St John's Hospital

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St John's Hospital is on the Millennium festival trail.
St John's Hospital together with the Northgate, the Bridge of Sighs and the "Long Cottage".

The hospital "for the sustentation of poor and silly persons" which stood outside the North Gate of Chester was probably founded by Ranulf de Blondeville, Earl of Chester, in the early 1190s. He gave the site in free alms and free of all services except the reception and care of the poor and ordered that the brothers of the hospital who travelled through Cheshire preaching and collecting alms should be honourably treated. The earl's grant was made to the Virgin and All Saints but within a few years the hospital had acquired its dedication to St. John the Baptist (Sigillum Hospitalis Sancti Iohannus Baptiste Cestrie) and was usually known as the "Hospital of St. John without the North Gate". Over the years it has provided almshouses, a school (with its own brass band), a part of the infirmary and a chapel both for all the aforementioned and for condemned criminals from the Northgate Prison. It bears a prominent bell with a interesting history on one corner.

Historical Descriptions

Seacome describes it as follows:

  • Before the gate and on the left hand of Further Northgate street stands the Blue Coat Hospital which was founded by subscription in 1700 at the instigation of Bishop Stratford uncle to the Commissary the greater part of the present structure was built in 1717 partly at the expense of the Corporation and partly by benefactions. Twenty eight boys are boarded clothed and educated from the age of 12 to 14 after which they are put out apprentices There are also sixty four probationary day scholars called Green Caps out of whom the vacancies in the Blue Coat Boys are filled up. The system of education adopted in this establishment has those of Bell and Lancaster for its basis The funds are derived partly from lands partly from funded property and partly from subscriptions The present master is Mr S Venables who has a salary of 70 per annum with a house and an allowance for coals candles soap 81c 81c The chapel dedicated to St John the Baptist called Little St John's is within this building it was formerly an hospital or sanctuary and endowed with great privileges The mastership was granted in the ninth year of Edward II to the prior of Birkenhead It is extra parochial and a perpetual curacy is in the gift of the corporation. The Rev William Clarke is the present curate. In the time of King Henry VIII it consisted of a Chaplain and six poor brethren and had lands and profits to the amount of twenty eight pounds ten shillings and four pence. There are now in the Chapel yard six alms houses for widows who are each allowed one shilling and two pence weekly besides a load of coals annually and other small donations The footbridge at the South side still remains over which the prisoners at the Northgate formerly passed to attend divine worship.
The statue of John Coppack at St John's Hospital. Nicholas Stratford (1633–12 February 1707) was an Anglican prelate. He served as Bishop of Chester from 1689 to 1707. During his lifetime the school was located at the Cathedral and this building was only errected in 1717, ten years after his death.

Batenham describes it as follows:

  • On the west side of the street is the liberal institution of the Blue coat School which was founded in the year 1700 by the corporation and private benefactors. The funds at present support 25 boys who are boarded clothed and educated besides 65 day scholars who succeed to the vacancies of the former. The south wing is as before stated a chapel dedicated to St John which is extra parochial service is performed in it every Sunday morning and it contains a good organ. Part of the north wing is appropriated to the instruction of 120 poor girls This excellent institution was established in 1816 and is under the direction of a committee of ladies. In the yard at the back of the school are six Alms Houses for poor women who have likewise a small pension. Perhaps there is not another place to be found which combines so much christian philanthropy a this little spot Within this we find a chapel two schools for both sexes and a comfortable asylum for age inflrmity and indigence

The Alms Houses

Besides granting the site of the hospital and taking it under his special protection Ranulf de Blondeville agreed to maintain three beds for the poor and infirm at the rate of 1d. a day in alms for each pauper; these alms of £4 11s. a year were continued by the Crown after 1237 and were still paid in the 16th century. There was a church (St Thomas) and a burial ground by c1200 and a chapel was added in 1241.

