Celebrating St Oswald’s Hospice, architect and designer, Jane Darbyshire, this International Women’s Day

To mark International Women’s Day and to celebrate women’s achievements, we’d like to introduce you to a woman who was instrumental in making St Oswald’s Hospice a reality for our whole community.

Jane Darbyshire OBE, designed the original architectural plans for St Oswald’s Hospice over 43 years ago. Working closely with Dorothy Jameson, our Founder, and co-founder Cyril Winskell, Jane felt strongly that she wanted to design an environment that would feel ‘like a home – not a hospital’ for our patients and their families.

Now retired, we caught up with Jane to talk about her experience as a young woman in a fairly male dominated field at the time and how she approached the design of the Hospice.

Jane said:

“Shortly after setting up practice in 1979, we won an Architectural Competition to design St Oswald’s Hospice. I was delighted! I was the only woman involved in the process. I felt very proud.

“To help me understand what surroundings mattered most to hospice patients and their families, I visited St Christopher’s Hospice in London. One of the things that struck me most was the amount of nature and green space around. I compared it to a hospital building and I knew I wanted St Oswald’s Hospice to reflect this.”

Jane explained that her sister died in a hospital and this made her realise the difference and just how important hospice care is. Jane explained:

“I lost my sister at the age of 45 due to cancer. I felt as though the treatment and the attitude she received from the team in hospital was almost as though they’d given up hope – they didn’t think to focus on the time she had left with us.

“This was so different to what I’d seen at St Christopher’s. One patient who left a lasting impression on me was an 18-year-old man who had undergone multiple brain surgeries. The staff rallied together and got him an array of silly hats to wear that covered the scars on his head.

“I thought that was brilliant – everyone was laughing. That’s when I thought the design has to reflect the joy and happiness that takes place in a hospice.”

Jane, Dorothy, Cyril and the other Trustees worked together to hold focus groups about the design.

“I worked closely with the Trustees to develop the feel of the Hospice in great detail. We held focus groups with people who would be involved in the building and the common theme that ran throughout those groups was, ‘don’t make it look or feel like a hospital’.

“In our design meetings, I made sure all of our suppliers knew this, so that we created a homely, rather than institutional, feel and to make patients and their families feel like it was their own home. We made sure that patients could overlook the garden area from their room and could even be taken outside in their beds to enjoy warm days.

“There were similar pressures that applied as there would be with any clinical setting. We had to make sure the walls and doors were protected from trollies, so we installed big skirting boards with panelled ash wood to make it feel more comfortable.”

To make sure that not only the design but the interiors were different from that of a hospital, Jane enlisted the help of an art student to design and create the St Oswald sculpture that now sits outside of the main building. Jane also worked alongside artists to design glass and furniture and in choosing artworks, including tapestries for the dining room, to make a bright and lively space for those that used it.

Talking about her relationship with Dorothy, Cyril and the other Trustees, Jane said:

“It was truly inspiring to work alongside Cyril and the other Trustees. However, it is International Women’s Day, so I feel I must pay special homage to Dorothy, who in my eyes was a saint. Dorothy believed every second of the way we could accomplish our goal and get the Hospice up and running. And here we are – in 2023 and still going strong!”

St Oswald’s Hospice won the ‘RIBA Building of the Year’ in 1987. Jane was also awarded an OBE in 1994 for ‘services to architecture’ largely due to her hospice work not only at St Oswald’s Hospice – but others that followed later.

We’d like to say a big thank you to Jane for her vision and helping us to create such a special place for our patients and their families.


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