospital”
A planned march against hospital closures in East London arranged by Plaistow Hospital campaign on 18th March was banned by the police due to events at the anti-fascist protest in Lewisham in August 1977.
10th March a 2 hour stoppage was staged in five East London hospital’s in opposition to the health cuts
30th March 1978: East London Hospital unions called strike action in nine hospitals for between six and twenty four hours, the Royal London and Mile End hospitals stop all routine work for 24 hours. Strikes had spread to local brewery workers, posties and printers. 800 campaigners marched to the Health Authority headquarters to protest.
102 East End GPs had signed a letter objecting to the cuts.
Meanwhile, the staff decided to ‘occupy’ the hospital.
On 1st July 1978 at 8pm, the time of the official closure, the hospital staff, applauded by a large crowd of local people and filmed by the News at Ten (ITV) put up a notice announcing the occupation of the casualty unit at Bethnal Green hospital. Detailed arrangements are made with medical staff, GP’s , the Emergency Bed Service (EBS) to guarantee admissions and safety. The first hospital casualty work-in in history began, with patients arriving at 8:02.
The only people to move out of the hospital were the administrators. Doctors, nurses and other staff continued to perform their duties, GP’s continued to refer patients, locals continued to attend the casualty department and ambulance drivers continued to respond to emergency calls.
While patients remained at the hospital, the health authority had a duty to pay staff salaries – and so the occupation took effect.
On the 30th July managers arrived at the hospital threatening staff with legal action, nursing staff instruct under threat of dismissal to move, medical staff who refuse to do so were “harangued” and threatened. The Bethnal Green Hospital work-in was called off on 30th July 1978 having treated over one thousand local patients.
An account of the campaign written shortly after the smashing of the occupation:
“The Green is a medium sized general hospital in a part of East London with notoriouly high incidence of illness and a community health service which is only now emerging from decades of neglect. It has about 280 in-patient beds and sees nearly 48,000 cases each year in its casualty and outpatient clinics.
It is no medical derelict; from the specialist hip replacement unit, its patients’ kitchens, reputed to be the best in East London to its excellent postgraduate Medical Centre it’s a busy working hospital with high medical standards and unusually good relations with general practitioners.
But, Enter The Cuts. The Tower Hamlets District not only have the national nil-growth ceiling now strictly enforced by the cash limit which was introduced as part of the IMF’s loan terms. It also has the RAWP (Regional Allocation Working Party) tax to pay.
RAWP is a classical social-democratic cock-up; designed to level up the regionally uneven levels of medical spending noted by socialist critics in the 1960s. Now in the 1970s it has become a formula for rationalising cuts. RAWP shifts still more money out of the Thames regions, long overdue fireproofing and internally financed pay increases for junior doctors further reduce the Tower Hamlets District coffers already ravaged by the rocketing supply costs, especially of drugs.
It’s a national story but East London is feeling the full impact first and hardest. The Tower Hamlets Health District are attempting to ‘save’ £2 million or 300 beds (beds aren’t strictly the things with mattresses on but a unit of medical currency). This abolishes at a stroke, 1 in every 3 acute bed in the district although last winter the existing beds were frequently chock-a-bloc.
The scheme was to smother the Green quietly, under the guise of a conversion, labelled temporary but likely to be permanent, to an all geriatric ghetto. This would achieve the rquired acute beds cut without involving the other better organised hospitals and care.
But the plan blew up in their face and the battle to save the Green has achieved the widest working class action against the cuts so far in London this year.
An increasingly vicious management succeeded in smashing the 24-hour casualty work-in which had run throughout July on 1 August by withdrawing staff and threatening senior medical staff involved with legal action. But it has proved a Pyrrhic victory and at the Council, the Community Health Council, the hospital and general unions against them and the East London public in angry mood.
There is now no chance of conversion to the all-geriatric unit unless at least some of the demands of the Campaign – retention of medical beds, open X-ray services, the Postgraduate Centre, a 9-5 Casualty Station – are met.
