Sheffield St Luke's Hospice built by group of doctors who inspired the city to support them

The shocking statistics that more than half of Sheffield’s cancer victims died at home, many looked after by partners over the age of 70, helped to create support for the idea of a place where terminally ill people could be looked after.

Thursday, 30th September 2021, 6:09 pm

A group of doctors who were concerned at this situation approached city NHS bosses – and the idea of St Luke’s Hospice was born. The hospice on Little Common Lane, Parkhead celebrates its 50th anniversary next month.

Initially St Luke’s was described as a nursing home for the incurably ill and chronically sick – St Luke's was the first hospice built outside London, so many people were unfamiliar with the idea.

However, the people of Sheffield greeted the notion enthusiastically and were keen to help. When Bakewell GP Dr Ernest Wilkes and his colleagues approached the regional hospital board, they supported the idea but said they could not afford the £200,000 capital cost.

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Staff Nurse Julie Readman pictured at St Luke's Hospice after being presented with the Grant Charitable Trust Award by Professor Eric Wilkes in October 2007

They would, however, pay for the care of patients.

Dr Wilkes, who became the medical director at St Luke’s, said: “Busy hospitals, harassed by shortage of staff, just haven’t got the time to control pain of people who are incurable and there is terrific competition for places in geriatric wards.”

He emphasised that St Luke’s would not become “a garage for the dying” and envisaged creating a family atmosphere – what he called “a quiet, cosy family chaos” – where relatives could feel at home, unrestricted by formal visiting hours, and actively help with the care of their loved ones.

Pictured at the Winter Gardens for the launch of a St Luke's Hospice campaign in 2008 are Sir Norman Adsetts, Lady Neil and Eric Wilkes, founder of St Luke's

Somewhere that terminally ill people could be cared for without feeling that they were taking up a hospital bed when nothing more could be done to help them get better.

That vision certainly became popular – British Steel donated the land and the city’s fundraising efforts raised £170,000 in a year. It initially opened with 25 beds and the aim of quickly doubling that capacity.

The Morning Telegraph reported: “Industry, charities, showbusiness stars, local organisations and finally just people – all chipped in.”

Dr Wilkes spoke at Sheffield Trades Council and the entertainment union Equity was inspired to organise a big variety show at the City Hall Oval Hall.

Summing up the early success of St Luke’s in one newspaper article, Eric Wilkes, by then a professor of community care and general practice at Sheffield University, said: “When you go into the home now, you would think it had been running for years. We have a waiting list and there are not often any empty beds.”

He praised the staff working under matron Eileen Mann as first class and said that nurses, medical students and even theology students taking on pastoral care came to learn about their methods.

Even early on, St Luke’s had a team of 200 volunteers, taking on everything from flower arranging to skilled bedside nursing.

Prof Wilkes said: “The unit has apparently been taken to the heart of Sheffield and this accounts for the high number of volunteers, the support we have received in other ways, and for the future which we hope will allow us to be of even greater value.”