Drooping Buds was an article describing a visit to the then newly founded Hospital for Sick Children in Great Ormond Street. The work was co-written by Henry Morley and Charles Dickens and first published in Dickens own weekly magazine Household Words on Saturday, 3 April 1852. After publication, Drooping Buds was reprinted as a promotional pamphlet by the hospital.


IN Paris, Berlin, Turin, Frankfort, Brussels, and Munich; in Hamburgh, St. Petersburgh, Moscow, Vienna, Prague, Pesth, Copenhagen, Stuttgard, Grätz, Brünn, Lemberg, and Constantinople; there are hospitals for sick children. There was not one in all England until the other day.

No hospital for sick children! Does the public know what is implied in this? Those little graves two or three feet long, which are so plentiful in our churchyards and our cemeteries—to which, from home, in absence from the pleasures of society, the thoughts of many a young mother sadly wander—does the public know that we dig too many of them? Of this great city of London—which, until a few weeks ago, contained no hospital wherein to treat and study the diseases of children—more than a third of the whole population perishes in infancy and childhood. Twenty-four in a hundred die, during the two first years of life; and, during the next eight years, eleven die out of the remaining seventy-six.

Our children perish out of our homes: not because there is in them an inherent dangerous sickness (except in the few cases where they are born of parents who communicate to children heritable maladies), but because there is, in respect of their tender lives, a want of sanitary discipline and a want of medical knowledge. What should we say of a rose-tree in which one bud out of every three dropped to the soil dead? We should not say that this was natural to roses; neither is it natural to men and women that they should see the glaze of death upon so many of the bright eyes that come to laugh and love among them—or that they should kiss so many little lips grown cold and still. The vice is external. We fail to prevent disease; and, in the case of children, to a much more lamentable extent than is well known, we fail to cure it.

Think of it again. Of all the coffins that are made in London, more than one in every three is made for a little child: a child that has not yet two figures to its age. Although science has advanced, although vaccination has been discovered and brought into general use, although medical knowledge is tenfold greater than it was fifty years ago, we still do not gain more than a diminution of two per cent. in the terrible mortality among our children.

It does not at all follow that the intelligent physician who has learnt how to treat successfully the illnesses of adults, has only to modify his plans a little, to diminish the proportions of his doses, for the application of his knowledge to our little sons and daughters. Some of their diseases are peculiar to themselves; other diseases, common to us all, take a form in children varying as much from their familiar form with us as a child varies from a man. Different as the ways are, or ought to be, by which we reach a fault in a child’s mind, and reach a fault in the mind of an adult; so, not less different, if we would act successfully, should be our action upon ailments of the flesh. There is another thing, also, which puzzles the physician who attends on children. He comes to us when we are ill, and questions us of this symptom and of that; and on our answers he is taught, in very many cases, to base a large part of his opinion. The infant can only wail; the child is silenced by disease; or, when it answers, wants experience, and answers incorrectly. Again, for life or death, all the changes in the sickness of a child are commonly very rapid: so rapid, that a child which suffers under an acute disease should be seen at least every five or six hours by its medical attendant. He knows this quickness of action; he knows how swiftly and how readily the balance may be turned upon which hang life and death. He may have been to Paris or to Vienna, and have studied in “such ” an hospital for children; and, out of his experience, he may know how to restore the child whole to the mother’s bosom. But all English students cannot go abroad for this good knowledge; nor is it fit that they have need to do so. They have need at present. In a rough way, English practitioners of medicine no doubt administer relief to many children; but, that they are compelled to see those perishing continually whom a better knowledge might have saved, none are more ready than themselves—the more skilful the more ready—to admit and to deplore.

The means of studying the diseases of children in London have been confined to one dispensary, and the general hospitals. In these, the hours, the management, and discipline are not readily adapted to the wants of children. It was found, when a committee of the Statistical Society, in 1843, inquired into such matters, that only one in a hundred of the inmates of hospital wards was a child suffering internal disease. Can we wonder, then,—when we call to mind the peculiar characteristics disease in a child, and the sagacity and close observation they demand—can we wonder that the most assiduous students, growing into medical advisers, can in so many cases, do no more than sympathise with the distress of parents, look at a sick child’s tongue, feel its pulse, send powders, and shake their heads with vain regret over the little corpse, around which women weep so bitterly?

The want of a Child’s Hospital in London is supplied. The Hospital for Sick Children, lately established and now open, is situated in Great Ormond Street, Queen Square.

