History & Heritage
St John’s Hospital has a rich and colourful past. Many items documenting the history of the charity are contained in the St John's Archives. There are numerous old books, original manuscripts, ancient letters, old newspapers, maps and illustrations, drawings and sketches – all to be found in the archived records of this illustrious organisation.
Origins of the Charity
The charity of St John's Hospital was founded in the 12th century. The founder was Bishop Reginald Fitzjocelyn de Bohun, an educated and well-travelled young man, son of Jocelyn de Bohun, Bishop of Salisbury. He was first appointed to the See of Bath in April 1173, although due to various political and religious struggles, his appointment was not ratified until 23 June 1174, which is still celebrated within the charity and known as “Founders Day”.
It is known to have been the very first ‘hospital’ in the city although there were almost certainly others operating close by, however providing very different services. Medieval hospitals were, in fact, places of refuge for the needy.
The examination of a leper by a medieval physician. A marginal sketch in a medical manuscript.
Bishop Reginald’s foundation was more like a small monastery and was never intended to be a hospital, in the sense that we use it today. It was established to provide food and shelter for alms folk, who in turn were expected to partake, to some degree, in prayers to God for the soul of the institution’s benefactor.
Foundations such as St John’s were common in medieval times; there was a long tradition of dedicating such institutions to St John the Baptist and it was considered very appropriate, given its proximity to the spa waters of Bath.
A deed written around 1190 confirms that Bishop Reginald placed the Hospital under the control of the Monastery of Bath and the duty of the Foundation was the support of the poor and the infirm of Bath. It is also known that a ‘Master’, aided by brethren and sisters, was responsible for the care of the alms folk, who were given a blue robe as clothing. Henceforth, St John's Hospital ‘inmates’ were known as the ‘Blue Alms’.
The Bishop endowed it with a sheaf of corn each year, from each acre of the Episcopal demesnes (the estate or lands), while the Prior and monks donated the same from their agricultural land, plus a tithe of their bread and salt.
The earliest charter of St John's Hospital c.1180 (LPL MS 940, no.2). Bishop Reginald Fitzjocelyn confirmed the grant of land by Roger son of Algar to the 'hospital of the baths'.
Bishop Reginald also made other provisions for the hospital and in time, the site expanded. A chapel was built and it was dedicated to St John the Baptist although today, surprisingly, it is dedicated to St Michael. The dedication change was made in the 19th century but the reasons why can be traced back to former times.
Many of the hospitals around the country were closed or dismantled during the reign of Henry VIII but remarkably St John’s survived and actually continued to thrive so by 1540, when the Dissolution was complete, the site was still intact.
Throughout the Tudor and Stuart years, much changed at St John’s. The Mastership had become a sinecure; a position or office that required little or no work but provided a living for the incumbent. In 1573, Queen Elizabeth gave permission for the rebuilding of the 'Abbey Church' and, at the same time, the enlargement and improvement of St John's Hospital.
When the Elizabathan nobility and gentry flocked to the popular spa, St John’s became a prime site and the result was quite unique; an almshouse for the needy combined with lodgings for the wealthy paying visitor. Sadly, whilst the Georgian spa boom almost crowded out the almshouse, the Master of St John’s enjoyed most of the profits!
Victorian reformers changed everything. In the 1830s, pressure for electoral reform swept throughout the country. In its wake, it brought huge changes for the Bath charities. In 1853, the future patronage of St John's Hospital was vested in the Bath Municipal Charity Trustees by order in Chancery.
It was a turbulent time for St John's Hospital, and the charity underwent much scrutiny and various new constitutions.By 1911, the post of Clerk and Receiver and Surveyor were established, while the Master continued in a religious capacity.
In the late 1800s, the Trustees extended the use of the income of St John’s to benefit more of the needy in Bath, not just those in the almshouses. By 1918, the number of non-residents receiving ‘pensions’ from St John’s had grown to 139 and hence the grant-giving arm of St John’s was established, which continues to thrive and flourish today, helping both individuals and local organisations alike.
Between the wars St John’s, like the rest of Bath, underwent dramatic changes, particularly in its finances. It survived the blitz and fire of World War II and even when all around were cautious and mired in post-war austerity, St John's Hospital expanded even more. The 50s and 60s saw a period of renovation and restructuring, rapidly followed by further rebuilding in the 70 and 80s.
In 1984, under a new Scheme, the charity was officially known as 'The Hospital of St John the Baptist with the Chapel of St Michael annexed with St Catherine’s Hospital' – and remains so today.
Much of the information and a great many more details, alongside ancient pictures, maps, artist’s reconstructions and cartography, has been taken from a specially-commissioned book “The Spirit of Care” by Jean Manco.
Copies of this book can be purchased through St John's Main Reception in Chapel Court. For details, please contact 01225 486400.
Translation of the St John’s Seal
Sigilium commune domus sancti Johannis Baptiste Bathoniae
The Seal of the Community of the House of Saint John the Baptist at Bath