What is important to realise is the very slender basis from which the campaign was nursed. The Green has an unhappy trade union past and was clearly seen by management as a push over, especially since the all-geriatric future gave the impression that jobs would be safe.
For months a tiny committee of staff who wanted to make a stand, and local people, did careful groundwork, sat through visiting know-alls who would monopolise a meeting and not be seen again, petitioned GPs, tried to change the pessimistic mood inside the hospital. Only two years ago when the Metropolitan, a Hackney hospital opened in 1886, was closed, its secretary said, ‘The staff have been incredibly loyal and have steadfastly refused to strike and now it is us who face the chop’. The Green could easily have had the same obituary.
Carefully argued critiques of the plans were put into the complicated ritual of paper shifting called ‘consultation’ but at the same time Green campaigners knocked, wrote, and implored the entire local trade union movement to rise to the issue.
After two highly successful public meetings, the biggest the York Hall could recall, the Campaign called its first two hours stoppage on 10 March and in much trepidation. Myrna Shaw, NALGO shop steward remembers:
‘We stepped out of this hospital yesterday to give two hours to the community and in the true spirit of the East End we found the community waiting for us.
‘Anyone who could not be stirred by the sight must be dead. There were the massed banners of the trades councils and the trade unions. The Ambulance men were there and the Tenants’ Associations. St. Bartholomew’s turned up and St. Leonards, St. Mathew’s and St. Clement’s.
‘We picked up contingents from Mile End Hospital and The London on the way. Hospital chaplains marched – so did doctors, nurses, social workers, town hall staff, GLC staff, people from the breweries, local industries and teachers. Apologies to anyone left out.
‘If you lost your place in the procession it was hard to find anyone you knew when you went back. Best of all our own staff marched – from every Department in the Hospital’.
Behind that unity lay careful groundwork. 103 local GPs had been canvassed and stated that the closure was ‘a disastrous mistake’. The local community nurses stated ‘it would be difficult for us to cope with a large increase in our work load even if our staffing levels were increased’.
The social workers stated ‘The hospital has greatly enhanced the service we are able to give, its loss would greatly diminish it’. But the 1974 re-organisation scheme has established a pattern of medical autocracy which is virtually impossible to dent with reason and damned hard to affect with force.
After a three month reprieve which was clearly designed to defuse rather than encourage the supporters, instructions were issued for closure of the Casualty, the first step in the change of use, on 1 August at 8.00 p.m.
Once a closure date had been stated, down to the hour the phoney war was over. A Joint Trade Union Co-ordinating Committee elected by the East London Health Shop Stewards had been arguing out the implications of the Green’s closure for the general patterns of cuts in East London and tightening up its own organisation and communications.
When it called strike action, even at notice of days rather than weeks, the response was splendid. The day before the attempted closure nine local hospitals stopped simultaneous, St Barts and The London were solid for 24 hours, and many industrial supporters came out spontaneously too. 300 locals were outside the hospital gates as 8.00 p.m. arrived and at 8.01 a sign went up ‘Casualty OPEN under staff control’. Within minutes, long planned agreements with the ambulance and emergency bed service unions went into action.
Over the next few weeks, the Casualty, which the administration still insisted was closed, saw and treated more patients than in the same month the previous year. And the pickets outside the hospital now really had something to defend. The six point motion moved by Mrs Henrietta Cox of NUPE had done its work in each respect:
The staff of Bethnal Green Hospital declare that the Casualty Department will stay open. We declare we have no confidence in the DMT. We resolve to elect a committee representing all the staff to make sure casualty runs as usual. We call on ambulance staff, the BBS and local GPs to support us. We call on workers in other London hospitals to take any action necessary to support us. We call on our unions to organise supportative action. We ask the people of East London to support us!
It took the management a full month to break the Casualty work in. After early attempts to withdraw staff and victimise the other hospitals and ambulance men who defied their official instruction that the Green was closed, direct and legal pressure was put on the rebel consultants and nursing staff forcibly transferred within the district.
