The Museum of St. Bartholomew's Hospital
This new and remarkably well set out exhibition traces the history of St Bartholomew's hospital from 1123 until the present day. Filled with interesting artefacts and medical instruments that have survived the centuries, it provides a remarkable insight into the development of medical knowledge and skill as well as the treatment of the sick over the ages. It is also a fair tribute to a hospital that rates highly in the affections of Londoners for its long-standing tradition of compassionate care for the needy and disadvantaged.
St Bartholomew's Hospital - almost always nicknamed 'Bart's' - was founded by Raherus or Rahere, a favourite courtier of King Henry I. Apparently something of a wit, Rahere was said to have loved the high life until he fell ill with malarial fever while on a pilgrimage to Rome. Having vowed to build a hospital for the 'recreacion of poure men' if he recovered, he then saw a vision of of St. Bartholomew who commanded him to build a priory church as well as a hospital, both to be named in his honour, on a site that he would indicate. The Saint went on to tell Rahere to give only his diligence to the project, promising that he would direct, build and end the work.
When the courtier returned to England, he quickly got a royal sanction to begin building at Smithfield, then a flat area of land used for tournaments. And from the start, just as the Saint had said, some miraculous power seemed to take a hand. A marvellous light was seen to shine on the roof of the church as it arose; the blind who visited it received their sight and cripples went away healed.
By this stage, Rahere had taken the cloth and himself became the first prior of St. Bartholomew the Great. When he died in 1144, he was buried in the church where his tomb, complete with an effigy added in 1405, can still be seen.
Given its position on the edge of wide open fields, the priory church and hospital of St. Bartholomew was the perfect location for large meetings. One of the most famous took place in 1381when Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasants' Revolt, came to negotiate terms with the young King Richard II. Full of his previous successes, Tyler made the mistake of snatching at the King's bridle. At this, the Lord Mayor of London plunged a dagger into his throat. Although Tyler was carried away living, some of the King's knights dragged him out of St. Bartholomew's hospital and beheaded him.
Even at this early stage in its history, Bart's hospital seemed destined to witness the fluctuating political fortunes of the city and sadly its boundary wall became the backdrop for many more killings. Plaques set into that wall recall only a few of the merciless executions carried out at Smithfield over the centuries, the victims dubbed martyrs or traitors, according to the philosophy of the day.
The hospital itself has narrowly escaped extinction for political reasons too. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, it barely survived the closure of St. Bartholomew's priory church. The King finally agreed to refound the hospital in 1546 and a statue commemorating this reversal of fortunes occupies the arch of the hospital's main gate (pictured above) together with two figures representing Sickness and Lameness. More recently, health service cuts also left the fate of Bart's in the balance but a long and bitterly fought campaign has now secured its future.
Having weathered the trends for almost 900 years, Bart's continues to concentrate on medical care and its museum very much reflects that practical approach. And that is no bad thing as the history of the hospital is very much the history of the community it serves.
As well as throwing new light on this subject, the opening of Bart's museum has finally made another of the city's secrets public. Part way around the exhibition is a door which opens on to the hospital's official entrance hall and a glance around this reveals an unexpected extra. There, on the walls of a magnificent staircase are two stunning murals painted by the artist William Hogarth. These rare examples of Hogarth's work are worth a visit in their own right but can only be seen at close quarters on Friday afternoons.
The story behind the murals is quite surprising. In something of a self-serving exercise, the 18th century hospital governors decided to commission an entrance hall and Great Hall in order to impress visitors. The pièce de résistance was to be a spectacular staircase enhanced by two giant tableaux. According to the fashion of the day, the governors approached a Venetian artist to do the work. When Hogarth, who was already famous - though mainly for his scalding social satires - heard the news, he went to the governors and offered his services free. Happily, they accepted and Hogarth was able to prove for all time that English painters could create compositions in the classical style as well as any Italian. This not only helped to change the prevailing attitude, it also paved the way for a new School of English painting.
Hogarth's tableaux, one depicting the Good Samaritan and the other Christ healing the lame man at the pool of Bethesda, are every bit as impressive today as they were when they were first executed. The artist's exceptional skills as a caricaturist are particularly noticeable in the second mural and it is said that the onlookers at the poolside were modelled on patients at the hospital.
* An extensive archive of staff, patient and treatment records can be viewed by researchers or members of the public by prior request.
The Museum of St. Bartholomew's Hospital is open from Tuesday to Friday from 10 am. - 4 pm. except bank holidays. Admission is free.
Guided tours of the entrance hall and Great Hall of the hospital are conducted on Fridays at 2 pm. Meet at the King Henry VIII gate on Smithfield. Admission £4 or £3 concessions.
Groups and anyone wishing to see the hospital archives should contact Tel: 0207-601-8152.
Chancery or St. Paul's (Central Line)
Copyright © Jan Collie 2002
Published by permission of the author.
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