Lauren Romano uncovers the turbulent history of The Doll’s Hospital, a half-way house for convalescing dolls, which bestowed joy to the many children whose play things it nursed and became the unlikely spoil of a notorious serial killer.
A sanatorium for the on-their-last-legs dolls of the decades gone by, The Doll’s Hospital at 16 Dawes Road was a bastion of the make do and mend sensibility that existed in the beginning half of the last century. The premises were first listed as a toy shop with toy dealer Albert. E. Wickes at the helm way back when, in the Kelly’s Directory of 1937. Inside, the cornucopia of spare parts, a sort of eccentric mad-cap Geppetto’s workshop filled to the rafters awaited, one where benches were strewn hodgepodge with replacement limbs and piercing glass eyes.
The Doll’s Hospital and its patient craftsmen who beavered away to turn out near carbon copies of precious playthings, became a beacon for children both in Fulham and further afield who appeared in their droves, clutching beloved and bedraggled dollies in need of urgent attention.
So widespread was the appeal of the doll-mending emporium that news of its existence spanned the globe. The Illustrated Sydney News reported:
One of the most curious of the many curious institutions in London is The Doll’s Hospital […] Patients are admitted for broken heads, or fractured limbs, loss of hair, eyes, nose, teeth, fingers, hands, toes, and wasting away of the body. Operations take place every day between 9am and 8pm. The same doll may be brought to the hospital over and over again for a broken head, arm, or leg. But the little nurse never leaves her without many kisses and a promise from the attendant to be very good to her.
“How many patients have you in the hospital today?’ asked a visitor of an attendant the other day.” Not more than twenty-five; but come and see them […] There’s a family of four over there. The mother has a broken head, and her soldier son has lost his head and one arm. The two girls are a good deal battered. One looks as if she were going bald. This doll has lost one eye and the tip of her nose; but it can easily be mended, because she has a waxen face. Here’s a doll with a gash down one side of her face; and it’s so deep that I am afraid she will be obliged to have a new head.
There was a brief blip in the hospital’s wholesome heyday however. In 1948, it was unexpectedly embroiled in one of Fulham’s most shocking crime investigations.
In February of that year, the shop’s owners, Dr Archibald Henderson and his wife Rose vanished without trace.
It later emerged they had been the victims of the acid bath murderer, John George Haigh, a notorious serial-killer who dissolved his victim’s bodies in barrels of concentrated sulphuric acid. Haigh lured Dr Henderson to a workshop in Crawley and shot him in the head with a revolver he had stolen from the doctor’s house. Rose also walked into the trap and was shot too, her body left to decompose alongside her husband’s in an acid-filled drum.
The Fulham Chronicle of 1949 reported that Haigh forged deeds of transfer and sold all of Henderson’s possessions for £8,000, including the illustrious business, which passed into the hands of one Albert Clarke.
Under Clarke’s ownership, the shop managed to recover from the taint of the gruesome tragedy and formed a constant backdrop for many Fulham residents growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, who speak fondly of its stasis amid the evolving ebb and flow of the area.
In her memoirs, ‘Baggage: My Childhood’ former Fulhamite Janet Street- Porter describes the locale thus: ‘Fulham was the epicentre of my entire world. I knew all the streets, the shops, the parks, the local gangs. We played rounder’s on Parsons Green, tennis in Hurlingham Park, walked across Eel Brook Common to Fulham Broadway and through South Park to the River Thames […] I’d learned to swim in Fulham Baths and had the only dolly I’d ever owned mended at the Doll’s Hospital off Fulham Broadway.’
Fulham was the epicentre of my whole world – Janet Street-Porter
Others too recall the shop as ‘a familiar and friendly’ presence, ‘one of the many simple, seemingly unimportant and small constants that live long in the memory of children.’ It’s demise was sorely lamented: ‘The non-descript bar that replaced the Doll’s Hospital was not ‘World Famous’. The Doll’s Hospital was ‘World Famous’. It had those very words written on the sign above its shop front and people would send their dolls from all corners of the globe to be mended, primped and restored there. And I walked past it every day, waving at the two old gentlemen who sat inside, behind their workbenches, lovingly returning pink plastic to former glories.’
In more recent times, the business was run by Clarke’s son-in-law, John Smith until it shut up shop for good in 1987. The legacy of The Doll’s Hospital has proved rather more enduring however, charmingly imbued with the pleasant glow of rose-tinted spectacles. Spare a thought for all the dolls since who have long languished into a state beyond salvage, or those even older relics, a token from the playtimes of grandparents, which stay wrapped up in tissue and stashed in cardboard boxes, preserved in lofts under a blanket of dust.