It is important to realise that a work-in is not a universal panacea. Its remarkable success at the EGA depends on the special cases of consultants in the very specialised women-treating-women field, for which no real equivalent alternative can be offered. But in most hospitals, consultants can be only too easily bought off with promises of new, perhaps better, facilities in other hospitals in the districts.
And such is the independent power of the consultant in the NHS structure that medical work simply cannot continue without their approval, even though they are are only on the premises for a small part of the time. Management, too, are learning from the EGA, especially in finding ways to pressurise nursing staff who are most vulnerable to hospital discipline.
The Bethnal Green work-in could never have worked without the very remarkable devotion of a consultant physician John Thomason and the hospital’s casualty officer, Kutty Divakaran.
But the Health Authority still hold the trump card: the ability to transfer staff. Short of running an alternative private health service, paid for by collection, within the hospital there was little to do but protest when an ‘Invisible Hounslow’ took place.
There was further strike and public protest on the day of the final forced closure. But the battle has now moved into a second phase, to prevent the conversion to the all-geriatric dumping ground so many staff and locals oppose because its notorious effect on morale and nursing and medical standards by insisting the remaining medical, postgraduate, X-ray, ECG and outpatient services stay put.
This time round it will be that much more simple to convince the Community Health Council, the Council and the statutory bodies who found the initial package plausible, of the real intent of the management; quite savage cuts in a area which is crying out for more resources. And to prevent the destruction of an excellent community-based hospital with no planned alternative.
Already there are ‘lessons’ galore. DMPs all over the country are finding increasing resistance to their attempts to enforce cuts. Not only are older community hospitals like St Nicks and The Green (which do need change but, with imagination, could find an important inner city role) being forced into closure, but completed new hospitals are unstaffed, and long promised and long needed facilities, such at Hemel Hempstead are postponed. 30 threatened hospitals joined a torchlit vigil on the 30th Birthday of the NHS in London alone.
Despite the BMA and Ennals, medical staff and unions are finding common cause and using sophisticated types of industrial action to force their case – at a time when the rest of the labour movement has its fists firmly in the pocket. Occupations live, it seems, in the NHS, if they have been forgotten in Clydeside. For the Bethnal Green battle and that of the EGA and Hounslow before it, will have to be repeated all over Britain as we descend further, further down the course established by Ennals, who is to British hospitals what Henry the Eighth was to British monasteries.
Here in East London the particular emotional significance of the hospital, and the genuine gratitude felt to the NHS, has given the campaign a moral pungency and unity which have done something to revive the flagging fortunes of East London labour whose greatest days seemed all to be in the Museum. With the steadfastness of the young Bengalis in Brick Lane, the limbering up of the docks unofficial committee and the fightback on the hospital cuts, the sleeping lion of East London labour is stirring.
If hospital workers just plead for passive support, it’s simply a case of wishing them well. But once the hospital unions take strike action or mount a work-in, the question becomes active. We are doing something, what are you going to do? Suddenly the all powerful authorities can look extremely isolated.
As for the politics of the situation, the weakness of the Communist Party is quite startling. Even ten years ago they would have delivered a formidable industrial punch but now their support is well-meaning, inexperienced and a bit airy fairy.
The left of the Labour Party, especially ousted councillors, have been excellent but must face the fact that it is a Labour minister, Roland Moyle who gave the Green the Ministerial Kick in the teeth. Even Mikardo, who has taken up The Green like the fighter he is, may oppose cuts in his constituency but voted for the package nationally. On the ground it has been independent trade union activists, local socialist feminist groups and the SWP who have run the campaign.
The lack of response from the hospital unions at a London level or nationally has been truly scandalous. Reviewing the annual conferences this year, it’s clear that the bureaucracy considers cuts were last year’s thing. It seems even possible that NUPE and the DHSS have an agreement, off the record, to let certain hospitals go without a fight.
Fisher has made not one visit to a hospital where his members are putting their necks on the block against the very cuts that he used to establish his own credibility as a campaigning union leader. The informal networks, Hospital Worker, and now the excellent Fightback co-ordinating committee based on the shell of Hounslow Hospital have been worth 100 times more than another Alan Fisher TV appearance.
