St Thomas’ Hospital & The Reformation

19th century engraving by Nathaniel Whittock from a drawing by Antony van den Wyngaerde (ca 1543-50).

The Parish Community

During the early years of the 16th Century the small parish of St Thomas’ was a thriving community. In the grounds of the hospital were the famous workshops of the ‘Southwark School of Glaziers’ where, between 1526 and 1531, were made the stained glass windows for King’s College chapel, Cambridge. The first complete translation of the Bible into English, by Miles Coverdale, was ‘imprinted in Southwarke in Saint Thomas Hospitale by James Nycolson, 1537’ .

Cambridgeshire, Cambridge, Kings College Chapel, Choir East, 1920’s.

The End of an Era

The hospital community was shattered by Henry VIII’s policy of the forced dissolution of the monasteries. In 1538, Thomas Cromwell’s deputy, Richard Layton, visited the ‘bawdy’’ hospital. The master, Richard Mabott, was accused of immorality, selling the hospital’s silver and exacting excessive fees from patients. On 14th January 1540, the hospital was surrendered to the King and the monks were pensioned off.

A Secular Hospital

The City of London and its Lord Mayor, Sir Richard Gresham, petitioned the king to allow the hospital to continue under secular management. The king refused; one factor was probably the relationship of the hospital with Thomas Becket, an early symbol of clerical opposition to the monarchy. In 1539, Becket was de-canonised and his shrine in Canterbury Cathedral desecrated. The hospital lay derelict for over a decade. It was eventually rededicated to St Thomas the Apostle – a subtle compromise between tradition and the new religious values.

Southwark in the 16th Century. St Thomas’ is directly above in yellow.

Southwark in the 16th Century

Dissolute and Destitute

The dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII provoked a crisis in London for the ‘sick and infirm poor men lying begging in the public streets’ . On June 26th 1553, Letters Patent were issued by King Edward VI incorporating the three Royal hospitals of Christchurch, Bridewell and St Thomas the Apostle, and transferring to them the estate of the Savoy hospital. The three hospitals were designed to provide a complete service to the destitute: Christchurch for orphans, St Thomas’s for the sick and aged, and Bridewell for the ‘undeserving poor’. When St Thomas’ re-opened, it admitted 250 patients and had a staff led by the hospitaller (£10 p.a.) assisted by a clerk (£10 p.a), a steward (£6 13s p.a.), a butler (£5 p.a.), a cook (£8 p.a.) and six surgeons (£15 p.a.). An apothecary was added to the complement in 1566.
A matron was in charge of ten sisters – one for each of the six general wards and four for the so-called ‘foul’ wards for sufferers of venereal diseases. Sisters were not formally trained and were often recruited from amongst the patients. They were dismissed if they became engaged or married, but otherwise had a good chance of promotion to the job of butler, cook or matron.
The wages were low and were supplemented by perquisites (perks): fuel, candles, or beer- the hospitaller commanded an allowance of one gallon a day. Extra funds could be made by moon-lighting; the porter made money on the side with his own out-patients department for ‘scald-head’ , and the cook was, in 1583, earning extra wages by grave-digging (a reflection on his culinary skills perhaps?).

The Buildings

The derelict medieval buildings were probably restored for the new hospital with very little rebuilding. The earliest detailed map, published in 1572, shows the buildings constructed around a courtyard set back from the roads.

Running the Hospital

St Thomas’ was run by ‘almoners’, or governors, initially 15, who represented the City of London. Admissions were restricted to urgent cases and to residents of South-East London who brought a letter from an almoner. Incurables, lunatics and plague victims were not admitted and a watch was kept to prevent ineligible patients sneaking in, or inmates sneaking out (to partake of the strong Southwark ales).
Patients, if they were able, were expected to pay for their upkeep. But the destitute were also admitted and supplied with smocks, shoes, and bedding. Not all patients were ill for,

Syphilitic Patients 1498 (Mala Franczus, Bart Steber) St. Thomas’s probably gained its reputation as a bawdy’ hospital as it administered to the many prostitutes and their clients in

until the 17th Century, one of the wards was a Nightlayer’s lodgings providing overnight shelter for the homeless. This was the final example of the institution providing ‘hospitality’ in the original sense.


Food consisted of a breakfast of gruel or porridge, a dinner of bread, meat and beer, and a supper of broth. Three pints of ale per person was also allocated.


The regime was strict and those guilty of immorality could be punished at the whipping-post or in the stocks. Those who had acquired venereal disease ‘by immorality’ were punished in the stocks before they were released.


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