Historian Catherine Pitt explores St John’s Foundation, one of the UK’s oldest almshouse charities, and discovers a medieval site that has always had charitable work at its heart

St John’s Foundation is hidden but in plain sight. You may never have noticed the small iron gateway behind the Cross Bath in Bath’s city centre that’s open during daylight hours, or perhaps you’ve never stepped through, but if you did you would find yourself stepping back in time and into the courtyard of a charity that has existed in our city for 845 years.

Founded in 1174 by the 4th Bishop of Bath, Reginald Fitz Jocelyn (d.1191), St John’s (previously known as St John’s Hospital) was created for the benefit of the poor and sick of the city. With no government welfare available if people were incapacitated by sickness or old age, poverty was never far behind.

Setting up alms

The word ‘hospital’ comes from the Latin hospitalis, meaning relating to guests. Early hospitals offered shelter and sustenance to travellers and pilgrims, and a chapel was also built to meet spiritual needs. At first medical care wasn’t offered at St John’s, but as increasing numbers of the elderly residents needed care, infirmaries were created.

St Peter’s Priory (now Bath Abbey) oversaw the day-to-day running of St John’s. A master oversaw the administration and care, a reader took services, plus there was a washerwoman from the local community. Funding came from the church in the form of tithes, land and gifts and donations. From the 12th to the 16th centuries St John’s received two sheaves of corn per annum (later five shillings), a tithe of bread and salted meat, dead wood from the parks and woods owned by the monastery for firewood, pasture rights on Lansdown, and an annual payment of four silver marks (around £2,000 today). Local benefactors also provided donations and legacies. Bequests such as that from Richard of Combe and his wife Alice stipulated that in return for their land near Frome, the incumbents of St John’s would pray for their souls.

Bath had its fair share of travellers, as well as the poor and sick. People visited the city to use the healing waters, while others stopped on their way to the pilgrimage sites at Glastonbury and Canterbury. Travellers’ needs were met in Bath through other almshouses that opened, such as St Catherine’s (c.1444) and Bellott’s Hospital (c.1609). An even earlier hospital in Holloway, St Mary Magdalene (founded between 1088 and 1100) was specifically for the care of lepers. These were over time amalgamated into St John’s estate.

St John’s originally provided shelter for no more than 15 poor local men and women. The St John’s of today however, has five almshouses (four at their city centre site and one at Combe Park) divided into apartments and housing 98 residents. The charity also manages 60 commercial and residential properties and it is the income generated from these properties which enables St John’s to carry out its extensive charitable work.

St John’s changing history

The medieval site of St John’s has long since vanished after centuries of rebuilding. What stands today was begun in 1716 by William Killigrew and completed by John Wood the Elder around 1727. We know from extant medieval hospitals that St John’s probably began as an open hall with beds divided by screens (and by sex), with a chapel at the east end. Residents were expected to attend chapel twice a day. Today the chapel is known as
St Michaels’ Within, after a church that once stood on St John’s land near to where the Little Theatre Cinema is today, and with whom it shared a cemetery. During the chapel’s re-building in the 18th century it was discovered that it remains in the footprint of the 12th-century hospital chapel.

Medieval inhabitants of St John’s adhered to a strict set of rules on entry. Not only did they have to display piety, but impeccable behaviour, with no drinking or cursing allowed. Sarah Dill, who in the 17th century was removed from St Catherine’s Almshouse on Bilbury Lane for swearing, scolding and begging, would most certainly not have been admitted to St John’s. In return the residents were paid 4s 2d per week, given food, shelter, and provided with a blue smock. It is the colour of this ‘uniform’ that led to the moniker of ‘Blue Alms’ in relation to St John’s occupants.

The hospital was located, as it still is, between two of the thermal baths, which residents could (and still can) access. This eased the aches and pains of the sick and elderly in a time when doctors were not provided and treatment was limited.

When the renaissance of the spa took place in the 18th century, St John’s was perfectly placed, owning lots of land and property around the Cross Bath and Hot Baths. Revenue on its properties increased but it is not known if the residents’ conditions improved – although for the master and officials at that time it did.

St John's Hospital

When the monasteries were dissolved in the 16th century around half of all church and monastic almshouses across England and Wales were closed. St John’s survived, thanks to the decision by the Crown in 1536 to appoint a layman, Simon Shepherd, to the mastership. Although this was to the chagrin of the snubbed Prior of Bath, in the long term it facilitated St John’s survival.

By the 16th century the hospital had become a wealthy institution, owning property, land, and in Paulton and Timsbury operating coal mines. By the 19th century St John’s held nearly 400 properties in and around the city, including in the slum district of Avon Street. Although over the centuries the charity attracted philanthropists and benefactors, it also attracted those who wished to gain personally.

William Crouch was one such man. In the early 16th century Crouch was in service to Bath Priory. He not only persuaded the prior to appoint one of his kinsmen as master of St John’s, but in 1533 Crouch claimed he had also been given the right to choose the next incumbent. Tensions culminated with Bath Priory taking him to court. Aggrieved priory servants even attempted to burn down Crouch’s property in Englishcombe – he reportedly fired arrows back at his attackers.

In 1616 John Bewshin was dismissed as master of St John’s when it was discovered that during his 20 years in charge he had not once visited the alms people in his care. The appointment of the next master remained contentious up until the 19th century. After the dissolution of Bath Priory, the Crown, trustees, and Bath Corporation all had a hand in securing the appointment.

Many of St John’s residential tenants had been granted 99-year or 125-year leases at low fixed rents, which exonerated the master from inspecting conditions, ordering repairs, and instead pocketing any income made that should have gone into the care of the poor residents at St John’s.

Between the 16th and 19th centuries nepotism reared its head when six members of the Chapman family succeeded to the role of master of St John’s. By the 19th century the role of master and that of mayor of Bath went hand in hand.

In an attempt to resolve nepotism and potential corruption, St John’s was declared an ecclesiastical trust in 1837. On petition to the Chancery, the Bath Corporation were handed back control of St John’s in 1851 on proviso that it was run by Bath’s Municipal Charity Trust.

St John's Hospital
A view into the courtyard of St John’s Foundation

In the late 19th century improvements began, heralded by petitioning from St John’s residents and tenants. In 1890 prostitutes were cleared from dilapidated tenements like Chapel Court. In 1911 workshops were demolished to create Shickle Garden, the residents’ private garden between Chandos House and Chapel House. Lastly, in the 1970s grants from the local authorities and English Heritage aided in resolving the issue of the final few properties with no electricity, running water or fixed heating.

Today St John’s Foundation continues to support local residents. Its offices and many of its almshouse apartments remain on the original site of the medieval hospital. In addition to its almshouse provision, the St John’s of today also distributes around £2m a year to local charities and organisations as well as running an active community outreach service to tackle loneliness and social isolation.

Images © St John’s Foundation