There was a growing awareness by the rich in the mid eighteenth century of the needs of the poor at times of sickness. In order to treat the poor at such times, charitable dispensaries were opened throughout the country and London. One of the earliest of these was the Surrey Dispensary, opened in Montague Close, near to St Saviour's Church, in 1777. The first paragraph of the prospectus prepared to raise subscriptions reads:

"As the poor constitute an important part of every large community, they justly merit the attention and assistance of the rich, especially in sickness when they are rendered incapable of supporting themselves and their families. Hard, labour, unwholesome food, want of proper clothing, and exposure to the vicissitudes of air and weather, subject them to many disorders unknown to those whose affluence can procure the conveniences of life." (Full text here)

To be seen at the Dispensary, a patient needed a letter of recommendation from a Governor. Everyone who subscribed one guinea a year was entitled to be a Governor and to have one patient on the medical and surgical list, and one mid-wifery patient. The number of patients a Governor could recommend increased in proportion to the money subscribed.


Patients too ill to attend in person at the Dispensary and resided in an area that extended from Westminster Bridge Road to Rotherhithe, between the Circus Road and the River Thames and in Newington Butts, were visited in their own homes by a physician. The 1777 prospectus included rules and regulations concerning the conduct of both physicians and patients. At the end of 1784, the Dispensary moved to premises in Union Street and by 1822 the rules and regulations had become more detailed and extensive. One in particular reads:

"If any patient shall have cause to complain of any neglect or ill-treatment they shall immediately inform the Governor who recommended them on whose representation to the house visitors, or committee, the matter will be investigated. The patients, or those who attend for them, shall behave themselves decently and soberly, strictly conform to such rules as shall be given them, or they will be immediately dismissed, and those who have new letters shall not leave the Dispensary without first seeing the physician or surgeon under whom they are admitted."

There were now attached to the dispensary three physicians, two surgeons, one apothecary and a number of midwives. In the year 1821, the Dispensary saw 4,195 patients, of which 1,398 were seen in their homes and 548 were midwifery cases. Nearly 30 years later, in 1849, reflecting the rising population, the Dispensary saw 5,617 patients, of which 983 were seen at home and 477 were midwifery patients. Surprisingly the number of midwifery patients had decreased.

By 1839, the premises in Union Street had become too small and also the lease, which was held from St Batholomew's Hospital, was due for renewal. At the same time, some land to the rear of the Dispensary had become vacant and the Dispensary started negotiations to acquire this land at the same time as renewing their lease. However, this plan did not go ahead and the the Dispensary moved to Great Dover Street in 1840 where they stayed until 1927 when the Dispensary moved to the corner of Falmouth Road and Trinity Street. This has been a private residence since 1971. The Surrey Dispensary still exists as a small charity that awards grants to residents of North Southwark who are in need through sickness.

To meet the needs of a growing population, the South London Dispensaryopened in 1821 at 1 Lambeth Road. Speaking at an Anniversary Dinner over 20 years later, the president at that time, William Denison, recalled that when the charity was first established, it was located in a rented house that was "inconveniently small." Nevertheless, during the first month the Dispensary saw 122 patients. 20 years later the number had increased to about 5,000 per annum and a new building was erected opposite Bethlem Hospital. The Duke of Cambridge lay the foundation stone and Queen Victoria was also a patron of what had now become the Royal South London Dispensary. Annual fund-raising dinners were held and anniversary sermons were preached to bring in donations but nearly one hundred years after its foundation, in common with many charitable institutions in the First World War, the Dispensary was forced to close in 1917 for lack of financial support.

London Metroplitan Archives: Minutes of the Surrey Dispensary A/SD/3/001, A/SD/3/007
British Library:
A Plan of the Surry Dispensary in Montague Close near St Saviour's Church for the Relief of the Poor Inhabitants of the Borough of Southwark and places adjacent at their own Habitations (1777)
Rules, orders and regulations of the Surry dispensary in Union Street, Southwark for attending lying-in women, and administering advice and medicines to the Poor Inhabitants of the Borough of Southwark, and places adjacent at the Dispensary or at their own Habitations (1822)

A Highmore,Philanthropia metroplitana; A view of the Charitable Institutions established in and near London(1822)
(Google Books)
Ida Darlington (ed), Survey of London, Vol 25,(1955), Accessed from British History Online (www.british-history.ac.uk) 21.08.2011
Trinity Church Square: Conservation Area Appraisal, London Borough of Southwark

The Standard: June 8, 1843
The Morning Post: May 22, 1844