St. John’s Almshouse

Almshouse Malmesbury

The St. John’s Almshouse Malmesbury


Reprinted from the Wiltshire Archeological and Natural History Magazine. Vol. liii, pp. 118-126. June, 1949.

Among the ancient monuments of the old town of Malmesbury, after the Abbey and the Market Cross, the most interesting are the Almshouse and the old Court House at the foot of the hill on the road leading out of the town towards Chippenham. These two buildings are interesting both architecturally and historically.

They stand on the site of a mediaeval Hospital of St. John. The rest of the site is now occupied by some cottages and the Malmesbury Gas Works.

An early historical mention of the Hospital is in the Register of Malmesbury Abbey, which survived the disestablishment. The most important manuscript of this is preserved in the Public Record Office and has been published in the Rolls Series, edited by J. S. Brewer, M.A.

This contains a detailed Rent Poll of the Abbey in the reign of King Edward I with a list of the houses and tenements in the Borough by streets and the rents due from each of them. The site of St. John’s Hospital is clearly defined to the area now occupied by the Almshouse and Court House and was rented to the Prior of the Hospital at two shillings and eight pence, one of the highest rents recorded in the Roll. The site was just outside the walled town in a built-up part called “Nethewalle”.

Another reference, also from the Register, undated but of about the year 1265, deals with a dispute between the Prior or Master, as he is sometimes called, and Brothers of St. John’s Hospital and the Vicar of St. Paul’s Parish, Malmesbury, in which parish the Hospital stood. The dispute had to do with the infringement of some of the rights and perquisites of the Vicar of the Parish by the Prior of the Hospital. The matter was referred by the Vicar to the Bishop of Salisbury, who was then Walter Wylie, who appointed one of the Salisbury Canons, Constantine of Mildenhall, his “Officiary” to adjudicate. His decision is recorded in the text. It declares that in future none but regular members of the community, the Prior and Brothers and Sisters wearing the habit and badge of the Order may hear and receive divine office in the Chapel of the Hospital, and that for their offertory and lesser tythes the Hospital shall pay to the Church of St. Paul and its Vicar twenty pence annually and half a pound of wax in recognition of the rights of the Parish Church. The Prior and his successors as soon as appointed are to swear on the Gospel in the presence of the Vicar to observe the findings of the enquiry.

The next reference is a very interesting Norman French document in the P.R.O. dated 1389 in the 12th year of K. Richard II, nearly 125 years after the preceding. It is a certificate granted to the Town Guild of Malmesbury confirming K. Athelstan’s and other charters granted to the town. It then proceeds to relate the origin of the Chapel of St. John mentioned in the previous reference. It says:-

“And the Burgesses considering the great and gracious gift and conferment of King Athelstan in his time, had a Chapel built in honour of God and St. John the Baptist in which chapel was ordained by the Burgesses that perpetually there should be a chaplain to sing every day for the souls of King Athelstan, Dame Maud his spouse and the souls of the Kings of England; for the souls of the Burgesses of the same town and of their progenitors and successors and for the benefactors of the town. And after the decease of every chaplain another shall be chosen by the said Burgesses and put in the said chapel in due form and there to stay for his life; the which chaplain has been thus ordained and has sung for the souls above said and all other Christian souls at all times since. To which chaplain and his successors men and women, some in their wills have devised, and some without wills by gifts have given, some before memory and some since and long before the Statute of the Religious Lands and Tenements in aid and sustenance of the same chaplain for the accomplishment of his great chantry which in such good manner was begun. The lands and tenements amount by year to forty and six shillings in all”.

“And because the chaplain cannot live sufficiently on the rent, the Aldermen and Burgesses of the same borough gave him the remainder out of their own goods and also ordained before time of memory for the same chaplain a dwelling house for him and his successors and other goods to serve in the same chapel to wit: a mysall, a portos, a graiell, a chalys, two pairs of vestments with the necessary towels, the which ornaments thus named amount to the value of x lib, the which goods are in the keeping of the said chapel”.

This certificate gives us no clue to the precise date of the building of the chapel or its exact relation to the rest of the Hospital of which it formed part. We must suppose that the Chaplain was not the same individual as the Prior or Master as he had a separate house of his own.

