Back to the Future – Reflections on an oral history of St Christopher’s Hospice – Part I

Categories: Care and People & Places.

ehospice is excited to share, over the coming months, the remarkable “story of St Christopher’s as those involved remember it – its ambitions and the richness of its history, then remind people of the importance of it as they plan the future.”

These sentiments, issued to the Board of Trustees of St Christopher’s hospice in 2018 in a bid for support, were the start of a journey of learning described in the publication ‘Back to the Future’ – republished here in instalments.


Background Information:

This aspiration was provoked by Dr Mary Baines who had been to see Heather Richardson and Shaun O’Leary, then Joint Chief Executives of St Christopher’s, fearful that the history of the organisation might be forgotten as early pioneers involved in the hospice started to die.

Her conversation and the strength of her feelings were the impetus for an illuminating project focused on generating an oral history of St Christopher’s, drawn together in the course of 2019-21 with the generous support of the Heritage Fund.

The decision of the organisation to work on the history of St Christopher’s was a surprise to some. Wasn’t enough already written about the work of Cicely Saunders and her vision for the hospice? Didn’t the world already know all it needed on the heritage of St Christopher’s as the founder hospice of the modern hospice movement?

As a number of us within St Christopher’s pondered these questions, we realised that whilst much was known about Cicely Saunder’s life and work, far less was recorded regarding the work and achievements of the many people around her, who helped bring her vision to life in the form of St Christopher’s and have continued to develop it over the course of the last 60 years.

As importantly it also become clear that reflecting on the history of the hospice and its work could potentially be helpful in shaping future strategy for St Christopher’s and other entities with similar ambitions.

These aims have formed the basis of the questions asked of participants, the work of the steering group, the shape of curated visits to the exhibition space and discussions with visitors.

The result is a rich repository of stories and reflections, photographs and artifacts that can inform personal and professional thinking, organisational development, policy change and more.


One output of the project is an exhibition through which key themes drawn from the oral histories are portrayed. The Voices that Shaped Us: Modern Hospice in the Making is available virtually at The full archive of interviews, photographs and some artifacts are available via St Christopher’s and the Cicely Saunders Archive at Kings College London.

In the meantime, this brief publication highlights some of the content of the exhibition to encourage further engagement with the more extensive archive.

It comprises personal reflections of some of the exhibition’s most striking elements in the eyes of the authors, designed to give readers a flavour of some of its content, and to encourage them to find out more.

Our overwhelming reflection is that the history is as rich and informative as Mary Baines promised and we recommend its detail to anyone interested to learn the history of St Christopher’s, the growth and development of the wider hospice sector, or simply how an organisation grows and learns over time to prepare for an ever-changing future.


Topics explored with participants:

  • Tell us about yourself
  • Tell us about what you first knew of St Christopher’s
  • Tell us what you remember of its history on which you place high value
  • On reflection and in retrospect, what did the hospice do particularly well?
  • Where did it fail?

Who participated:

A total of 77 interviews were undertaken with current and previous employees, current and previous volunteers, supporters, bereaved carers and patients.



St Christopher’s and the Heritage Fund are to be commended for undertaking and supporting this history.

It celebrates the innovation and the sustainability of the organisation. But it also contains important messages about the wider value of good end of life care, and the social capital created from the contribution of volunteers and the strength of organisations rooted in their local communities.

Many studies about hospice care rightly focus on Dame Cicely Saunders and her vision of creating effective pain control. As is well understood at St Christopher’s and at other hospices, most people who are dying also have other concerns or needs uppermost in their mind, around their families or fractured relationships, or finances, or their possessions – or what will happen to their pets.

As I hope readers will agree, an oral history has proved particularly effective in capturing these wider social and emotional aspects of good end of life care.

The result is a goldmine of information about life at St Christopher’s, and the contribution over the years of the different groups of staff and, importantly, of the many volunteers in delivering care and support, in producing art and entertainment, and in undertaking fundraising and community awareness.

The oral history approach has encouraged people to describe not just what they did, but also how they felt. The pride of many, staff and volunteers,
is evident from the interviews, but so, at times, is an acknowledgement of mistakes or missed opportunities.

I am sure that St Christopher’s will not now see this project as ‘job done’. The output needs to be built into the work of the education and other departments and made accessible more widely to scholars and policy makers.

Some hospices have already developed their own oral histories. I hope that this study will encourage others to undertake their own projects, and so build a truly comprehensive picture of hospice care.

St Christopher’s serves a very diverse and changing part of London, with many increasingly well-rooted faith communities with their own approaches to death and dying. Reflection on its history can provide pointers on how the hospice might respond. And in time, an update of the history can hopefully celebrate the contribution of new cohorts of staff and volunteers drawn from this changing local population.

Michael Kerin

Steering Group member
Invited as local resident, historian, former leader in hospice care and the NHS


Anyone with a stake in improving the experience of end of life is unlikely to dispute that we live and work in extraordinary times.

There is strong evidence of growing demands for care, a broad range of emerging needs, changing preferences on the part of those who seek help and lack of resource within systems of health and social care to respond.

Simultaneously we recognise and seek to respond to unacceptable inequities in care available to people who are dying or grieving which have been further highlighted and reinforced in the course of and following the recent pandemic.

It would be easy to feel quite overwhelmed by this situation, but a review of the history of St Christopher’s in the course of the last 60 years suggests that neither the magnitude of the challenge or the enormity of the response is unprecedented.

Rather, there is much from our history on which we can reflect, learn from and build. So much of what we need to tackle now has been attended to previously in some form.

For this reason, the story of St Christopher’s over the years offers renewed direction, courage and confidence to all who work towards an enduring vision of a world in which all dying people and those close to them have access to the care that they need wherever and whenever they need it.

Our reflections at the end confirm that whilst approaches to hospice care may have shifted in the course of the last half century there are many enduring themes.

The highlights of the oral history that we describe in this publication encourage a positive and proactive response to today and tomorrow’s challenges, to the benefit of people who face the end of life. We commend this publication to you in the hope that it will encourage you to explore the detail of the history of St Christopher’s and key learnings from the last 60 or so years.


Professor Heather Richardson, Director of Education, Research & Policy, St Christopher’s Hospice

Rev. Dr Andrew Goodhead, Lead for Spiritual Care & Quality, St Christopher’s Hospice



Next week in Part 2 of St Christopher’s Oral History – ‘Preparing to be Radical’





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