The success of the cuts is not just a financial saving and a worse service. It is a code word for a social counter-revolution, a crueller, harsher Britain. The hospital service planned for us will consist of highly centralised (and incidentally absurdly expensive) units run more and more like factories to achieve maximum efficiency in ‘through-put’ and a few sub-hospitals for geriatrics and sub-normality practicing third world third-class custodial medicine. The sick who fall between those two stools will have to trust its luck to something called the community’ which is itself busy being destroyed.
It is this Dismal New World every cuts battles faces head on. And because of the degree to which the Labour Party has become the agent of financial capitalist orthodoxy, that even the most minor closure has to be fought up to cabinet level. The battle against the cuts, like the battle for the right to work, are part of a bigger battle to reshape the priorities of modern Britain. If it seems at times unrewarding, it is where real socialists should be building.
(taken from International Socialism, June 1977)
Amanda Sebestyen from Spare Rib interviewed several women involved in the Bethnal Green hospital occupation and campaign, for Spare Rib, in December 1978:
Saving the Green
We know that the Health Service is under attack all over the country, from our own experiences —longer queues, more medical mistakes, more harassed staff, less time in a hospital bed, more time looking after sick people at home. And East London is really in the front line. With some of the worst medical provision in England, the Area Health Authority proposes cutting a third of the area’s hospital beds. A new hospital is due for the 1980s — work hasn’t even begun on the site yet.
Bethnal Green has an extremely successful small hospital. Last autumn the Area Health Authority revealed their plan to close down all its general services, and con vert the wards for geriatric patients. But the staff and local people had plans of their own. A campaign to Save the Green started right away, beginning with half-a-dozen staff and a local doctor, and growing by Christmas to a meeting of 700.
People are now occupying the hospital 24 hours a day to stop the conversion. Unlike the planners, most campaign members come from Bethnal Green itself. The staff are not only upset about their jobs, but about the decline of a community: “If I had to give up work tomorrow it wouldn’t bother me. But I live in this area, I want to end my days here, and in the 30-odd years that I’ve lived here I’ve seen this borough go down”. Women have been in a majority in the campaign.
Scotty…… works in the hospital laundry, NUPE Shop Steward.
Myrna Shaw……. secretary of the Medical Postgraduate Department, NALGO Shop Steward.
Marjorie Cheskin…….Sister-in-Charge of the Nurses’ Home. Eileen…….lives in the area.
Elizabeth…….works at the London Hospital, Whitechapel,
Lynne…….teacher, from the East London Women’s Health Group
Smaller is Better
There was David Ennals on the tele vision saying that the very large hospitals are a mistake, “the 300 bedded hospital is the hospital of the future”. Well, this is a 300 bedded hospital. And this is still – or was before they started running it down — a very busy little hospital. I find that the smaller a thing is, the better it runs, the far less expensive it is and a much better atmosphere there is for everyone to work in. Marjorie Cheskin.
When my Mum was in here, I used to come up every day with silly excuses like she needed a clean nightdress, just to see her for an extra ten minutes because she was very upset. And the sister knew, she used to say to me “Don’t bother to make excuses, just come in, but don’t stay too long.” And in a big place, you can’t. Over at the London, you stick to visiting hours. Eileen.
1 think the London’s a good example of how a large hospital doesn’t work. It’s too impersonal, and it’s getting larger every day. Elizabeth.
It’s true we’re not technical like the London, but we take alot of the strain off them —they had big waiting lists for orthopaedics and we were getting them done here within eight weeks. Marjorie Cheskin
There’s a woman came up to orthopaedics here and had to be sent over to the London. She’s going to have to wait eleven months —that’s just to see a doctor, not to get an operation done. Lynne.