By the early 14th century the hospital had endowments worth £31 4s. 10d. a year. Several early grants of land, including some in Lancashire, were made by those who were among the witnesses of Ranulf de Blondeville's charter or by members of their families or other friends or officials of the earl. Members of the leading families of Chester in the 13th century also made gifts to the hospital, notably Ralph Saracen who gave a salt-house in Nantwich and land in Allerton (Lancs.) which he held of Cockersand Abbey. In addition, the hospital had acquired by 1316 property in Chester worth £13 13s. 10d. a year in rents. Much of the property outside Chester was alienated in return for small rent charges, doubtless for reasons of convenience; an inquiry in 1316 found that the improvident policy had been carried out by successive priors in the later 13th century. In 1311 the master, William de Bache, was said to have so impoverished the hospital as to impair its work of mercy and hospitality and was removed from office. A succession of inquisitions held between 1311 and 1341 reveals that the constitution of the hospital had undergone a transformation similar to that of other hospitals at the period and it was controlled by a master rather than a prior and chapter of brethren. The master lived in a chamber "between the hall and the barns". Three chaplains celebrated there daily: two in the church and one in the hospital before the feeble and infirm inmates. The hospital was to take in as many poor and sick as possible but thirteen beds (the number present at the last supper is a typical grouping for almshouses) were to be kept ready for the "poor and feeble" of the city. Each inmate was to receive daily a loaf of bread, a dish of pottage, half a gallon of ale, and a piece of meat or fish. To have meat or fish every day would have been very pleasant at the time.

The site of the Hospital on the Braun and Hogenberg Map of 1581. This is subject to several possible interpretations. Comparing this with the Smith Map (and sketches) it is possible that the original Hospital was located to the north of the present site. However this is most likely the St Thomas' (a Becket) chapel with its graveyard.

In 1316 the Hospital was given over to the custody of the Benedictine Birkenhead Priory. The Birkenhead Priory was at the time impoverished mainly because of expenses arising from the ferry to Liverpool. In 1310 the prior and convent had complained to the royal council that there were no inns nearer than Chester for travellers using the ferry and neither the revenues of the house, barely 200 marks a year, nor its buildings sufficed for the burdens of hospitality which travellers required. The intention was both to ensure the maintenance of the services of the hospital and to augment the revenues of the priory, but the prior, on taking up his duties, reported that much of the property of the hospital had been alienated, for example by selling the right to long-term lets for fixed and low rents. The brief custody by the priory did little to remedy the mismanagement of the hospital and only increased the financial problems of the priory itself. The hospital was removed from the priory's control in 1341 by the Black Prince (who was earl of Chester) and in 1345 the prior and convent granted an annual pension of 5 marks to the new warden of the hospital, Richard of Wolveston, for life; at the same time the prior acknowledged a debt of 200 marks to Wolveston, 100 marks of which was still owing in 1353.

At the Reformation, the rôle of the hospital in housing the infirm poor of the city of Chester doubtless saved it from dissolution under the Act of 1547. The commissioners who visited Chester in May 1553 to list church goods found nothing worth selling in the hospital and distributed the copes and ornaments to the poor, apart from a silver-gilt chalice, four table-cloths, the service books and a bell in the steeple which were entrusted to the safe-keeping of the chaplain. In the latter half of the 16th century many of the hospital's lands were again leased out for very long periods by a succession of unscrupulous masters and in 1601 a commission was appointed to visit and reform the hospital. The commissioners found that the master, Richard Young, had not visited the hospital for over three years as he had been imprisoned for debt in Chester Castle; nor could he produce his letters of appointment and it was suspected that he had pawned them. He and his wife had taken bribes to admit alms-women and he had accepted payments to make long leases of hospital property at low rents. He was also accused by the hospital chaplain of removing the silver chalice used in the church and chapel as a communion cup.

In February 1644 the buildings of the hospital and chapel and the surrounding wall were demolished so as not to provide cover to the Parliamentary forces besieging the city. No trace is left of the original hospital church or other buildings and nothing is known of their appearance - except what little is visible on the Smith Map and the Braun and Hogenberg Map. In June 1658 Oliver Cromwell granted the site and the lands of the hospital and the office of keeper or warden to the corporation; the mayor was to act as warden and use the revenues to relieve the poor and rebuild the hospital. After the Restoration the City wished to retain control over the hospital, but wardenship of the hospital was given, for life, to Roger Whitley as a reward for his royalist support. In the City Charter of 1685 the corporation secured the reversion of the wardenship with all the hospital lands but, although Whitley died in 1697, the corporation did not obtain the hospital seal and records until 1703. It is not clear whether Whitley actually rebuilt anything on the site or simply took the income from the hospital's estates.

The bigger belltower at St John's Hospital does not house the bell from the Galeka - it is in the smaller structure on the corner near the Northgate. However this coupola does house the bell which can be heard to chime every hour.

