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Great Ormond Street’s link to Dickens

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Callie JonesReaders will no doubt know that 7 February 2012 marks the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens. But how many will know of his link with Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital?

Much has been written about the writer’s interest in the plight of orphaned and poor children, particularly in relation to their health and living conditions. According to a book by Jules Kosky, in an age when almost every parent suffered the grief from the death of a child, fictional characters such as Dicken’s Little Nell provided comfort and consolation.

Moreover, it was Dickens’s descriptions of the plight of poor children and their ill health that helped to create a climate of opinion towards the establishment of a children’s hospital in London in 1852. The idea for the Great Ormond Street hospital came from Dr Charles West, who worked on the project with a group of fellow medical professionals, some of whom were friends of Charles Dickens.

Another friend of Dickens, Baroness (Angela) Burdett-Coutts, apparently made one of the first financial contributions to the cause.

Well before the opening of the hospital, Dickens had learnt that he could raise money by reading from his novels at London events attended by wealthy people. A reading of ‘A Christmas carol’ raised more than £3,000 for the hospital and his speeches on the plight of England’s impoverished children could inspire even the most unenthusiastic audience into giving money.

When the hospital first opened, however, it failed to capture the attention of the public on whose money its future depended. But Dickens soon changed that in a moving essay entitled “Dropping buds”, which appeared as the lead article in the magazine Household Words.

With his co-author Henry Morley, he explained the unnecessary tragedy of the alarming infant and child mortality rates of Victorian England and included a pen portrait of the new hospital with its wide array of toys and spacious rooms.

Although this helped to attract some donations, the hospital continued to struggle and in 1858 it still had only 31 beds, the number with which it had started. Dickens helped yet again, chairing a benefit festival, of which Queen Victoria agreed to be the patron.

A variety of wealthy Londoners attended the activities, which culminated in an inspirational speech by Dickens. Together with a subsequent reading of his most famous passages on children, this raised enough money to allow the hospital to expand.

Dickens continued to write about Great Ormond Street, perhaps most famously in his last completed novel, ‘Our mutual friend’, in which (although he did not directly name it) he described the hospital as “a place where there are none but children; a place set up on purpose for sick children; where the good doctors and nurses pass their lives with children, talk to none but children, comfort and cure none but children.”

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