At the moment there’s no fracture clinic locally, there hasn’t been for a long while. If you go down to Mile End they just X-Ray you and refer you to the London. My daughter hurt her arm on Tuesday, she was sent to hospital Wednesday morning and told it was nothing serious, but she’d chipped a bone or fractured her shoulder. We couldn’t go up to the London hospital because it was turned twelve o’clock, so they strapped it up at Mile End and sent me on Thursday. Thursday they decided it didn’t really need plastering, but then again the actual fracture doctor wasn’t there, so I had to go back again on Monday. We sat there from about quarter to nine till about ten past eleven to see this doctor, and he said,”Oh, yes, yes, we’ll leave it wrapped up as it is and we’ll see you next week”.
Running down the Area
They quote facts and figures, so many beds for so many people living here; but with all the wood factories in Hackney Road it’s surprising how many people from outside come in from accidents at work. Eileen.
There’s no argument for getting rid of this hospital on health grounds or any thing else, it’s purely money. This is exactly what the hospital administrator said to us when he was showing con tractors around a ward. Lynne.
If they want to save money, how can they justify the conversion? Look at all the money they spent here recently on the operating theatre and orthopaedic. Seven or eight years ago, this hospital had everything. Elizabeth.
The children’s ward went to Hackney Road, the Ear Nose and Throat went to St Leonards. They didn’t go in one big lump, they went gradual, but you were always told that something better was going to be put in their place. Marjorie Cheskin.
The kitchens here were a showplace. People came from different hospitals all over England to see them, because they were a new design for the National Health Service. Elizabeth.
This laundry was going to be the group laundry. We have our own water supply here, we’ve got room for expansion too. Also we’ve got much better ventilation than the London will ever have. Am I angry that the laundry’s going to be closed down? It’s not going to be closed down. Because they’ll close it down over my dead body. Scotty
The Old get Angry
This was a ten year plan, and the population was getting older. But things change in ten years. The immigrants aren’t geriatric, the squatters aren’t. Marjorie Cheskin.
We gave the elderly the dignity of being in a general hospital, we didn’t stick them in an all-geriatric hospital without the facilities that they’ve got just as much right to as anyone else. Myrna Shaw.
To come out of one ghetto into another —the Area Health Authority aren’t doing the old people a favour. Scotty.
We’re going right back to the very days that this hospital was first built, as a workhouse. I find if you’ve got elderly people with young people, the young people tend to sort of take them under their wing. But when you separate old people from everyone else, then no-one can see what’s going on. It just turns into a dump. Marjorie Cheskin.
The plan says geriatric for four years, and then closure. So where do people go next? And nobody’s asked the old people around here if they want this all- geriatric. They don’t. They support us. Eileen.
The Hackney Pensioners were the first on the scene with a letter of protest. Myrna Shaw.
For most of the elderly people around here, this IS their hospital and without it they can’t go anywhere for help. We hired a coach for a pensioners’ club to come and protest at the Area Health Authority, and they were terrific, singing and dancing and they all had banners. Someone lifted one lady up to the office windows and she was banging on them and saying “Come out here, you miserable old gits”. And when the planners’ cars drew up for the meeting, another lady was waving her stick in the air and saying “If I was younger I’d give you what for!” There were quite a few Policemen up there as usual, and one of them said, “If you younger people were doing what these old ladies are doing, you’d be arrested”. Eileen.
Every time a ward gets emptied we padlock it up, to stop any conversions into geriatric. We’ve got 102 local GPs on our side; we have local residents picketing, and then the dustmen have been coming, and the brewers. Scotty.
I think the joint shop stewards’ committee is the best thing that’s come out of this campaign. But instead of calling an all-London stewards’ conference, the leaders of our two main Health Service unions have virtually abandoned us. We think that in return for favours elsewhere they’ve agreed to keep quiet about their problems.
Four of us on our shop stewards’ committee are ladies as opposed to one man. We’ve been very very active. Myrna Shaw.
Eileen: The majority of the people who turn up for the rallies are women.
Elizabeth: I think it’s because the men couldn’t care where they go, it’s the women that have to bring the children and things like that. One Saturday they were due to close Casualty, and we got some leaflets out very quick and went in at the pubs; “Oh yes, we’ll be there” – and yet hardly any of them came, the men.
