Royal Hospital for Sick Children History

Through the 1850s fever raged in the stinking closes of Edinburgh’s city centre. Many people lived in poverty without sanitation or piped water and with practically no access to medical attention for their infants when they fell ill. Across the city the average death rate of children under five years of age was one in 13.

14 February 1859      The campaign is launched

Dr John Smith, a surgeon at the Royal Infirmary, passionately raised the importance of a hospital for sick children in Edinburgh and persuaded The Scotsman to publish a letter opening the debate:

No colours are too strong to paint the sufferings of young children amongst the lowest and poorest classes of the population, when afflicted with disease. The complainings – the whisperings of distress lisped out by those unfortunate little creatures are too feeble to attract attention..... When starvation, helplessness and neglect – nay, perhaps brutality – are added to bodily illness, the picture may become a painful one, but it is one to which we must not shut our eyes; if we do – if communities know such miseries to exist and provide no redress, no means of their alleviation – it becomes something more serious than a mere omission.

Extract from Dr Smith’s letter published on 14 February 1859.

5 May 1859     First public meeting to establish the Hospital Board

A public meeting chaired by the Rev Dr James Hudson, Rector of The Edinburgh Academy agreed that a hospital for the relief of sick children be established forthwith. It was also agreed that the hospital would become a training school for medical students and nurses – an innovative and controversial decision at a time when paediatric medicine was still regarded as an extension of the obstetric and gynecology specialities.

15 February 1860      Edinburgh Hospital for Sick Children opens

A large building at 7 Lauriston Lane was selected and with a few adaptations was swiftly transformed into a hospital comprising 12 inpatient beds, a dispensary, an outpatient consulting room, eight convalescent beds and limited accommodation for nursing and medical staff. Just five months after the lease was signed, on February 15 1860, with no special ceremony, the doors opened.

21 January 1861        Directors reported on their success

154 children of ages 1 year to 12 years admitted and treated, of whom 140 have been cured and restored to their parents and friends. In the dispensary attached to the hospital 985 children have during the same short period, received medicine – and when necessary they have been visited at their parents dwellings and a truly great amount of disease and suffering has thus also been relieved.

However they also reported:
The Directors have been compelled to refuse admission to many poor languishing and dying children because at the time of application the house was full, or because they could not venture to admit fever patients in its then crowded state.

They asked:
Shall not these suffering little ones be turned away from the door, to be taken back to darkness, cold, hunger, pain and death in their wretched dwellings where so many are to be found?

So, barely two years after Dr Smith’s letter to The Scotsman, and less than a year since the first hospital opened, an appeal for a £5,000 building fund was launched so that the now essential children’s hospital could be housed in befitting premises.

18 May 1863   Hospital achieves Royal status

Three years after the first hospital opened, services moved to a new customer-built hospital, Meadowside House. The new hospital was described as ‘commodious and well ventilated’ providing five wards and space for 48 inpatients. The hard work of Directors and staff was recognised when Queen Victoria bestowed her patronage - the first children’s hospital in the UK to receive the honour.

1 November 1887      First surgical ward opens under Dr Joseph Bell

Dr Joseph Bell, President of the Royal College of Surgeons and part of a dynasty of surgeons, was appointed as the first Ordinary Surgeon at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in May 1887. The dedicated children’s surgical ward opened its doors six months later.

2 December 1890      Transfer to Plewlands House

During a major outbreak of typhoid in 1890 many children were admitted to the hospital with advanced symptoms. After the sad death of a nurse there were concerns that the hospital was infected and no longer clean. The temporary closure was agreed and all patients, staff and equipment was moved to Plewlands House – the former Morningside college. Meadowside House was thoroughly inspected and cleaned but the report concluded that the building was simply inadequate for the needs of the patients and staff, so once again the Directors sought to find a new larger hospital.


31 October 1895        RHSC opens at Sciennes

Eminent Edinburgh architect George Washington Browne designed a new building. Lady Jane Dundas made the exceptionally generous donation of £6500 to build and furnish one wing of the new Hospital, naming it the Lady Caroline Charteris Memorial Wing, after her sister. Colonel W. Lorimer Bathgate, one of the Directors who had benevolently ensured that all the little inmates of the Hospital were provided with Christmas treats every year, endowed enough to fund the “Bathgate Ward” in memory of his sister Thomasine, and another Director left enough to fund a ward which was named the “Mackay Smith Ward” after him.

On 31 October 1895 Princess Beatrice graciously performed the opening ceremony on behalf of her mother, Queen Victoria, the Hospital’s Patron. At the short ceremony, Mr Hall Blyth, the Chairman of the Directors, spoke about the history of the Royal Hospital for Sick Children services in Edinburgh, explaining that up to this date over 180,000 sick children had received treatment. He proudly stated
“The building which Her Royal Highness is about to declare open is one of the most perfect hospitals in the United Kingdom.”

1895 to 2010

The hospital continued to expand and to lead the way in many aspects of paediatric medicine. During the war years women were welcomed onto the medical team and the staff coped with reduced supplies and evacuation.

The various additions, although essential to the continued development of services, made the Hospital a patchwork of add-on buildings as the Directors purchased houses in Rillbank Terrace and Millerfield Place.

By the mid 1980s the hospital was again in need of more space and a successful appeal raised the funds to build a new wing. The three floor extension was formally opened in June 1995 and the vacated wards created a new Paediatric Intensive Care unit.
Today, the hospital cares for over 100,000 children and young people a year from across Lothian and beyond. It provides a comprehensive range of dedicated children's services, including accident and emergency, acute medical and surgical care, specialist surgical and medical care, haematology and oncology, day care, and critical care. 

The future

The decision to pursue the construction of a new children’s hospital was made by the NHS Lothian Board in 2005.

This was based on the recognition that the present Hospital requires significant modernisation in order to continue to be a first class environment for the delivery of high quality care for children and young people.

The new facility will be a joint build with the Department of Clinical Neurosciences and is due to open in 2017. It will be truly fit for the 21st century. The site at Little France will ensure that children and young people benefit from closer collaboration between paediatric specialists and their adult service counterparts working in the Royal Infirmary. Children, young people, families and staff have all been actively involved in the design process.​​

Last Reviewed: 25/07/2012