Where’s London’s oldest…hospital?

April 4, 2011

London’s oldest hospital – St Bartholomew’s Hospital in what is known now as Smithfield – was founded in the 12th century.

The hospital owes its foundations – like the neighbouring Priory of St Bartholomew (London’s oldest church – see our previous story on this here) – to Rahere, a courtier (possibly a minstrel or jester) at the court of King Henry I who, tired with triviality, may have become a priest.

In any event, after the death of Henry’s son William – he is believed to have drowned when the White Ship foundered in November 1120 – and that of his wife Queen Matilda, Rahere went on pilgrimage to Rome. He did so but contracted malaria while there and, while under the care of  monks, he vowed to found a hospital for poor men if he recovered.

He did recover and on his return journey had a vision of St Bartholomew who informed him that it was he who had helped him to recover and now desired him to found a church in Smithfield (then known as Smedfield).

Back in London, Rahere as he’d promised and, after petitioning the king, was granted a royal charter in 1122 to found the priory of Augustinian canons and the hospital.Work began in March 1123 and it was completed by 1145 when Rahere died (his tomb can still be seen in the church).

The hospital – one of a number in London at the time – was probably little more than a single hall with a chapel at one end. Other buildings and some cloisters were added later as was the Church of St Bartholomew the Less.

Under a charter of 1147, it was open to the needy, orphans, outcasts and the poor as well as sick people and homeless wanderers. In the 14th century, the definition was honed to include the sick until they recovered, pregnant women (until delivery) and for the maintenance of children born there until they were seven-years-old.

As well as the master (Rahere was the first), other ‘staff’ at the hospital initially included eight Augustinian brothers and four sisters but the hospital gradually became independent of the priory and by 1300, the hospital has its own dedicated master. By 1420, the two institutions had apparently become completely separate.

Following the Dissolution in 1539, the hospital was refounded in the 1540s thanks to a deal brokered between King Henry VIII and the Corporation of the City of London. Along with Bethlem, Bridewell and St Thomas’, St Bartholomews was one of four Royal Hospitals administered by the City.

The first regular physician – a Portuguese man by the name of Roderigo Lopez – was appointed around 1567 (he was later hung, drawn and quartered for an allegedly plotting against Queen Elizabeth I). Among the most famous physicians to serve at St Barts in later years was William Harvey, renowned for having ‘discovered’ the circulatory system.

The hospital survived the Great Fire in 1666 but in the 1700s most of the medieval buildings, with the exception of the tower in the Church of St Bartholomew the Less, were demolished as the hospital was rebuilt to the design of James Gibbs. The new design featured a central courtyard with a Great Hall contained in the north wing, reached by a ‘Grand Staircase’ decorated with images of the Good Samaritan and Christ at the Pool of Bethesda by celebrated artist William Hogarth.

The famous Henry VIII gate (pictured above) dates from 1702, slightly before Gibb’s rebuilding project. Other buildings have been added in more recent times.

In more recent times, the hospital was amalgamated with The Royal London and the London Chest Hospitals in 1994 with the establishment of The Royal Hospitals NHS Trust (now known as the Barts and The London NHS Trust). St Barts is now a specialist cancer and cardiac hospital.

There is a museum at the hospital which houses exhibits including a facsimile of Rahere’s grant of 1137 (now in the hospital’s archives), amputation instruments dating from the early 1800s once used by surgeon John Abernathy and a display on William Harvey. Hogarth’s paintings are visible from the museum.  There are also guided tours of the hospital.

WHERE: Museum at St Barts Hospital (nearest tube station is Barbican); WHEN: 10am to 4pm Tuesday to Friday ; COST: Free (donations welcomed); WEBSITE:  www.bartsandthelondon.nhs.uk/about-us/museums-and-archives/st-bartholomew-s-museum/

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