An institution of the great longevity of St Katharine’s — founded by Queen Mathilda in 1147 — will have gone through both bad times and good. It is a curious twist that one of the most difficult periods of its long history should also be one of the historical periods where the most information is available to us about the daily life of its inhabitants.

It is also the period where they showed how they could stand up both for themselves, and to maintain the spirit and mission of St Katharine’s.

St Katharine’s managed to survive both the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII, and the civil war and reign of Cromwell. The Trustees had, in fact, recommended its suppression along with the sale of Charles I’s property. Yet still, it continued more or less in its traditional role.

By 1697 and 1698, however, these traditions were sadly in need of renewal, and this was carried out under Lord Chancellor Somers. Before he did so, however, he conducted a series of depositions of residents all contained in a single book, brought to light in the early 1970s. They form the subject of an article turned into a pamphlet unearthed in our archives.

Christopher J. Kitching published some of the highlights of the depositions, now held by the Public Record Office, in ‘The Decline of Hospitality in the Royal Hospital of St Katharine by the Tower, 1660-1698’, published in Guildhall Studies in London History, Vol 1, No. 1, October 1973.

The depositions made clear that the three masters between 1661 and 1698, all of them laymen by this time rather than priests, had ceased to live within St Katharine’s. Lord Brouncker (1681-1685) did apparently attempt to ensure that the allowances for the three brothers, three sisters and bedeswomen were paid on time, as well as maintaining the tradition of inviting the bedeswomen to dinner ‘almost every fortnight.’

Sir James Butler (1685-1698), whose abuses of his post had inspired the depositions, discontinued this and almost every tradition. At the same time he asked for written submissions from St Katharine’s inhabitants, giving up their rights under the charter to allow him to run the hospital as he wished. For those who refused to sign, the consequences were dire.

The Bedeswomen told of how their quarterly allowance was stretched from being paid every 13 weeks to 17 or 18 weeks — effectively reducing the amount per annum. Their suffering because of this change is made clear — along with disclosing early strategies for raising money in a world without our access to credit — through tales of pawning clothes and other possessions, borrowing money from friends, and even selling their hair.

Anne Savage, bedeswoman of 85 years at the time of the depositions, describes days where they were given only a cucumber, salt, piece of bread and pint of small beer. She and others had been refused medical attention. They lost their former homes, and were moved into single rooms. They were unable to travel. They were forced to pay for coal, where before it had been provided to them.

The registrar had demanded a payment of £30 pounds from Thomas Gibbs, in order to renew his position as sexton. Butler himself attempted to sell the preferment, replacing one of the three sisters who had died.

Henry Warren, the receiver of rents, shifted the sealing of leases from St Katherine’s to Butler’s chambers at Lincoln’s Inn. They began charging double the customary amounts for rent, and keeping the money rather than apportioning it out at St Katharine’s as required by charter.

Queen Phillipa’s ordinances had stipulated an early kind of democracy — with the registers and seal for important decisions locked up in a safe to which there were three keys, one in the possession of the master, and the other two held by the eldest of the three brothers and eldest of the three sisters. Butler changed the locks, placing the new keys in the hands of those who supported him.

While Kitching notes that not all had been well under the previous masters, there emerges from these depositions a pattern of life for its principal inhabitants up to this time as established by the earlier charters — allowances paid regularly and enough to live on, with the additional provision of adequate food, heat, warm clothing and good lodging. Residents were able to leave to visit friends or spend a period in the country for health. They had some, even if fairly minimal, level of power in decision making and the running of St Katharine’s. Residents enjoyed regular contact and the breaking of bread with the Master. These were the remnants of a medieval system that had already grown and survived for over five hundred years.

Kitching’s article is far too short, and sadly empty of quotations that would perhaps have brought the lives of St Katharine’s residents much more to life. They are the ones, however, who through petitions and the filing of complaints helped reform the institution, and ensure it was set on a much more stable footing that would ensure its survival to the present day. The bright lining to a dark time.

We hope to uncover more of their history, along with the Lord Chancellor’s reforms of 1698, in future posts.