Shelter in old age

Today we think of hospitals as places to give birth or have surgery or emergency care. Medieval hospitals were quite different.

Reconstruction of the medieval St John's (Christine Molan)

They were places of refuge for the needy, usually run by monks and nuns. Some were hostels for pilgrims and other poor travellers. Some were leper-houses. Most were homes for the elderly poor. Very few were intended for the acutely ill.

The poor faced a grim old age if their families could not provide for them. When they could no longer earn a living, destitution stared them in the face. The church did its best to provide. Bishops were bound by their vows to give alms to the poor and many built hospitals or almshouses. Around 1180 Bishop Reginald FitzJocelin founded the Hospital of St John the Baptist for the poor of Bath. The rules were probably similar to those of the Hospital of St John at Bridgwater. That was run by a master and brethren, with the help of 'two or three women, not noble but suitable ... who are willing and able to serve the infirm poor'. Early deeds of the Bath hospital refer to the master, the brethren and sisters serving god there, and the poor and infirm.

St John's was built by the Cross Bath. No doubt bathing soothed the aches of arthritis then as now. The standard plan of a medieval hospital was an open hall with beds either side, like a modern hospital ward. This was called the infirmary. At one end was a chapel, so that those facing the end of this life could contemplate the next. Medieval deeds of St John's mention the chapel and infirmary. At Bridgwater the sisters were expected to sleep in a room in the infirmary and 'be watchful and ready, night and day, to help the infirm'. There was also a kitchen, and a house for the master.

Bishop Reginald placed the hospital under the control of Bath Cathedral Priory. Priors may have been tempted to use it as a retirement home for their own retainers. In 1333 the prior granted a lodging in St John's to Clement at-Appeldore, along with a daily ration: a loaf of bread and plate of meat from St John's and a gallon of ale from Bath Priory's own cellar. Was Clement a former priory servant? If so, he was probably exceptional. St John's was clearly seen as a deserving charity, attracting donations of property in Bath and places round about.

It must have been difficult to keep an eye on such a scattered estate. In May 1329 the master and brethren of St John's Hospital complained that 'certain sons of iniquity unmindful of the safety of their souls' had damaged crops in some of their fields. The bishop threatened the guilty parties with excommunication. The income from rents would feed and clothe the residents, but the upkeep of buildings stretched resources.

In 1400 the Pope granted remission of sins to those who visited St John's on certain days with donations to the repair fund. By 1527 the hospital buildings were so decayed that the master recommended that the hospital should be amalgamated with the priory, which had far greater resources. Prior William Holloway spent £100 on rebuilding the hospital. By this period open infirmary halls tended to be either divided up into cubicles or replaced by a range of rooms. Prior Holloway may have built six rooms; in 1548 an official reported that St John's was for six poor men. It was while the hospital was being rebuilt that the scheming William Crouch came on the scene. He coveted the hospital. The master had to be in holy orders, which ruled out Crouch himself, but he had a young clerical relative - John Simons. By bribery or threats (accounts vary) he persuaded Prior Holloway to give the mastership to Simons, who then made Crouch his steward.

St John's survived the dissolution of the monasteries with Simons still the master. In 1552 he leased Inset view of St John's from Gilmore's map of Bath 1694 (Victoria Art Gallery)the hospital and all its property to John Crouch (perhaps the son of William). In this cosy family arrangement Crouch paid a mere £10 a year, less than half what it was worth. However, the city fathers would not permit St John's to become a private property. They petitioned the Queen for control of the hospital. This was granted in 1572 and the following year Elizabeth gave permission for collections to be made for the enlargement and improvement of St John's. If there were six rooms before the Dissolution, another six must have been added in 1580. These were all on the ground floor. To boost the hospital's income, an upper storey was added with rooms to rent.

The Corporation kept meticulous accounts in the 1580s. From them we learn that Mother West was the hospital laundress. She was paid extra for looking after inmates when they fell ill. These now included women. Mother Bird lay sick a long time, tended by West. The inevitable end came; the cost of her shroud is recorded. Periodically blue broadcloth was bought and made up into gowns for the almsfolk. It was from these gowns that St John's was known as the 'Blue Alms', while St Catherine's Hospital, founded by the clothmaker William Phillips in 1444, was the 'Black Alms'. Both hospitals [now amalgamated] are still providing sheltered accommodation for the elderly - a remarkable continuity in a changing world.

First published in Bath City Life March 1996.

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