It looks as if the chapel was built by the Alderman and Burgesses as a guild chapel, perhaps in some spirit of revolt from the religious authority of the parish Vicar who was the nominee of the Abbot, with whom the Town Guild was not always on the best of terms and with whom they had disputes over property. Perhaps an early example of a growing intolerance of ecclesiastical control and a desire for greater freedom of worship.

Whether the trouble in 1265 was the result of the civic authorities encouraging the use of their chapel and chaplain by the citizens in place of the parish church, a tendency which on the complaint of the Vicar had to be nipped in the bud by the Bishop, we have no further hint; nor do we know how far the adjudication of Canon Constantine was successful in putting a stop to irregular practices, but it is evident that 125 years later the chapel was still functioning and endowed by the Guild and that they were still appointing the chaplains.

St John's Almshouse Lower High Street Malmesbury

St John's Almshouse Lower High Street Malmesbury

Of the chapel itself all that remains to-day is the arch facing the road shown in the sketch above which must have formed the west door of entrance, and the arch indirectly above it must have been that of a window.

There is no definite evidence as to the original size of the chapel, unless we assume that it covered the same ground as the existing block of almshouses, to which the arch forms the west face. This block is about 45ft. long from east to west and about 24ft. across. It occupies only a small part of the whole premises. But there is evidence that it was once structurally connected with other buildings both to the east and to the south, whether continuations of the chapel itself or other parts of the Hospital cannot now be determined.

The architectural character of the two arches, though not sufficiently pronounced to give a definite date, is however helpful. They are both blunt pointed arches, and the upper or window one is almost, though not quite, semi-circular, suggesting a Transitional or very Early English period. Only one of the our orders of the main arch is ornamented. This is of an unusual type consisting of a series of hexagonal lozenges containing quadrilateral lozenges each of which contains a small cross. This is more like a Norman or Transitional decoration than an Early English one. The upper part of the arch can be traced on the inside wall of the upper storey of the almshouse, the lower part being covered by a fireplace. It shows an ornamented moulding similar to that on the outside but of smaller pattern.

So that on the whole one is led to date the arch from the end of the 12th century or the beginning of the 13th. A sound architectural opinion, that of Dr. A. R. Green, F.S.A., has suggested 1185 as about the date. The chapel would therefore have been built probably not more than 50 years after the building of the present Abbey Church.

We have no other historical reference to the Hospital unless a statement in the “Eulogy of Histories” by the unknown Malmesbury monk has some connection with it. He says:

“It is believed that nuns dwelt where is now the Leper Hospital next the bridge”.

From its situation near the bridge this Leper Hospital of which we have no other record, if not directly part of St. John’s Hospital, must have been indirectly associated with it. We know that there were sisters as well as brothers in the Hospital.

As to the actual date of the disestablishment itself we have no record-our Hospital and its history are not mentioned in Kemble’s “Knights Hospitallers” in England-but it must have taken place at the time of the confiscation of the property of the Knights Hospitallers by King Henry VIII in or soon after 1530, as in the case of similar St. John’s Hospitals. It seems probable, as happened elsewhere, that some of the revenue was devoted to the foundation of a school and an almshouse on the site of the old Hospital, making use of some of its buildings for the purpose.

Leland, who visited Malmesbury in 1542, only three years after the Abbey disestablishment, says in his “Itinerary” after leaving the town by the Chippenham road: –

“and I have rede that there was another Nunnery where is now a poore Hospital about the South Bridge without the towne in the way to Chippenham”.

From this it would appear that the St. John’s community had by then disappeared and been replaced by the Almshouse.

All that we know historically is that the property of the Hospital and other property which had belonged to it came eventually into the possession, partly by purchase from John Herbert and Andrew Palmer, citizens of London, of John Stumpe.

John Stumpe was the second son of the famous clothier, William Stumpe, who had purchased the Abbey Church at the disestablishment and given it to the town as a parish church.

His second son John had succeeded to his father’s looms and business as clothier. He is known to have lived in the Abbey House within the old precincts and represented the Borough of Malmesbury in the parliament of 1584.

In 1580 he generously conveyed the Hospital and the whole of its property in the town to the Burgesses for the sum of £26 13s. 4d. with the liability on them for the maintenance of School and Almshouse at £20 a year.

