London’s historic Royal London Hospital building, which has been derelict since 2013 when the hospital moved to a new building, reopened as the new Town Hall in Whitechapel on Tuesday. The Grade II listed building has served as a hospital and medical college for over four centuries and treated the wounded from two world wars, including being a maternity hospital. The new town hall cost the council £9m to buy and required a four-year project to restore, renovate, and extend it. The building will serve as a permanent and more accessible town hall compared to the council’s previous civic center at Mulberry Place in East India Dock, which was difficult for residents to reach and cost the council £5m in rent each year. The entire ground floor of the new town hall is dedicated to public use, with a Residents Hub supporting people with housing and welfare issues, a chamber doubling as an event space, meeting spaces, and a soon-to-open café. Partners include the Clinical Commissioning Group and Tower Hamlets Homes.
The council has also created a multi-use public space in the Grocers Wing extension and is currently looking at potential uses. The new town hall is part of a wider regeneration project in Whitechapel, which is creating a new history in one of the UK’s most historic areas. Last year, the Elizabeth Line opened a station directly opposite the new town hall, and the area is set to benefit from the multi-million-pound Whitechapel Road Improvement Programme. This programme includes the improvement of Whitechapel Market and the creation of the new state-of-the-art Whitechapel Life Sciences Cluster, which will support 5,000 jobs.
Tower Hamlets Council has worked with Historic England to preserve the integrity of the Grade II listed building in its designs and during construction work. The original neo-classical façade and clock overlooking Whitechapel Road have been retained, along with the internal staircases of the hospital and many features of the old chapel. The ceiling lamps and wall-mounted instruments of the old operating theatre have been retained as features in the new chief executive’s office.
The building has a rich history, given the title ‘Royal’ by Queen Elizabeth II in 1990, and the ‘London Hospital’ as it was known for two centuries, was renowned as the home of Joseph Merrick – the subject of the 1979 play and 1980 film the ‘Elephant Man’ – who was treated in the attic of the hospital for four years before his death in 1890. It was also the place where nurse Edith Cavell trained and worked before helping 200 allied soldiers escape German-occupied Belgium in WW1, when she was caught and executed in 1915.
The renovation of the old building was completed by Bouygues UK, which worked on designs by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris to restore, renovate, and repurpose the old building, including removing significant amounts of asbestos. The work employed 403 people and 19 apprentices from Tower Hamlets and surrounding boroughs and over £6m of goods and services from local businesses. The completion of the new town hall means that the council has said goodbye to its Mulberry Place home, which will be handed back.