A Personal Fiefdom: Benjamin Golding and the establishment of Charing Cross Hospital

Charring Cross Hospital

Benjamin Golding, the founder of Charing Cross Hospital, was born, the son of a prosperous tanner,  on 7 September1793 at St Osyth near Clacton. In 1811 he began his study of medicine at the University of Edinburgh and in 1815 enrolled at St Thomas’ to complete his medical training.  He also received his MD from the University of St Andrews on the strength of the testimonials of two physicians.  In 1817 he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons and set up in practice in Leicester Place, just of Leicester Square. As a young man, he was noted for being well-built, chiselled, neat in appearance and with the ruddy complexion of a countryman. He was also a compassionate and kind man who very soon he realised the urgent need for medical facilities of the local sick poor. An idealistic young man, he opened up his own house as an outpatient dispensary. He was to consider such an act of altruism as of benefit to young doctors at the start of their careers in giving them a wider practical experience than would otherwise be available as well as helping the sick:

‘I consider that a young medical man, whose time is but partly occupied, cannot be employed more beneficially, either to himself or others, than in adding to his practical knowledge, and in expending, by any means in his power, his opportunities of  seeing diseases in their multifarious forms and complications; and that, to attain this object and, at the same time, to render himself useful to others, he cannot do better than to devote some hours daily, for the first few years of his professional life, to seeing and prescribing for, gratuitously, those sick persons who require his aid but are too pure to remunerate him.’

Charing Cross Hospital and Medical School, 1881.

In 1818, he set up the West London Infirmary and Dispensary at 16 Suffolk Street, behind the Haymarket Theatre, working with two fellow doctors William Shearman and John Mitchell. Soon they were joined by Mr Canton as surgeon-dentist and Mr Backleras cupper, drawing blood to the surface of the skin to ease congestion. Golding himself continued to fund the new hospital from his own income and also sought contributions from wealthy friends and neighbours. John Robertson, a civil servant working at Somerset House and a childhood friend of Golding’s,  took on the role of honorary secretary.  Golding himself took on the title of ‘Hereditary Guardian of the Infirmary’ and was referred to as its ‘Director’, a role which many of his colleagues came to resent.

Demand for the services of the new hospital, still as yet only seeing outpatients, continued to grow and in 1821 it moved to 28 Villiers Street, where there was enough space to open a ward for 12  to 15 inpatients. In 1819 he had written a history of St Thomas’s Hospital, showing both his loyalty to his teaching hospital and an interest in the history of medical care. In it he wrote in detail about Thomas Guy, founder of Guy’s Hospital as a breakaway from St Thomas’, medical politics and the education of medical students, themes which may have inspired him in the setting up of his own institution.  A board of governors was established and in 1821, the re-named Royal West London Infirmary and Lying-in Institution was granted the patronage of the Duke of York. In 1822, 2,000 patients were treated. In 1827 it was decided to construct a purpose-built hospital on a new site for what was finally named Charing Cross Hospital. The new buildings, on a triangular site between King William IV Street, Agar Street and Chandos Place, were designed by the architect Decimus Burton. Golding gave a generous personal contribution to the building funds and solicited support from wealthy benefactors including Drummonds the bankers. The foundation stone was laid on 15 September 1831 and by 10 February 1834 the new buildings were ready for the admission of the first 60 patients.

Keenly interested in medical education, he promoted the idea of having a medical school attached to the hospital and in 1822, as result of his prompting, medical students began training at the hospital and in 1829 Charing Cross Hospital Medical School was recognised by the University of London. Golding acted as Director of the Medical School and only after his retirement from the Medical School post in 1856 was a Dean appointed. Golding as well as directing the medical school also lectured on midwifery.  In keeping with his charitable impulses, provision was made for waiving the fees of no more than six medical students  a year who were unable to meet the costs of completing their  studies. Among his students were David Livingstone and Thomas Huxley.

Golding was bitterly opposed  to attempts by King’s College to take over Charing Cross as its own medical school in 1832. However, some  of his colleagues continued to negotiate secretly with King’s College. The ring leaders, Thomas Pettigrew  and George Gabriel Sigmond, were opponents of Golding and in 1836 criticised his management of the hospital. The governors of the hospital supported Golding and dismissed his opponents from their honorary appointments. Attempts by Pettigrew and Sigmond to be reinstated resulted in a vote of thanks and confidence in Golding as Director, a post he filled from 1821 until his retirement in 1862, allowing him to retain control of all aspects of the medical and educational administration of the hospital.

The strains and stresses of the early years of establishing a new hospital and the conflict with his colleagues in 1836 were described by Golding himself as ‘fatigues’. However, there was a price to be paid and he suffered a stroke, aged only 47, in May 1840 which left him paralysed on one side for the rest of his life and only able to walk with the aid of a stick., Determined to keep control over his hospital, he moved to a house at 29 King William Street nearby and  installed a communicating door so that he was soon able to resume his duties. The Governors thanked him as ‘the Founder and Director of this Hospital’ for his ‘unceasing exertions for its welfare’ and expressed their rather pious hopes that ‘he may soon be restored to his profession, to his family, and to this Institution which, under the Almighty Providence, mainly owes its existence to his indefatigable labours.’  There may have been a valedictory tone to these words, but Golding was to continue in office for another 22 years.

After 1841, Golding’s authority at the hospital remained absolute but was not without criticism from the younger men now joining the honorary staff and from the younger governors. No longer as physically vigorous nor as adventurous  as in his youth, Golding was increasingly seen as  a more conservative figure rather than as the idealistic young reformer of his youth.  Nevertheless, he showed a bold determination in 1850 when he urged the hospital to purchase the freehold of the Agar  Street site for £10,500 despite having insufficient funds. In time, Golding realised that it was necessary to relax his hold. He resigned as Director of the Medical School in 1856 and then in 1860 announced his intention to retire from the hospital. A house committee was set up to take over some of the responsibilities he and his close friend and colleague John Robertson, as honorary secretary, had exercised and Golding himself suggested the formation of a medical committee which would counterbalance lay dominance. Finally in June 1862, both Golding and Robertson retired and were presented with silver salvers. Golding was also appointed as consulting physician. Without the stimulation of a hospital to run, Golding’s retirement was short and he died on 21 June 1863.

His family often complained that his work came before his home life. He married  Sarah Pelerin Blew whose family were perfumers in Charing Cross, on 1 August 1822 and had  nine children, but  most of them died in infancy. His son Roy followed him into the medical profession but died at the age of 25, while his clergyman son George only lived to the age of 55. His daughter Blanche lived to the age of 82.  Despite the infirmities resulting from his stroke, Benjamin Golding himself lived to the age of 69 and was buried in a neoclassical family mausoleum in Brompton Cemetery built after his death by his family. His true monument was Charing Cross Hospital.

Without Golding’s leadership Charing Cross Hospital and its Medical School would not have survived the strains facing them in the early years. However, this was partly because almost up to his retirement, he treated Charing Cross as his personal fiefdom. When considering the best form of management for the hospital after his retirement, the house committee commented that:

‘While Dr Golding was Resident Director, the unanimous deference of the medical and surgical staff to his works and laws as one of the Founders of Hospital  left in his hands an authority little short of autocracy and … it is not overstating the case to say that Dr Golding exercised practically an absolute sway. The present condition of the Hospital shows how ably and wisely he exercised that power.’

For 44 years Benjamin Golding had been Charing Cross Hospital.