From the first Minute Book of the Old Corporation which begins in 1600 we learn that in 1616 for the first time the Court of the Burgesses was held at St. John’s, and so it remained continuously thereafter.

In 1623 the Minute Book gives a copy of a written order in which the Alderman and Burgesses decide that “they shall hence forth hold and enjoy the School House, Kitchen, Orchard, Chapell. Garden and Almshouse as they now doe, to themselves and their successors for ever; in consideration whereof the sd Alderman and Burgesses are to repair, maintain and keep the said house in sufficient repair at their own proper cost and charge”.

By a memorandum dated June 22, 1629, an allotment was made by all the Burgesses, only four of whom signed their names to the memorandum, the rest making various marks, “to pay £20 for the maintenance of a schoollmaster and five poor pepell, to be maintained at St. John’s” according to the decree made that is as hereunder written:-

“Item, The seven parts which are called Cooke’s heath 35/- a year a piece; the 3 parts called New Leaze and the part called Port Mead Downes are to pay 30/- a year and the part called Clyatts 20/- a year and the part called Foxleaze 20/- a year; all make just twentie pounds on the yeare and five shillings over, which five shillings is to be paid unto the Alderman for the time being”.

The signatures or marks of the 13 Burgesses follow.

The Royal Charter of King Charles I was granted to the town in the year 1635.

In 1694 Michael Weekes, a citizen of London and Fellow of the Royal Society, but formerly of Malmesbury, endowed a charity from the revenues of land in Somerford to augment by £10 each the support of the Burgesses’ school and almshouse. The charity was placed in the hands of trustees and a plaque commemorating the endowment is placed on the wall of the old chapel within the frame of the upper arch. The charity also gives 20 shillings to the Vicar of the parish for a sermon to be preached annually on the 19th day of July. It is probable that some repairs and alterations were made at this time.

The property of the old Hospital, given them by John Stumpe, has remained in the hands of the Old Corporation ever since. The school continued to be held in the Court Room down to well on in the 19th century, and six old ladies instead of the original five “poor pepell” resided in the almshouse until a few years ago. At the time of the Local Government Corporation Act of 1882, when Malmesbury obtained a new Mayor and Corporation, retention of its old property for all time was granted to the Old Corporation, who were allowed to remain a corporate body for the management of their property.

Interior of The Old Corporation Court Room St John's Street Malmesbury

Interior of The Old Corporation Court Room St John's Street Malmesbury

The illustration above shows the interior of the Court Room. In it are seen:-

  1. On the dais, the Alderman’s chair, dated 1842, bearing the names of the then High Steward, Joseph Neelde Esq., and of the Alderman Steward.

  2. Four Coats of Arms; The Royal Arms of William and Mary dated 1693; those of the Borough, and two others flanking the Royal Arms. One is the coat of the Earle family: Gules within a bordure engrailed three escallops Argent. Giles Earle was M.P. for Malmesbury 1722-1747, his son Rawlinson being his colleague from 1727-1747. They were then turned out on petition and replaced by James Douglas and John Lee. Giles was High Steward of the Borough 1741-2 and it was then probably that his arms were placed in the Council Chamber. The other coat: Argent a chevron Gules between three trefoils slipped Vert within a bordure Or, has not been certainly traced, though it bears a resemblance to the arms of Sleford, a Lincolnshire family. I am indebted to Mr. Graham-Vivian, Windsor Herald, for this information.

  3. On the floor in front is the old box which contains the volumes of the minutes of the old Corporation. It is of wood bound with a number of locks and bars of iron. To the locks there are six numbered key holes, so that six separate keys were required to open it. The earliest minute book dating from 1600 was described in the Wilts Archbeological Magazine, vol. xlvii, pp. 321-326. The minute books are kept with almost religious care and access to them is only granted as a very great privilege.

At present the Almshouse is in bad repair. A scheme too expensive to be carried out at present has been suggested to convert the Almshouse into a museum. The Court Room is still in use. I have to thank my friends Dr. A. R. Green, F.S.A., and Dr. B. L. Hodge, of Malmesbury, for help given me in compiling these notes.

Originally Printed and Published by:-
C. H. Woodward, Exchange Buildings, Station Road, Devizes.