The Voices that Shaped Us:
Modern Hospice in the Making

Early years

Early years

Before St Christopher’s

Institutions called hospices existed before St Christopher’s, providing care for the dying, particularly the poorest in society.

Working as a nurse and social worker, St Christopher’s founder Cicely Saunders noticed that hospital doctors in the 1950s often deserted their dying patients.

Professionals rarely told patients they were dying and offered limited help with pain or other problems, like symptom management or anxiety.

Saunders was inspired by the care and attention she witnessed at earlier London hospices, such as St Joseph’s, Hackney.

Modelled on medieval hospices that cared for ill travellers, these earlier institutions were run by religious groups or nurses offering basic medical care.

Wanting to do more for dying patients and following her Christian faith, Saunders retrained as a doctor to learn about managing pain.

She developed the idea of a modern hospice that combined the caring attitude of earlier hospices with cutting-edge medical research and teaching.

This extraordinary woman, had gone into medicine to care for the dying. I had never heard of anything like that before.

Dr Mary Baines, Former Consultant, St Christopher’s Hospice

Dame Cicely Saunders

When she left St Joseph’s to devote herself here to the development of St Christopher’s, she had written out no fewer than a thousand patients who had received pain killing medication, which at that stage was diamorphine or heroin by mouth and in a dose adequate to their needs, which was quite revolutionary in giving the dose regularly to prevent pain rather than when the patient was in agony. That was her enormous contribution to the field.

Dr Mary Baines, Former Consultant, St Christopher’s Hospice

It struck me then as being exceedingly odd why she was going into medicine. Because I had gone into medicine, or so I thought to cure people, as everybody had. And this extraordinary woman, much older than the rest of us, much taller, quite a big build, had gone into medicine to care for the dying. I had never heard of anything like that before and if you had asked me at the time whether I thought anything would come of it, I would have said without any doubt no of course not.

Dr Mary Baines, Former Consultant, St Christopher’s Hospice

Galvanising support

Cicely Saunders brought together a network of supporters and funders who, like her, believed more could be done for dying patients.

She promoted the value of end of life care through lectures and publications where she shared images of her patients and told their personal stories.

Saunders inspired many others to take a professional leap of faith at a time when doctors often saw each of their dying patients as a professional failure.

By the 1950s, advances in medicine and changing social trends, such as smaller households, increasingly meant that most people died in hospitals where the focus was on cure rather than care.

Fewer dying people were cared for in their own homes and pain relief, particularly for conditions like advanced cancer, was often inadequate.

By 1964, a group of supporters for Saunders’ vision of St Christopher’s was meeting regularly and had raised over £330,000 to build a modern research-led hospice.

St Christopher's nurse - photograph by Derek Bayes

It was the lecture which really gripped me.

Dr Robert Twycross, Former Clinical Research Fellow, St Christopher’s HospicE

Dame Cicely Saunders with Princess Alexandra

She was fundraising and going and seeing livery companies and other sources of funds. I don’t think she spent a penny on fundraising, the message was so strong.

Dr Gillian Ford, Former Director of Studies, St Christopher’s Hospice

She based the hospice on three things, it was in-patient unit, research and education, those were the three legs of her stool

Deborah Holman, Former Clinical Nurse Specialist, St Christopher’s Hospice

Building St Christopher’s

After careful planning and considerable fundraising, St Christopher’s opened its doors in summer 1967.

The site was chosen in 1963 for its good transport links, allowing friends and relatives to visit easily, and its mature trees.

Construction work started in spring 1965 and took two years, costing around £480,000.

With its large windows letting in plenty of natural light and many flexible-use spaces, the new building set the standard for hospice architecture around the world.

One window was dedicated to David Tasma, a dying patient Saunders had met in 1948 who had inspired her and left £500 for St Christopher’s in his will.

The first patient, Mrs Medhurst, arrived on 13 July 1967 and St Christopher’s was officially opened by Princess Alexandra on 24 July 1967.

By 1968, the hospice was running three in-patient wards of 18 beds each, an out-patient clinic, and a wing for longer-term residential care.

We had dogs, children, workmen hammering, birds singing and a general atmosphere of informality.

 Cicely Saunders, from Selected Letters, 25 March 1965

Dame Cicely Saunders digging the first spit

I can remember seeing the original first dig to start the building which would have been about 1965, 1966 when I was about nine or ten. My father was one of the original builders so I come up here to witness it all get started…My dad was a plumber by trade and a carpenter, he worked for a company literally at the end of Lawrie Park Road, it used to be called Mason & Lewis which was a local builders and they had a lot of the maintenance contracts on all the houses up and down this road. So, they used to do any alterations for people and everything. And then when they decided to build the hospice, that company was brought in as part of the builders to build the hospice.

 Bill Punyer, Senior Maintenance Technician, St Christopher’s Hospice

Also in this section:

St Christopher's nurse - photograph by Derek Bayes

The Voices that Shaped Us

Our exhibition tells the story of St Christopher’s Hospice using interviews with many of the people who have shaped our history

Patient in bed with family

The voices that shaped us: The work

Building the modern hospice

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