Our founder was a young surgeon, William Marsden, who found a girl dying on the steps of a St Andrew’s Church in Holborn. He tried in vain to find a hospital to help her and she died. Shocked at the situation facing poor, sick people, he gathered around him a group of philanthropists and opened a dispensary in Hatton Garden which later became the Royal Free Hospital.
One of the reasons the dying girl had been refused admission to a hospital was that she didn’t have a subscriber’s letter. It didn’t help that she was also a prostitute.
These letters gave the holder the right to be admitted to the wards of the hospital, which relied entirely on charitable donations. The letters were given only to those who donated to the hospital, the number of letters given in proportion to the size of the donation. The donors were free to give them to people who asked for her help such as their servants or friends.
Although this was an effective way to raise money, the system was inflexible and resulted in many cases of hardship and misery for those who couldn’t get hold of a letter, like the girl who Marsden found.
He was determined to change this and determined that for his hospital: “No letters of recommendation are required. Poverty and sickness are the only passports.”
William Marsden later founded the Royal Marsden Hospital, dedicated to the care of patients with cancer following the death of his wife from the disease.
More on the background to nearly 200 years of the Royal Free Hospital can be found in “An Illustrated History of the Royal Free Hospital” by Lynne A. Amidon, published by the special trustees for the Royal Free Hospital in 1996.