Easy to walk past without noticing, but under the old gatehouse to Barts Hospital is a museum to its 900 odd years of history.
St Bartholomew’s was founded in 1123 as a place of hospitality, and became known for taking in expectant mums, orphans and the like from nearby Newgate Prison. It soon gained a reputation for healing though, and people travelled here to pray to the Saint for healing — presumably ignoring the work of the people who did the actual healing though the application of good diet and rest at a time when that would have been a luxury.
As its name suggests, it was founded as a religious site, and was to remain one for some 400 years, until a certain King split with Rome. It was at that point that the City of London took over the Hospital, so long as the City matched the King’s own endowment to its running costs.
The hospital we see today is largely the creation of the early 18th century when the 600 year old layout was replaced by the central square and solidly decent stone clad buildings that make up the core the hospital now – although it’s undergoing a major upgrade again at the moment.
The museum is modest in size, being a couple of rooms, but cleverly laid out to make it seem larger than it is – with lots of display boards about the history of the hospital, and the people who worked there – particularly focusing on the time it became a teaching hospital with lots of young, and not entirely obedient students.
The patients didn’t come off much better at times – to swear meant being put in the stocks.
Grand old documents fill some cases, such as Rahere’s grant of 1137 – the oldest document in the hospital archives, and the 1546 agreement between Henry VIII and the City of London which refounded the hospital.
Like a lot of these one-topic museums, it’s often the smaller objects that amuse – such as the bill for removing “night soil” from its cess pits, and the Renters Mug, which was used by the landlord of the site to drink the health of tenants who paid the rent on time.
The North Block, which houses the museum also houses the magnificent Great Hall, for this was the era when important people were expected to dine in greatness. The hall is not open except for tours, but you can peer into the staircase from the museum doors, which gives a hint of what can be seen upstairs.
A visit can last a good half hour or so depending on how diligently you study the cases and read the documents.
The museum is open Tuesday to Friday, from 10am to 4pm – entry is free with donations appreciated.