The City applied the surplus revenues to maintain Sir Thomas Smith's almshouses (St Ursula in Commonhall Street), the house of correction, and Northgate gaol. The 1685 charter was obtained through Sir Thomas Grosvenor (see: Grosvenors). It largely confirmed the city's constitution, also empowering the mayor to appoint a deputy, but with a clause, normal at the time, allowing the Crown to remove civic office-holders. The charter disfranchised eight men (all opponents of the Grosvenors), including Recorder Williams and Aldermen Street, Mainwaring, and Roger Whitley, and made Sir Thomas Grosvenor mayor and Sir Edward Lutwyche, a newcomer, recorder; it also named the sheriffs, the clerk of the Pentice, and 22 aldermen, of whom six were new to the Assembly, and made changes among the Forty. In 1688 the government removed the entire Assembly and obliged the city to petition for a new charter, which named the corporation and principal officers, reserved the Crown's right to dismiss individuals, dispensed all members from the prescribed oaths, and restricted the franchise to the corporation. Of the 24 aldermen named in addition to the mayor and recorder only 11 had already served as aldermen and four as sheriffs. Grosvenor and William Stanley, earl of Derby, were among those displaced. Members removed in the purge of 1685 and restored in 1688 included Mainwaring, Roger Whitley, and Peter Edwards. The attempt to conciliate Whigs and those with nonconformist connexions was fruitless: the nominated corporation apparently never met, and in October 1688 the charters of 1685 and 1688 were annulled and the city resumed its earlier privileges.

The Corporation rebuilt the hospital complex in 1715–17 with a rear courtyard which included six one-storeyed almshouses for women. The almswomen shared £30 a year under the will of Alderman Joseph Crewe, proved 1801. Mismanagement (see Owen Jones for further examples of this) greatly reduced the value of the hospital's rents; by 1836 they were worth £600 a year (approaching £50,000 in 2015 money), of which only £85 was spent on the almspeople, the rest being carried to the corporation's general account as it had been since c. 1762. An action at law to establish what estates belonged to the hospital and to vest them in the Municipal Charities Trustees was begun in 1838 but not completed until a Chancery Scheme, evidently of 1852, ordered the almshouses to be rebuilt to house 13 paupers who received 10s. a week each. As rebuilt in 1854 by Morris and Hobson for the Trustees of Hospital of St John Baptist, the almshouses each included a sitting room, bedroom, and scullery. A Charity Commission Scheme of 1892 assigned the substantial surplus to pay pensions to other townspeople. Under a Scheme of 1976 the hospital, still supporting 13 almshouses, was absorbed by the Chester Municipal Almshouse Charity, and the almshouses remain in use, the most recent having opened in April 2006.

The Statue

The 18th century was an age of benevolence and patronage in the development of education in Chester. As the commercial centre of a prosperous agricultural region and the seat of a bishopric situated close to the estates of a leading landowner (the Grosvenors), Chester was well placed to be in the forefront of educational provision. The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge had been founded in London in 1699 and only a year later a Blue Coat school on the model which it advocated was established by public subscription under the patronage of Nicholas Stratford, bishop of Chester, and Sir Richard Grosvenor, 4th Bt. This initial 1700 charity school was built in the precincts of Chester Cathedral; it was the first school outside London to be established by the SPCK on the Bluecoat model. The first Bluecoat School established was Christ's Hospital. This was founded by Edward VI in Newgate Street, London, in 1552, as a foundling hospital with the purpose of caring for and educating poor children. The dissolution of the monasteries had resulted in many homeless children being put on the streets.

Between the 16th and late 18th centuries about 60 similar institutions were established in different parts of England. These were not connected with Christ's Hospital, but if their pupils wore the blue uniform, they were known as bluecoat schools. The colour blue was traditionally the colour of charity, and was a common colour for clothing at the time. The uniform included a blue frock coat, and yellow stockings with white bands. The blue coat survives to this day as a part of the uniform of the Chester Brass Band. This originated as a fife and drum ensemble attached to the Blue Coat School. Money left over from a fund established by the "Ladies of Chester" to buy a present for Queen Victoria led to the ensemble becoming a brass band. The money was donated to the Blue Coat School foundation, and so the Blue Coat School Brass Band came about. With a likely formation date of 1853. Apart from the period of World War I, when the instruments were loaned to the military for recruitment purposes, the Band has been active ever since.

St John's Hospital as shown in McGahey's "Balloon View".

A purpose-built school was erected in Upper Northgate Street in 1717 on a site "donated" by the corporation. Again one of the earliest schools of its type outside London set up by the SPCK, it concentrated on the teaching of the church catechism, reading, writing, and arithmetic, and provided boarding accommodation for 40 boys, who wore blue school uniform. The cathedral authorities were also responsible for setting up a Blue Girls' school in 1720, where sewing, knitting, and spinning were added to the curriculum. The girls met at first in the boys' school building but later occupied a succession of other premises until a new school was built in Vicars Lane in 1872 by the 1st duke of Westminster. From 1755 until 1761 the school shared The Bluecoat building with the Chester Infirmary which treated patients in the first floor rooms. In 1783, largely through the initiative of Dr. John Haygarth, the pioneering physician of the Chester Infirmary, the number of boarders at the boys' school was reduced to 25 and a day school was begun for 60 boys known as 'green caps'; their number was doubled to 120 in 1784. The school was closed in 1949.