Eileen: It’s nothing to do with the hours, because I work during the day.
Lynne: We all do. The only time it’s more usually men on the picket is when they stay overnight.
Elizabeth: I think it’s because they could probably cope better if there was any violence.
Lynne: I don’t feel I could cope less than a man.
Eileen:I wouldn’t be prepared to stay up here on my own, I would with another girl.
Eileen:We did a leaflet saying, “Mothers Show Your Power” because there’s a lot of people who don’t go to work and when they get given leaflets with “Go to your trades union, Do this and Do that” they feel they’re not really involved because they’re only a mother. The meeting was in a park which wasn’t very dangerous for the road, and it was a time when the children were on holiday. Lynne: A lot of women objected to it because they said they weren’t just mothers they were workers as well and they didn’t like being defined like that.
Eileen: Nothing against people working, it was just to try and get some of the mothers who didn’t go out to work to realise they could still do something.
Another good thing we did which I think was good, we asked five local schools if we could put out leaflets. And they all agreed, in fact they gave them out them selves.
In the summer we went to David Ennals’ house, which was in a very small block of flats but it wasn’t like out flats you know, the door was shut and a porter came out. Rather select. And there was all us people shouting ‘Up the Green, Up the Green!” and all these curtains were opening… And then we went to Downing Street which was also funny because there was a policeman with a walkie-talkie and as the 50 of us walked down towards him he started saying “Help, I need reinforcements, I’ve got a mob assembling!”
And then on the anniversary of the National Health Service there was a pro test against the cuts organised country wide by the Fight Back organisation. At nine o’clock you stood outside your own hospital and lit torches, but we turned ours into a singsong. We made our own up: “It’s along way to the London”! Eileen.
Some German people came the other night, and played with their banjos out side the hospital. I was so amazed I almost burst into tears because there was hardly anyone around, and here were these people all the way from Germany come to support us. Lynne.
Things to Learn
I stood up in the Park and I said, “You have got to go to council meetings. You have got to be seen there”. Because the council knew that this was happening and didn’t bother. If all these people who say they’ll help us now had come to our aid when we asked them, we could possibly have halted this from the very beginning. Marjorie Cheskin.
At first we were a bit nice, like we wrote alot of nice letters saying Please could you meet us, and Please produce this. We waited six months once for an answer from the Area Health Authority We could have been a bit more demanding. Eileen.
We should have worked more on getting the Community Health Council to support us, they only came over to our side when it was too late. They’re essential for any hospital campaign, they’ve got the power to hold up closures and get a hearing from the Health Minister Lynne.
You shouldn’t just call round the local papers, it’s the national press you’ve got to get to. Elizabeth.
To my mind the campaign hasn’t involved enough of the ordinary staff in the hospital. I was talking to a Sister today, she said “The meetings have stopped,haven’t they?” and I said “No —you should come along”. No-one had actually asked her. Lynne.
The ancillary workers have been behind us and they’ve been coming to support meetings, but you can’t have a very large committee. You only need one person from each department plus the doctors from outside. Scotty.
I think when you form a committee, you should include someone from out side, like an ordinary housewife. I brought my mother along to the first meeting and they said, “You shouldn’t have. She’s not on the committee.” At the beginning they were keeping out the local people, though the attitude’s changing. Elizabeth.
Male Chauvinist Pickets
While I was interviewing Eileen, Elizabeth and Lynne, one of the men on picket duty managed to come into the room FOUR TIMES with increasingly non-existent excuses.
That’s just typical, that he couldn’t leave women alone for five minutes. He had to know what’s going on and why. Most of them are like that. Lynne.
We were getting ready for a march, and somebody said “What shall we do for our last banner, something that’s really eyecatching” and immediately a man — obviously—turned round and said “I know, two women walk topless”. Some body else who was there done her nut, she said “Why must it be women?” and he said “Oh, well, two men walk bottomless then —it was just a joke.” She said, “It isn’t a joke. We’re discussing a campaign for equal people and straight away it’s sensational if women walk topless.” Eileen.