London, like a fine old oak, that has lived through some centuries, has its dead bits in the midst of foliage. When we had provided ourselves with the address of the Child’s Hospital, and found it to be No. 49, Great Ormond Street, Queen Square, we were impressed with a sense of its being very far out of the way. Great Ormond Street belonged to our great-grandfathers; it was a bit of London full of sap a great number of years ago. It is cut off, now, from the life of the town—in London, but not of it—a suburb left between the New Road and High Holborn. We turned out of the rattle of Holborn into King Street, and went up Southampton Row through a short passage which led us into a square, dozing over its own departed greatness. Solitude in a crowd is acknowledged by the poets to be extremely oppressive, and we felt so much scared in Queen Square at finding ourselves all alone there, that we had not enough presence of mind to observe more than space and houses, and (if our vague impression be correct) a pump. Moreover, there were spectral streets, down which the eye was drawn. Great Ormond Street was written on a corner house in one of them. It was the enchanter’s label by which we were bidden forward; so we went into Great Ormond Street—wondering who lived in its large houses, some of them mansions—and looking hazily for No. 49. That was a mansion too: broad, stuccoed front, quite fresh and white; bearing the inscription on its surface, ” Hospital for Sick Children.” A woman with a child in her arms was finding ready admission at the great hall-door. The neat and new appearance of the hospital walls from the outside restored our thoughts to our own day; and we presently resolved, and carried, that the committee had shown great judgment in their selection of a situation—quiet (very quiet), airy, and central.

At the hall-door there was a porter, so new to his work that the name of a surgeon to the Institution was a strange sound in his ears. Crossing a spacious hall, we were ushered into a fine old ancestral parlour, which is now the board-room of the Institution; and there, before a massive antique chimney-piece, we found a young house-surgeon.

Many stiff bows and formal introductions had those old walls seen, when Great Ormond Street was grand, and when frills and farthingales lent state to the great mansion. Many a minuet had been solemnly danced there; many hearts and fans had fluttered, many buckram flirtations had had their little hour; many births, marriages, and deaths, had passed away, in due and undue course, out of the great hall-door into the family vaults—as old-fashioned now, as the family mansion. Many little faces, radiant in the wintry blaze, had looked up in the twilight, wondering at the great old Monument of a chimney-piece, and at the winking shadows peeping down from its recesses. Many, far too many, pretty house-fairies had vanished from before it, and left blank spaces on the hearth, to be filled up nevermore.

O! Baby’s dead, and will be never, never, never, seen among us any more! We fell into a waking dream, and the Spring air seemed to breathe the words. The young house-surgeon melted out of the quaint, quiet, room; in his place, a group of little children gathered about a weeping lady; and the lamentation was familiar to the ancient echoes of the house. Then, there appeared to us a host of little figures, and cried, ” We are Baby. We were Baby here, each of us in its generation, and were welcomed with joy and hope and thankfulness; but no love and no hope, though they were very strong, could keep us, and we went our early way! “—”And we,” said another throng of shades, “were that little child who lived to walk and talk, and to be the favourite, and to influence the whole of this great house and make it very pleasant, until the infection that could not be stopped, was brought here from those poorer houses not far off, and struck us one day while we were at play, and quenched the light of our bright eyes, and changed our prattle into moaning, and killed us in our promise! “—” And I,” said another shadow, “am that girl who, having been a sick child once, grew to be a woman, and to love and to be blessed with love, and then—O at that hardest time!—began to fade, and glided from the arms of my young husband, never to be mine on earth! “—” And I,” said another shadow, ” am the lame mis-shapen boy who read so much by this fireside, and suffered so much pain so patiently, and might have been as active and as straight as you, if any one had understood my malady; but I said to my fond father carrying me in his arms to the bed from which I never rose: ‘ I think, O dear Papa, that it is better I should never be a man, for who could then carry me like this, or who could be so careful of me when you were gone! ‘ ” Then all the shadows said together: ” We belonged to this house, but others like us have belonged to every house, and many such will come here, now, to be relieved, and we will put it in the hearts of mothers and fathers to remember them. Come up, and see!”

We followed, up the spacious stairs into a large and lofty room, airy and gay. It had been the drawing-room of the old house. A reviving touch had passed over its decorations; and the richly-ornamented ceiling, to which little eyes looked up from little beds, was quite a cheerful sight. The walls were painted, in panel, with rosy nymphs and children; and the light laughter of children welcomed our entrance. There was nothing sad here. Light iron cribs, with the beds made in them, were ranged, instead of chairs, against the walls. There were half-a-dozen children—all the patients then contained in the new hospital; but, here and there, a bed was occupied by a sick doll. A large gay ball was rolling on the floor, and toys abounded. From this cheerful place we looked into a second room—the other drawing-room, furnished in a like manner, but as yet unoccupied.

There were five girls and a boy. Five were in bed near the windows; two of these, whose beds were the most distant from each other, confined by painful maladies, were resting on their arms, and busily exporting and importing fun. A third shared the profits merrily, and occasionally speculated in a venture on its own account. The most delightful music in this world, the light laughter of children floated freely through the place. The hospital had begun with one child. What did he think about, or laugh about? Maybe those shadows who had had their infant home in the great house, and had known in those same rooms the needs now sought to be supplied for him, told him stories in his sleep.