Since then The Bluecoat has been used for office and retail purposes, an adult education site and youth club, a welfare and job advice centre, and as County Council offices. In 1996 it became home to the History department of the University of Chester. Eventually, all usage of The Bluecoat stopped until, in 2015, after an extensive £1.3 million revamp, Chester Municipal Charities re-opened The Bluecoat as a centre for charities and voluntary organisations.

The present ststue represents one of the Bluecoat Boys - John Coppack. This 1854 statue is by Edward Richardson (1812-1869). Believed to have been born in London, Richardson entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1832 on the recommendation of Sir Francis Chantrey. His practice centred on funerary monuments and he executed a number of military memorials. Richardson was an active member of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society. He published a number of papers on archaeological subjects and presented papers on English medieval alabaster sculpture to the Archaeological Institute. He died in Brighton.

Born in August 1840, John Coppack was the son of a shoemaker in Northgate Street (his mother had died by the time he enrolled at the school). He is recorded at the school from February 1853 to February 1854. John Coppack later worked as a coal merchant and, later, a Corresponding Clerk for the Shropshire Union Canal Company. He married in 1859. The first of his fourteen children was born in 1861, the same year that he became a Freeman of the City of Chester. He died in 1898, aged 57. For another John Coppack associated with Chester see Charles Moston.

.The "Galeka Bell" is housed in a structure on the corner of the building nearest to the Northgate.

The statue is said to be not the original: in some accounts the original statue is said to be at the Bishop's High School in Blacon. According to this version, for which no evidence can be found, John Collins, a former headmaster of the Bluecoat school (1919-49) had the statue reinstalled in a niche in the entrance hall of the Bishops School. The statue had been at the Bluecoat school in the mid 19th Century. Collins told the Chester Chronicle:

  • 'that when some extensions were made to the school about 1850, a pupil at the school, John Coppack, went to London to pose for a new statue, which was duly placed in the niche outside the building'.

It is not known what happened to the statue after this date - but in the early 20th Century, Collins retrieved it from property of Mr. Haswell a stonemason in Parkgate Road. We can be certain there was such a Haswell, William Haswell - a Marble & Stone Mason of 31 Parkgate Road Chester: he died 18 December 1926. Collins had it installed in an alcove inside the bluecoat building for some years. When the statue was subsequently handed over to the Bishop's school, it was repainted by the Deputy Head. As noted above there is no evidence that this story of relocation for a while to Blacon has any basis in truth.

The Bells

The Bluecoat has two bells on its roof: the "Galeka Bell", plus the bell inside the bell tower. The bell inside the bell tower was made in 1716 and has been in situ – and chiming on the hour – since 1717.

The "Galeka Bell" was salvaged from a WWI hospital ship, SS Galeka. The name of the ship is derived from the Galeka (Gcaleka Xhosa), a people crowded into a narrow drought-stricken coastal strip of South Africa near East London and involved in the "Ninth Frontier War" (1877–79) when "Galekaland was turned into a desolation of burnt-out kraals and empty grain-pits".

She was a 6772 ton steam ship built in 1899 for the Union-Castle Mail Steamship Company by Harland and Wolff and had a top speed of 12.5 knots. The ship was launched on 21 October 1899 and completed on 23 December 1899. She was the last vessel to enter service before the merger between the Union and Castle shipping lines in 1900 and transferred to the UC Line while fitting-out. She served on the South Africa route until the First World War. Later she was requisitioned for use as a British troop transport: the 2nd Bn King's Royal Rifle Corps left Southampton on the SS Galeka and arrived at Le Havre on 13th August 1914. Galeka carried troops of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps to the Gallipoli Campaign, landing the 6th and 7th Bns., Australian Imperial Force, at Anzac Cove on the morning of 25th April 1915. She was then refitted as a hospital ship with accommodation for 366 wounded passengers. When entering Le Havre on 28th October 1916, SS Galeka hit a mine laid by the German U-boat UC-26. Nineteen Royal Army Medical Corps were killed - she was not carrying any patients at the time. The Galeka was beached at Cap Le Hogue, but was a total loss (and Union-Castle's first war casualty).

Owen Philipps - MP for Chester and inmate of Wormwood Scrubs.