It’s the women who are giving the lead with leafleting and practical things but in all the meetings I’ve been to they’re not listened to so much. The men have more status. Lynne.
I’ve never had any time for unions. I’ve always felt they did not give you a chance to say how you feel; but now I’ve joined the Royal College of Nurses for the first time, that’s the nurses’ organisation. And I’m grateful to the other unions for what they’re doing. But I’ve been a little bit dissatisfied because I thought there was far more unity than there actually is. You could make these unions work, but only if everybody was to play their part in them. Marjorie Cheskin.
My father came into this borough in the arms of his parents well over 80 years ago. He was always a very strong trades unionist, my brothers were always into the labour movement and I went in at 14. Then I dropped out when my children were born. Until this campaign started, being a shop steward was a very innocuous job, almost a toy job. Well, I rejoined the Labour Party on Sunday, despite what I’ve said about them. Myma Shaw.
I feel I’ve become more tolerant of people’s attitudes, understood that
people can change and not to write them off if they seem conservative. Lynne.
If it hadn’t been the Green, if it had been somewhere up North, I don’t think I’d have done anything about it. I’d have just said “Terrible, the cuts”. But because this is my local hospital, I’ve been surprised some of the things I’ve found myself doing. When we went up to Westminster, we were all militant. I would have thought. Oh David Ennals is a Minister, you can’t really go up and see him. But it’s your right to go there. Before the campaign I would never have dreamed of it. Elizabeth.
Up until I got involved with this, apart from going to work, that was it. I spent all the evenings indoors. I didn’t belong to any clubs or evening classes. I come out two or three nights a week now, which I didn’t do this time last year.
I think Anne, who does the news letter with Lynne, said it to me last week, that when you’ve got children you’re always somebody’s Mum or your’s somebody’s wife, and when you come somewhere like this you become a person, you’re you. My husband and my children, they don’t object to me coming, but you know I couldn’t drag them up here if I tried. They just say “Tara, Love”. Eileen.
If we win here, I’d join another local hospital campaign. Save St Nick’s. Elizabeth.
I’d definitely join something else after wards, because now I’ve done this I’d find it very hard to just go back. This has got me out of the house, meeting new people, different people. It’s been good for me, I don’t know about me being good for the hospital but it’s been very very good for me! Eileen.
I’d like to see this restored as a general hospital. I’d like to see the operating theatre reopened, perhaps just for orthopaedic cases. I’d like to see Casualty reopened – they talk about the new accident and emergency unit at the London, but it’s nowhere near ready yet. Myrna Shaw.
It’s stalemate. We’re stopping the con version, but now the Area Health Authority are threatening people’s jobs. But the staff are really angry because they know the conversion will lose jobs anyway. We’re in a stronger position now as ancillary workers in the London and Mile End have promised to work to rule if management moves in. And recently we blocked the main road out side the hospital for twenty minutes to show our determination. Lynne.
The Area Health Authority have told us so many bloody lies they don’t know which way to turn now. Apparently the Minister has called back the papers to look them over again because he hasn’t got the truth from them. Personally myself I think it would be better if we could get an all-London stoppage over all the cuts in all the other hospitals. It’s time we all stopped fighting our own little battles and joined together and made the biggest stink that anybody’s ever heard. Scotty.
In the end, the surgical beds closed in 1978 and the remaining medical beds in 1979.
The Bethnal Green work-in may have been defeated in the most immediate terms. However, as the first occupation of a casualty ward, it received a huge amount of publicity, and encouraged a succession of hospital occupations and work-ins, from the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson work-in onwards.
In 1990 the Hospital closed entirely. Patients and staff were transferred to the newly opened Bancroft Unit for the Care of the Elderly at the Royal London Hospital (Mile End).
Here’s a short film on the later campaign to keep the rest of the Bethnal Green Hospital open, dating from 1984
An entry in the
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online
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