Worshipful Company of Cordwainers

William Marsden, Doctor and Cordwainer

Posted by: JHM Date: 07 Feb 2017

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the death of William Marsden MD, Cordwainer, and more famously, founder of two great London hospitals.

Marsden founded the Royal Free Hospital and the Royal Marsden in Chelsea, both as a direct result of his personal experiences.

Born in Sheffield in 1796, Marsden moved to London in 1816. He had been apprenticed to a pharmacist in Sheffield, and defied his father’s wishes to take up a partnership by moving to London where he trained as a physician. History does not relate exactly how and why he became a Cordwainer, but in the early years of the 19th century the City livery companies seem to have been more useful for networking rather than regulating their respective trades and crafts.  The industrial revolution in the 18th century transformed production and livery companies lost much of their regulatory control.

In London Marsden began to work for Mr Dale, a surgeon practitioner in Holborn, and when he joined the Cordwainers in 1820, it was alongside Dale’s nephew and heir, Edmund. Both men became free of the Company by redemption. During the 1820s Marsden concentrated on his medical career, qualifying as a surgeon in 1827.

Marsden detail

From the Cordwainer Freedom Records

Just two months later, he encountered the poor woman whose illness and poverty on the streets of London inspired him to found what became the Royal Free Hospital. Marsden’s story is an extraordinary one: despite his youth and comparative inexperience, he harnessed the power of the City, no doubt enlisting a few contacts from the Cordwainers, to found a free hospital which would treat anyone, irrespective of their ability to pay.

For those of us accustomed to the free service of the much-maligned NHS, it is difficult to imagine just how revolutionary Marsden’s new hospital seemed. The ‘Institution for the Gratuitous Cure of Malignant Diseases’ opened for business on Greville Street, Hatton Garden on 28 February 1828, and became known as the Free Hospital.

Portrait of William Marsden, painted in 1949 when he was Master of the Cordwainers (Courtesy Royal Free Hospital Archives)

Portrait of William Marsden, painted in 1849 when he was Master of the Cordwainers
(Courtesy Royal Free Hospital Archives)

The Free Hospital lurched from crisis to crisis, but it acquired royal patronage in 1837 and expanded into new premises on Grays Inn Road in 1843. In 1851, following the death of his wife from cancer, Marsden repeated the whole experience. ‘Now gentlemen, I want to found a hospital for the treatment of cancer, and for the study of the disease, for at the present time we know absolutely nothing about it.’

Like the Royal Free, the Marsden (then known as the Free Cancer Hospital) could treat only out-patients when it first opened in 1851, but just over a year later patients were admitted to small new premises in West Brompton.

Marsden was a visionary who devoted his life to the service of medicine, and was followed in his work by his son Alexander Marsden. Both men were Masters of the Cordwainers, in 1849 and 1898 respectively. This year the Cordwainers are proud to honour his memory by raising funds for the tremendous work that the Royal Marsden hospital carries out to this day.