The Mothers' Hospital, Lower Clapton Road

Photo:Alexander Gordon's proposed dream scheme, 1928.

Alexander Gordon's proposed dream scheme, 1928.

© Salvation Army Heritage Centre

Photo:Women off to Willersley Castle during the Second World War, c.1941

Women off to Willersley Castle during the Second World War, c.1941

© Salvation Army Heritage Centre

Photo:Queen Victoria's daughter, Princess Louise, is due to vist the Mothers Hospital, 1913.

Queen Victoria's daughter, Princess Louise, is due to vist the Mothers Hospital, 1913.

© Salvation Army Heritage Centre

Photo:The bungalow style chalets, c.1927.

The bungalow style chalets, c.1927.

© Salvation Army Heritage Centre

Built 1913-14
By Ken Worpole

Like many others conceived in East London during the Second World War, I was born in a castle: Willersley Castle, near Matlock, Derbyshire. This grand building – though infested with mice according to my mother – was commandeered by The Mothers’ Hospital in Hackney between 1940-6 as part of the civilian evacuation of London, particularly of children and young mothers.

The Mothers’ Hospital in Lower Clapton Road was part of an extensive network of social provision provided by the Salvation Army in Hackney from the late 19th century until the present day. The large maternity hospital, formerly a home for unmarried women, was opened in 1913 by Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise, and finally closed in 1986, having registered 123,909 live births during its operation, including our own children: one born in 1969, and the other in 1971.

The hospital occupied a prominent frontage in Lower Clapton Road with a pillared entrance gate, and two distinctive arches leading to and from the main hospital grounds at the rear. Originally it had been built to serve the unmarried and the poor in Hackney, though after the Second World War it was incorporated into the National Health Service. The Mothers’ Hospital retained its distinctive religious identity long after, as my wife soon discovered, when hymns were sung in the wards on a Sunday evening, and sermons offered.

In many other ways it was very ‘old school’, though this was as much a reflection of the era as of the religious – indeed missionary – ethos of the hospital itself: fathers were discouraged from visiting for too long, or even holding the baby for fear of ‘germs’, let alone attending the birth. At nights some babies were wheeled in their tubular steel cots into the bathroom, where they spent the night away from their mothers, whether they cried or not.

Yet the low-rise, chalet-style layout of the ward buildings helped create more of a cottage hospital effect than was evident at the other Hackney hospitals. There was also extensive tree planting in the grounds which, according to another friend whose children were born there in springtime, were full of blossom and cheerful as anything. Our two were born in winter months, alas, and my memories of both births involved trudging in the rain or snow across Hackney Downs at dusk, to catch official visiting hours. My wife obviously had the harder time, and shortly after our second child was born, she and other mothers launched a campaign for the improvement of maternity facilities in the borough, a community initiative which brought some success.

Architecturally, the Mothers’ Hospital was a mixture of styles. The frontage was not original but consisted of a gap-toothed row of early Victorian houses, behind which a 2.75-acre site was used to develop a series of six bungalow wards and an isolation block. The six ‘cottage’ blocks, as they were also called, were connected by a colonnade to the entrance building. Trees, shrubs and flowers were planted between the buildings, and at the far end was an ornamental garden. Ground floor plans of a typical bungalow ward show a six-bed ward, a four-bed ward and a two-bed ward serviced by a ward kitchen, toilets and bathrooms, in addition to the labour room.

The wards were designed to ‘face north and south, thus ensuring that they shall, during the larger part of the day, receive full benefit of any sunshine that may be available.’ Originally the different wards were designated for different
groups of mothers: married, unmarried, and one ‘it is hoped, to be used by Jewess mothers, for whom we should have special arrangements made.’

Neither the original architect of the scheme, Alexander Gordon FSI, LRIBA (with medical expertise provided by Dr Donald Mackintosh of Glasgow’s Western Infirmary), nor the Salvation Army were ever satisfied with the improvised frontage, however, and tried continually to raise funds to demolish the early Victorian houses and build something more imposing in their place. In the annual report of 1936, opposite a photograph of the existing hospital façade, it is stated that:

‘Here is the Hospital’s shabby, inadequate façade. We are sorry to see it, and none of our well wishers will look upon it with pleasure. These drab mid-Victorian (sic) houses were adapted as a makeshift when the Hospital was built.’

They had a ‘dream frontage’ in mind, one shown in an aerial artistic impression by Gordon himself, circa 1928, which shows a five-storey monolith, a huge brick tabernacle in the Frank Lloyd Wright/Chicago style, behind which the garden bungalows appear to belong to a different world altogether.

This grand new building was never to be, though the Mothers’ Hospital added a distinctive presence to Lower Clapton Road for nearly a century. When the hospital was incorporated into the National Health Service in 1948, the bold lettering on the front of the building was changed from THE SALVATION ARMY: THE MOTHERS’ HOSPITAL to THE MOTHERS’ HOSPITAL (SALVATION ARMY). Today the memory of its place in Hackney’s history is retained in the name of the new housing development: The Mothers’ Square.

Ken Worpole is author of many books on social history, landscape and architecture, including Dockers and Detectives (2008) and Modern Hospice Design (2009). He is professor at London Metropolitan University. He has lived in Hackney since 1969. This essay originally appeared in Hackney – Modern, Restored, Forgotten, Ignored: 40 Buildings to mark 40 Years of the Hackney Society (The Hackney Society, 2009). To buy a copy of the book email

This page was added by Lisa Rigg on 13/03/2010.
Comments about this page

I remember it well. I should have been born there in May '43, but due it being bombed, I too was born in Willersley Castle, but my brother was born there in Jan '47.

By Geoffrey Jacobs
On 17/09/2010

Yes. I was born there in 1947 as my brother has stated. I remember that for many years afterwards, my parents were frequently visited by members of the Sally Army to, I presume, see how both myself and Geoff were getting on. I did have a walk around the grounds of the hospital with my video camera when it was in the very early stages of demolition, so I'm glad to say I do have a lasting memory of the buildings before they disappeared completely.

By Ken Jacobs
On 30/09/2010

I was a pupil midwife at this hospital in 1981-82. I have fond memories of my classmates and especially enjoyed the community portion of our training.

By Mary Ragagni
On 04/10/2010

My daughter Sophie Liggins was born at the Mothers' in 1985 the year before it closed. She was an emergency delivery with great stress and finally joy attached. The maternity staff at the Mothers' were a tower of strength to whom I will always be indebted. They were a strong community of women who helped Hackney women give birth and care for their newborns in a kind, dedicated and generous manner.

By Jo Thwaites
On 12/01/2011

Fascinated to see these photographs. I too was born in Willersley Castle in 1945. My mother died in 1947 so I have none of her memories of this time.

By Jennifer Plunkett, New Zealand
On 12/01/2011

I started my nursing training as a 'baby nurse' in 1956. Best thing I ever did. I went on to join the QA's and followed up with SRN. I don't know why I suddenly wanted to look up the home but glad I did. My younger sister also did her midwifery training here, so has kept me up and was sad to hear it had finally closed.

By jean kaul (nee Beattie)
On 21/03/2011

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