The Galeka had been owned by Sir Owen Philipps – a major shipowner and MP for Chester (1916-1922). At Philipps request, the bell was eventually brought to Chester and placed atop the Bluecoat building (canal-side corner) in commemoration to those who had fought in WW1. Over one hundred Bluecoat alumni signed up in WW1 and twelve were killed. In 1930 it was revealed that Royal Mail Steam Packet Company (which had adsorbed the Union Castle Line) had previously undisclosed liabilities in excess of £10,000,000. This was enough for the banks to act, and much of Philipps' powers were removed to trustees, although Philipps remained chairman until November 1930. In February 1931 he went to South Africa on holiday, and in his absence it was revealed that for several years the Royal Mail Steam Packet group had been paying dividends to stockholders despite trading at a loss since 1925. On his return from South Africa Philipps was arrested and charged with making false statements with regard to company accounts for 1926 and 1927, contrary to section 84 of the Larceny Act 1861. He was found guilty and subsequently served ten months in Wormwood Scrubs prison before being released in August 1932.

The "spooky" part of this story is that the origins of the bell at St John's had been completely forgotten by modern times. On Friday 28th October 2016 the Building manager decided to inspect the roof of St John's on a whim, and, after reading the name on the bell looked the ship up. It was 100 years to the day since she was sunk.

Britannic - the sister ship of Titanic, with HMHS Galeka, taking on board wounded at Mudros in 1915. Britannic was also a hospital ship between the United Kingdom and the Dardanelles. On the morning of 21 November 1916 Britannic was shaken by an explosion caused by a naval mine of the Imperial German Navy near the Greek island of Kea and foundered 55 minutes later, killing 30 people.

The bell has another, somewhat more distant, connection with Chester. Galeka was photographed alongside Titanic's sister ship Britannic (as shown left). The 2nd Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment sailed on the older Britannic about 7th January 1900, arriving about the 27th. Along with the 2nd South Wales Borderers, 1st East Lancashire, and 2nd North Staffordshire, they formed the 15th Brigade under Major General A G Wavell, and part of the VIIth Division under Lieutenant General Tucker. Following the end of the war in October 1902, Britannic was released from government service and returned to White Star who sent her to her builders in Belfast for a survey, with the intention that she might be refurbished and modernised for further use. The builders report in 1903 concluded that it would not be cost effective to bring the 29 year old ship up to modern standards, instead, she was sold for scrap for £11,500, and on 11 August 1903 she left Belfast under tow to Hamburg, Germany, where she was broken up.

The Bridge of Sighs

A little beyond canal bridge at Northgate is a narrow stone arch which spans the chasm containing the canal. It is best seen from the bridge crossing the canal outside the Northgate or from the tow-path below. This is a flimsy-looking structure with no railings, and there is no means of accessing it at either end. The bridge cost £20 ($30) to build in 1793, and was designed by Joeseph Turner. It originally went from the Prison to a nearby chapel (in St John's Hospital) and had over-arching iron railings to prevent the prisoners from escaping by jumping from the bridge. During WWII the metal railings were removed to be melted down (like many others) as a source of metal. It is described by Ronald Leigh in his memories recorded at the The Museum of Policing in Cheshire as follows:

  • Prisons unfortunately always seem to be necessary in any form of communal life and Chester seems to be no exception. No doubt the Romans had one but this is no longer apparent. However the site at the one at the Northgate is still on record. It forms part of the actual Northgate and the dungeons were in the sandstone rock of its foundations. The place of execution was also in the jail itself and prisoners before their execution were taken outside the walls to the church of Little St. John, which stood on or near the present site of the Blue Coat building. It was found that whilst taking this last walk, friends of such prisoners frequently staged attempts to free them. In order to foil such attempts by these footpads thieves and felons, the authorities in 1793 built the small bridge which can still be seen, less its protecting railway between the City walls in the west side of Northgate over the moat/canal to the Blue Coat school.
The "Bridge of Sighs" spans the deep cutting containing the canal.

The bridge takes it's name from the The Bridge of Sighs (Italian: Ponte dei Sospiri, Venetian: Ponte de i Sospiri) is a bridge in Venice. That enclosed bridge is made of white limestone, has windows with stone bars, passes over the Rio di Palazzo, and connects the New Prison (Prigioni Nuove) to the interrogation rooms in the Doge's Palace. It was designed by Antonio Contino, whose uncle Antonio da Ponte designed the Rialto Bridge, and it was built in 1600. Bridges with a similar name can be found in Oxford, Cambridge, and Glasgow in the UK. After the Northgate Prison closed, Chester City Corporation tried to have the bridge removed in 1821.

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