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The history of Mildmay Mission Hospital

The Revd William Pennefather

William Pennefather (1826-1873)

by an unknown artist
stipple engraving, mid 19th century
NPG D11183
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Mildmay Mission Hospital has its origins in the work of The Rev. William and Catherine Pennefather and their team of Christian women, later known as Deaconesses, who began their work of visiting the sick of the East End during the Cholera outbreak of 1866.

The Mildmay Medical Mission was opened in 1877 by William's widow Catherine Pennefather and eleven other women, in a converted warehouse behind Shoreditch Church, in Turville Square/Cabbage Court in the Old Nichol slums.

Dedicated to the memory of William, who had died in 1873, it consisted of twenty-seven beds in three wards, one doctor, three nurses and five deaconesses in training. The Hospital was recognised for the training of nurses in 1883.

Although the hospital did not require letters of admission, like many other voluntary hospitals of the time, and it did not discriminate by religion, throughout its existence the Mildmay stressed its role as an evangelical Christian centre as well as a general hospital; prayers were held on the wards, and biblical quotations were painted on the walls. Staff regarded their work as a religious as well as a medical vocation. Despite this, the hospital had a strong tradition for treating Jewish immigrants to the East End.

Waiting at Outpatients

Waiting at Outpatients

Mildmay Deaconnesses


In a bid to improve the living conditions of the poor, the Pennefathers (for Catherine was as much, if not more involved than her husband) recruited a team of Christian women, who became known as Deaconesses, and whose training as missionaries included biblical tuition, sewing, cookery, housekeeping, singing and bookkeeping in preparation to work in a Mildmay Mission or abroad.

Catherine Pennefather

Catherine Pennefather

The Pennefathers' missionary projects included; a Men's Night School, Sewing classes for widows, a Flower Mission, a Lads' Institute, a Servants' training home, and a Missionary training home. William took some inspiration from a Lutheran "Order of Deaconesses" in Germany (1).

Training nurses

Florence Nightingale

"Florence Nightingale had the greatest respect for both groups, hailing "Every attempt to train in practical activity all female missionaries"... Her interest was no doubt particularly stimulated by the fact that, some of them [in other Mildmay Institutions] specialised in nursing and so were among some of the first trainee nurses in the country (2)."

1. D.Taylor-Thompson, 'Mildmay- The Birth and rebirth of a unique Hospital'. London, 1992

2. D.Taylor-Thompson, 'Mildmay', pg 8

Florence Nightingale
Training nurses

Mary Richards

Mary Richards entered training at the Mildmay Mission Hospital in April 1931 and left after completing her training and receiving her certificate in May 1934. Mary was from Brixworth, Northants and aged 22 years when she started her training; she had previously learned dressmaking, housewifery, and cookery, all skills previously required by women who became Mildmay Deaconesses prior to Nurse training becoming an option.

Mary had worked in a girls village home for nearly two years, and her religious faith was described as C of E. Many applicants to train as nurses at Mildmay were also Church Missionary Society candidates. Her report describes her as 'A kind, reliable capable nurse.'

Mary returned in 1938-9 working for six months as a Nursing Sister, for the last eight days she was in charge of the male ward, Mathieson.


Mildmay Hospital nursing badge awarded to Mary Richards

With thanks to Sarah Rogers for this information and image.

Show your support for Mildmay

Mildmay badge

We have created this special commemorative lapel badge, based on the original Mildmay nursing badge, to mark 145 years since the opening of the first Mildmay Medical Mission in 1877.

By purchasing a badge you are making an invaluable financial contribution towards the running of our charitable hospital while at the same time, helping to raise awareness of, and demonstrating your commitment to our cause and support of our work. 

Ceremonial laying of the foundation stone of the hospital
Ceremonial laying of Mildmay's foundation stone

The slum clearances carried out by the London County Council in the 1880s and 1890s threatened the original site, and in 1890, a foundation stone was laid for a purpose-built hospital at Austin Street and Hackney Road.

The portico of the 1892 hospital

The new Mildmay Mission Hospital opened in 1892, with 50 beds in 3 wards; male, female and children's. (The Mildmay Mission itself was based from c.1870s-1950s at Central Hall, Philpot Street, close to the Royal London Hospital).

A postcard of Mildmay from 1907
A postcard of Mildmay that was posted in 1907.
Click to enlarge
The back of a postcard that pictures mildmay Hospital
Women's ward

Women's ward - from a postcard donated to us in April 2021

Hospital with a difference

The hospital with a difference!

This is a fundraising booklet for the new hospital extension, circa 1939, featuring a visit by Queen Mary. Towards the back of the pamphlet are some great adverts from local suppliers to Mildmay of all kinds of goods, from paint to laundry services, affirming the hospital's place within the local community.

This booklet was sent to us recently by someone who has a story about their aunt, who worked at Mildmay. Read it here.

In 1948 the hospital was incorporated into the National Health Service as part of the North East Metropolitan Regional Board's Central (No. 5) Group of Hospitals and transferred in 1966 to the East London Group. In 1974 it became part of the Tower Hamlets Health District.
But by 1982, as a hospital with less than 200 beds, the NHS regarded Mildmay as no longer economically viable, and it was closed down.
Mildmay, prior to its closure by the NHS in 1982

Mildmay, prior to its closure by the NHS in 1982

1988: Mildmay becomes Europe's first AIDS hospice

In 1985, the hospital was reopened outside the NHS as a charitable nursing home, with a GP surgery attached and caring for young chronically sick patients.


In 1988, it became Europe's first hospice caring for people with HIV/AIDS and their families, acquiring a worldwide reputation.


It was famously visited by Diana, Princess of Wales several times in the 1980s and 90s.

Princess Alexandra met patients when she officially re-opened the Mildmay Mission Hospital on 19 May 1988.

Princess Diana greets well-wishers upon arrival at Mildmay

Diana made three official and 14 unofficial visits to our Shoreditch hospital, sometimes arriving at 11 pm and staying until the early hours. She would sit with dying patients, holding hands and offering comfort.

Diana in conversation with families
A Time to Care foreword by Diana

Princess Diana's foreword to the book, A Time to Care - Mildmay Hospital's response to people with AIDS, Ruth Sims

By 2014, the old hospital was demolished and our new, purpose-built specialist HIV hospital was opened.

Timelapse video of the demolition of the old Mildmay Hospital buildings in 2011


The Bert Miller Photographic Archive

Bert Miller was at Mildmay for 30 years; employed for 7 and a volunteer for 23. During some building work, Bert saw some photo transparencies lying in a skip. He retrieved them and took them home. On inspecting them, he found that they were photographs of the hospital and staff dating back to the early 1960's.

Read Bert's inspiring story and see the photographs he rescued