Home » Human Life » A Small Star in the East – The Remarkable Story of Nathaniel and Sarah Heckford

A Small Star in the East – The Remarkable Story of Nathaniel and Sarah Heckford



Dr Nathaniel Heckford (I842-71)

Charles Dickens was a great chronicler of London life and towards the end of his life wrote a series of sketches that were published in the book, The Uncommercial Traveller. One of the stories involves Dickens in a quite depressed mood visiting Ratcliff and Stepney, here are a few extracts from the story.

The borders of Ratcliff and Stepney, eastward of London, and giving on the impure river, were the scene of this uncompromising dance of death, upon a drizzling November day. A squalid maze of streets, courts, and alleys of miserable houses let out in single rooms. A wilderness of dirt, rags, and hunger. A mud-desert, chiefly inhabited by a tribe from whom employment has departed, or to whom it comes but fitfully and rarely. They are not skilled mechanics in any wise. They are but labourers,–dock-labourers, water-side labourers, coal-porters, ballast-heavers, such-like hewers of wood and drawers of water.childrens_hospital_from_london_a_pilgrimage_

Women in a children’s hospital by Gustave Doré from London: A Pilgrimage 1872

Dickens visits a number of people in their homes and notices that poverty and lack of work was bringing people to the edge of destitution. However, his journey takes him to Ratcliff where he come across an institution that brightens his mood.

Down by the river’s bank in Ratcliff, I was turning upward by a side-street, therefore, to regain the railway, when my eyes rested on the inscription across the road, ‘East London Children’s Hospital.’ I could scarcely have seen an inscription better suited to my frame of mind; and I went across and went straight in.

I found the children’s hospital established in an old sail-loft or storehouse, of the roughest nature, and on the simplest means. There were trap-doors in the floors, where goods had been hoisted up and down; heavy feet and heavy weights had started every knot in the well-trodden planking: inconvenient bulks and beams and awkward staircases perplexed my passage through the wards. But I found it airy, sweet, and clean. In its seven and thirty beds I saw but little beauty; for starvation in the second or third generation takes a pinched look: but I saw the sufferings both of infancy and childhood tenderly assuaged; I heard the little patients answering to pet playful names, the light touch of a delicate lady laid bare the wasted sticks of arms for me to pity; and the claw-like little hands, as she did so, twined themselves lovingly around her wedding-ring.

A gentleman and lady, a young husband and wife, have bought and fitted up this building for its present noble use, and have quietly settled themselves in it as its medical officers and directors. Both have had considerable practical experience of medicine and surgery; he as house-surgeon of a great London hospital; she as a very earnest student, tested by severe examination, and also as a nurse of the sick poor during the prevalence of cholera.

With every qualification to lure them away, with youth and accomplishments and tastes and habits that can have no response in any breast near them, close begirt by every repulsive circumstance inseparable from such a neighbourhood, there they dwell. They live in the hospital itself, and their rooms are on its first floor.

The dispenser of medicines (attracted to them not by self-interest, but by their own magnetism and that of their cause) sleeps in a recess in the dining-room, and has his washing apparatus in the sideboard. Their contented manner of making the best of the things around them, I found so pleasantly inseparable from their usefulness!


‘Turn him out, Ratcliff.’ Men are packed into the half open door lit by the interior of the home. Illustration from Blanchard Jerrold and Gustave Dore, ‘London, a Pilgrimage’, published in 1872.

When this hospital was first opened, in January of the present year, the people could not possibly conceive but that somebody paid for the services rendered there; and were disposed to claim them as a right, and to find fault if out of temper. They soon came to understand the case better, and have much increased in gratitude.

Insufficient food and unwholesome living are the main causes of disease among these small patients. So nourishment, cleanliness, and ventilation are the main remedies. Discharged patients are looked after, and invited to come and dine now and then; so are certain famishing creatures who were never patients. Both the lady and the gentleman are well acquainted, not only with the histories of the patients and their families, but with the characters and circumstances of great numbers of their neighbours–of these they keep a register.