One of the little patients followed our movements with its eyes, with a sad, thoughtful, peaceful look; one indulged in a big stare of childish curiosity and wonder. They had toys strewn upon their counterpanes. A sick child is a contradiction of ideas, like a cold summer. But to quench the summer in a child’s heart is, thank God! not easy. If we do not make a frost with wintry discipline, if we will use soft looks and gentle words; though such an hospital be full of sick and ailing bodies, the light, loving spirits of the children will fill its wards with pleasant sounds, contrasting happily with the complainings that abound among our sick adults. Suffer these little ones to come to such a Christian House, and forbid them not! They will not easily forget it. Around the gates of the Child’s Hospital at Frankfort, hangs a crowd of children who have been discharged, lying in wait to pounce with a loving word upon any of those who tended them when sick. They send little petitions in to the hospital authorities to be allowed, as a special favour, to come into the garden again, to play. A child’s heart is soon touched by gentle people; and a Child’s Hospital in London, through which there should pass yearly eight hundred children of the poor, would help to diffuse a kind of health that is not usually got out of apothecaries’ bottles.

We have spoken only of five children; the sixth was not in bed and not at rest. He was a literary character, studiously combining into patterns letters of the alphabet; but he had removed his work so far out of the little world to which he belonged, that he attracted no attention from his neighbours. There are larger children in a greater world who do the like. The solitary child was lonely—not from want of love—its thoughts were at home wandering about its mother; it had not yet learnt to reconcile itself to temporary separation. We seemed to leave the shadows of our day-dream in attendance on it, and to take up our young surgeon again.

Having paid as we were able brief respects to each member of the little company, and having seen the bath-rooms on this floor, we continued our progress upward. Of course there were no more stately drawing-rooms, but all the rooms were spacious, and by modern care had been, moreover, plentifully furnished with the means of ventilation. There were bath-rooms, of course; there were wards cut off from the rest for fever cases. Good thought had been evidently directed to a good purpose everywhere.

Having seen all these things, we came downstairs again, and passing through the surgery—upon whose jars and bottles our eyes detected many names of compounds, palatable to little mouths—we were shown through an excellent consulting-room, into a wide hall, with another of the massive chimney-pieces. This hall is entered from a side street, and is intended for a waiting-room for out-patients. It had always belonged to the brave house in Great Ormond Street, and had been used at one time for assemblies.

What we have said of the few patients admitted at the early period of our visit, will have shown the spirit in which a Child’s Hospital should be conducted. Of course, to such an institution a garden and play-ground for the convalescent is an essential requisite. We inquired, therefore, for the garden in Great Ormond Street. We were shown out through a large door under a lattice, and found a terrace in the old style, descending by steps to a considerable space of ground. The steps were short, suited to little feet; so also in the house, according to the old style, which curiously fits itself to the modern purpose. We found that an air of neatness had been given to that portion of the ground immediately near the house; but the space generally is very ample, and is at present a mere wilderness. The funds of the hospital have only sufficed to authorise the occupation of a building, and the preparation for a great useful work. For means to plant the roses in the garden, and to plant the roses in the cheeks of many children besides those who come under their immediate care, the Hospital Committee has support to find.

So large a piece of garden-ground waiting for flowers, only a quarter of a mile from Holborn, was a curious thing to contemplate. When we looked into the dead house, built for the reception of those children whom skill and care shall fail to save, and heard of the alarm which its erection had excited in the breasts of some ” particular ” old ladies in the neighbourhood, we felt inclined to preach some comfort to them. Be of good heart, particular old ladies! In every street, square, crescent, alley, lane, in this great city, you will find dead children too easily. They lie thick all around you. This little tenement will not hurt you; there will be the fewer dead-houses for it; and the place to which it is attached, may bring a saving health upon Queen Square, a blessing on Great Ormond Street!

Is it too much to hope that in a few years there will not be many students at the Adult Hospitals in London who will fail to contribute animation, by their frequent presence at the Child’s Hospital, to these deserted pavements of a bygone fashion ? Is it too much to believe that the little beds in the great house will never be suffered to remain empty, while there are little shapes of pain and unrest to lie down in them; or that the wilderness in the garden will be taught to bloom with recovered infant health ? Who that knows how sweet a part of home the children are—who that knows how ill our hearts can spare one child to Death, far less the dreadful and reproachful thought of one in three—can doubt the end of this so sorely needed enterprise! Its way to the general sympathy and aid, lies through one of the broadest doors into the general heart; and that heart is a great and tender one, and will receive it.