Why It Matters: National Temperance Hospital, Hampstead Road

From the top deck of any bus going along Hampstead Road you can see, if you look carefully, the word …

From the top deck of any bus going along Hampstead Road you can see, if you look carefully, the word ‘temperance’ spelt out in the window panes of a disused building. Look a little closer, past the dirt and neglect, and you’ll see the building is a bit special, with turreted towers, elegant iron balconies and an impressive footprint which curls round onto Cardington Street. I’d often wondered what exactly went on there – and so I decided to find out.

For over a century the building was a rather unusual hospital, one that refused to use alcohol in the treatment of patients. The London Temperance Hospital (later, in 1939, the National Temperance Hospital) opened in 1873 in Gower Street. It moved to Hampstead Road in 1885 (you can still see the foundation stone), where the use of alcohol was prohibited – except in the most extreme circumstances.

Alcohol? In hospital? Yes, in the 19th century booze was widely believed to have medicinal qualities. The sick — and, alarmingly, staff — were often given alcohol, usually to treat a host of complaints including weakness, delirium and respiratory diseases (with a terrifying blistering technique). The temperance movement encouraged abstinence, thinking alcohol responsible for many of society’s ills. They were also dubious about the restorative qualities of the booze, hoping to save money and improve staff efficiency by running a hospital based on their beliefs. According to one advert, the Temperance Hospital saved over £80,000 a year by staying sober.

Article continues below advertisement

In the early days, among other things, it had beds for cholera victims. When it shut, in 1990, it had a unit for the treatment of torture victims. In between it was a home to a host of different areas of medicine, from dentistry to casualty. This was an important part of the community, employing and treating many locals.

Since the hospital packed up though, the building has stood empty and has fallen into disrepair. Various ‘explorers’ have snuck inside to have a look around, and found a sad sight. The windows are cracked, smashed up by vandals. The basement is sodden, flooded by a gushing water main, and filled with noxious fumes. Only a few of the Victorian features remain and the paint is flaking off the walls in great chunks. There is little left inside, but the elegance of the building isn’t lost. Long, windowed walkways give onto balconies and panelled rooms. Light floods in, and the square round the back is a haven, tangled in green overgrowth.

But what next for this intriguing building? In 2006 the Medical Research Council bought the site for £28 million, hoping to move its headquarters there. However, it has since changed its mind, looking instead for a bigger building behind King’s Cross. Most recently it is thought that the government will buy the temperance hospital and develop it to re-house those residents displaced by HS2 when it ploughs through Somers Town on its way out of Euston.

Nothing is likely to happen for a long time; the future of HS2 even lies in some doubt. But, if the government do get their hands on the old hospital, I hope the building will be restored to some, if not all, of its former glory, both architecturally and in terms of its role in the community.

It’s a special building and an important part of local history – and that’s why it matters.

Words & Photos: Georgia Grimond

Why It Matters comes in association with Discount Insurance


  • Show Comments

  • Sarah

    It’s Regent’s Park residents that will be displaced, not Somers Town.
    I’m inclined to think the building can’t be saved. At the moment it is a blot on the landscape and brings the whole area down. It has stood like that for so long now with nothing happening… we need more housing here, sustainable, modern and comfortable. I’m not sure that can happen with a conversion of that building. It has some beautiful features but at ground level it’s ugly and a magnet for anti-social behaviour – drug addicts, alcoholics and so forth – and is getting progressively more and more boarded up.

    I heard it had been bought by a developer, and I know an enquiry to use the grounds for a meanwhile project went nowhere – which is a shame because I’m sure it will turn out nothing will happen there for another few years.

  • H. Bauer

    Does anyone know who the old Temperance Hospital actually belongs to now? I’ve seen it sadly deteriorating from the bus for years and keep wondering. HB.

  • Nick

    It was actually in use up until 2002 by UCL using it for admin and storage purposes, it was then sold off and the neglect got even worse. There are spacious rooms inside and one room had been done up to accomodate an office. I would not recommend anybody access the building and certainly not access the balconies as they are most likely unsafe due to the disrepair.

    It would be great to reopen it as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre, little is being done in this country to treat alcoholics and only now is the NHS agreeing that alcoholism is a disease.

    So in a way my suggestion is to reopen it as a temperance treatment place. Camden is plagued with such problems and would be ideal to offer help to individuals where needed.

  • Susan

    I had my first job as a staff nurse at the National Temperance Hospital from 1984 – 1985. I was newly qualified having trained in a brand new teaching hospital in Newcastle. The building seemed old and austere, and along with the very antiquated uniform we wore complete with apron, it felt like going back to Victorian times.
    However, it was a very interesting place to work. We had patients with TB and recovering patients with neurological disease. Bizarrely we treated many gentlemen of the street for TB who came and went freely and would bring their carrier bags of booze back into the hospital I particularly remember the antiquated lift system which squeaked and rattle its way to the 4 floors, and I also spent many peaceful breaks enjoying the garden in the quadrangle.
    I hope it will again be valued as a building within the community.