An affecting play was acted in Paris years ago, called ‘The Children’s Doctor.’ As I parted from my children’s doctor, now in question, I saw in his easy black necktie, in his loose buttoned black frock-coat, in his pensive face, in the flow of his dark hair, in his eyelashes, in the very turn of his moustache, the exact realisation of the Paris artist’s ideal as it was presented on the stage. But no romancer that I know of has had the boldness to prefigure the life and home of this young husband and young wife in the Children’s Hospital in the east of London.

The husband and wife in question were Nathaniel and Sarah Heckford and their largely unknown story is one of sacrifice and commitment to the children of the 19th century East End.

In 1866, Nathaniel Heckford was working as a surgeon and doctor at the London Hospital. When the cholera epidemic developed he volunteered to help a friend, Dr Woodman, who was in charge of the Wapping District Cholera Hospital. It was there he met his future wife, Sarah who was a student of medicine who had gone to the hospital as a volunteer nurse .

In 1867, Sarah was married to Mr Heckford and most people thought that Nathaniel who had won gold medals for surgery and medicine in his student days would begin a career of a consulting surgeon in the West End. However, he believed that he would use his talents in the East End to help to deal with some of the area’s health problems. Both Nathaniel and Sarah decided to start a Children’s Hospital, eventually they found premises in two old warehouses at Ratcliff Cross, close to the river.

Initially the hospital had ten beds for children and was called the ” East London Hospital for Children and Dispensary for Women ” and in January 1868, on the first anniversary of  their wedding day, the hospital was opened.

Demand was high with large numbers of ” in ” and ” out ” patients, the hospital became the first in London to admit children under two years old.

The article by Charles Dickens bought in badly needed funds which enabled the hospital to expand its number of beds and staff. However the success of the hospital was tainted by the realisation that Nathaniel had consumption, with time now limited, plans were developed to hand the hospital over to a committee and provide funds for a new purpose-built hospital . Nathaniel’s health deteriorated and he was ordered abroad to recuperate, the couple realising they were living on borrowed time decided to come back to England to finalise plans for the new hospital. Eventually Nathaniel succumbed to the disease and died in 1871 aged only 29 years of age.


East London Hospital for Children about 1900

Nathaniel may have died but his dream carried on and in the summer of 1875, the foundation stone of the new hospital was laid and in autumn of the following year the new building was finished and the tablet placed in the hall. It said

In Memory of

Nathaniel Heckford, M.D., M.R.C.S.

Born in Calcutta, April, 1842

Died 14th December, 1871

Aged 29

He Founded this Institution

At His Own Cost

In a Warehouse at Ratcliff Cross

January 28, 1868

He Lived For It

And Died

A Few Days After The Site

Of This Building was

Purchased by the

Committee of Management of the


The new hospital in Shadwell was called the East London Hospital for Children The original 180 beds were later in 1881 increased by the addition of a further floor. This voluntary hospital continued to thrive and gradually acquired an international reputation. In 1932 the name was changed to the Princess Elizabeth of York Hospital for Children and later in 1942 this hospital was amalgamated with the Queen’s Hospital, Hackney Road, to form the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children.

lady trader

This is not quite the end of the story, the remarkable Sarah Heckford may have come from a wealthy background and been inconvenienced by some disabilities from  a childhood disease but she still travelled alone to India and Italy, before in 1880 travelling alone by horseback across the Transvaal of South Africa and became an itinerant trader facing considerable dangers which she wrote down about in the her book, A Lady Trader in the Transvaal. In more recent times, her incredible life has been  she has been the subject of other essays and books  including a biography by Vivien Allen.

Although the exploits of the Heckfords have largely been forgotten, in the area near to Ratcliff Cross stairs  is Heckford Street that is named after the couple.

Many thanks to local writer, Alfred Gardner who bought this story to my attention.


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