St Bartholomew’s Hospital – ‘Barts’

Following on from my 2nd blog about St Bartholomew, some interesting facts about my birthplace – the amazing St Bartholomew’s Hospital, better known as Barts. Read on to discover what it’s full name was for 400 years.


The grant of Rahere, founder of St Bartholomew’s Hospital                  to Hagno the clerk, 1137


The Hospital . St Bartholomew’s is just 5 years short of providing 900 years of continual health care provision, easily the oldest in England . As highlighted in my previous blog, it was built by a highly motivated Courtier called Rahere who received a Charter from King Henry Ist that he, the Prior, the Hospital and the sick poor people they served all fell under the King’s protection. Rahere was the first Prior and the hospitals first Master and he was likely cared for and died in the hospital.

In those medieval times it provided care in association with the Priory for the poor, the elderly and to the many  homeless children and babies born to mothers jailed in the nearby Newgate prison. Basically providing hospice and orphanage provision until Henry VIII stopped all that as part of his dissolution of the monasteries in 1539.

The Priory was brutally closed and the hospital would  have closed too but for the City fathers worried that the poor – whom the hospital had kept off the streets over the preceding centuries, would again provide an unwanted presence on the streets of this aspiring and affluent area, spoil the look of the place and spread their germs.

They petitioned Henry, asking that he grant the hospital back to the City on account of the fact it was urgently needed to help “the myserable people lyeng in the streete, offendyng every clene person passyng by the way with theyre fylthye and nastye savors.

The hospital had no income to continue its work until Henry agreed to grant the hospital to the City of London in 1546, and surprisingly before his death he even bestowed it with property to provide an income. 

It was his condition though that it be renamed “House of the Poore in West Smithfield in the suburbs of the City of London, of King Henry VIII’s foundation.”  Surprisingly this name did not catch the mood and although it remained it’s official name until 1948 it was always and most affectionately known simply as Barts.

The hospital could again focus on serving the sick poor.  The first Physician was appointed in 1562 when there was a team comprising of one Matron, twelve Sisters and three Surgeons employed to attend the poor daily.  The constitution of the Hospital then remained basically the same until the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948, although the team increased in size and structure steadily and significantly.

The Great Fire of London was halted at Giltspur Street at the entrance to where the current outpatients now stands. The hospital buildings were saved but the other wooden buildings, given by Henry a hundred years earlier to provide an income stream, had been lost plunging the hospital into financial ruin. Many of its wards were closed but they struggled on until a major redevelopment and rebuild could be undertaken 1730-1769.

All the medieval hospital buildings were demolished as part of that eighteenth century rebuilding programme undertaken by James Gibbs.The Great Hall is at the heart of this complex  consisting of the Gatehouse (1702) abutted by some fine Grade II listed Victorian Hardwick buildings, the Parish Church of St. Bartholomew’s the Less with its 12th century tower – the only surviving original structure on the site and the remaining three Gibbs blocks forming the North , East  and West  Wings (1738 – 1769) that surround a grand Square with its elegant Fountain.

Apprentices to the surgeons  ‘walked the wards’ since at least the 17th century, and in 1734 approval was given for the hospital’s surgeons ‘to read lectures in anatomy in the dissecting-room of the Hospital’.  In 1791 the Governors agreed a purpose-built lecture theatre to be constructed within the Hospital. Then to the provision of medical education within the Hospital, generally regarded as marking the foundation of the hospital’s Medical College. A School of Nursing was founded at the hospital in 1877.

In 1850 a potentially ground breaking event had happened when a lady called Elizabeth Blackwell was admitted to St Barts medical school. A second female – Ellen Colborne was admitted some 15 years later but no good outcome this time as she was quickly jettisoned when the male students had a bit of a strop and were not subscribing to equalities in medicine.  It was then not until 1947 that women were  allowed into the medical school.  Conversely male nurses were not allowed until 1974. All seems very bizarre these days.

A new entrance and wing has been erected in the modern style and demolitions and ongoing redevelopment of the site continues.

The reputation and expertise of the  ‘Teaching Hospital’ has continued to improve and it is truly world renowned. I can personally testify to the excellent work and output of the maternity ward in particular during the mid 1950s.

I remember my dad being outraged at the planned closure of the hosoital back in the 1970s and he wore his Save Barts badge with pride. This ‘idiotic’ plan incensed him more than anything I had ever known, other than Arsenal losing to Swindon in an FA Cup final around the same time. His outrage surprisingly won the day and Barts was saved. Well done Charlie. To be fair you did cross my dad at your peril.

The great hall in the North wing is sadly not open to the public despite not being used for anything these days other than the odd special event. Unless of course you have the gift of the blag when you might just sneakily discover it’s richly decorated plasterwork, stained glass and wall panels listing the numerous hospital beneficiaries. For a very reasonable £50, back in the day, your generosity and public spiritedness would be applauded and you would be appointed to the hospitals Board of Governors.

                                          The Great Hall

In the 1730s a young up and coming artist who lived in nearby  Bartholomew’s Close was horrified to learn that the Hospital Guvernors were intending to appoint an Italian artist to paint some murals for the main staircase. William Hogarth offered to undertake the commission for free despite being scared of heights. Hogarth was inspired to prove that an english artsist was every bit as capable as any Venetian.

Despite his generous offer there was a lot of opposition but he proved persuasive and they took a chance with him. He proved himself and delivered two amazing murals, The Pool of Bethesda and The Good Samaritan. However, he completed the first off site and then had it moved it into place. This allowed him to achieve a good level of detail. The second was painted in-situ but, presumably due to the working at height issue, has far less detail. Still, it was better than I could do – even though I am OK with heights.

The stairs as can be viewed from a doorway within the museum.

The paintings are still used as an educational tool as the characters portrayed are thought to be patients from The Hospital, many of whose conditions can be recognised within the paintings to the trained eye. How clever is that.

St Bartholomew’s Hospital today is a specialist cardiac and cancer care centre, a recognition of its continuing innovation in these fields.

A laboratory in the hospital was the setting for the first meeting of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘A Study in Scarlet’ 1887.

This was once the maternity wing and the first building I left 60 odd years ago. 

The nurse who escorted me off the premises all those years ago is still there but seemed to freeze when she saw me, strange.

The Fountain in the Square – 1859 as part of the rebuilding package of works.

The simple and not unattractive new hospital entrance. 

Henry VIII Gate

                                 Henry VIII above his Gateway

Well, a fact that massively surprised me, there is only one outdoor statue in London to celebrate Henry VIII. It stands proudly above the gateway that leads to Barts. This pinnacle centre of care and kindness that somehow owes its longevity to an individual who did not go down in history for being particularly benevolent in thought or actions.

Some 200 years after Henry VIII had effectively saved the hospital, in 1701, the hospital’s governors commissioned John Strong of the Strong family of Masons who, were at the time beavering away at St Paul’s Cathedral with Sir Christopher Wren – to erect a new gatehouse to commemorate this otherwise bad boy.  The cost was £550. It would cost more today.

The statue of Henry VIII was given pride of place above the gateway between four round columns and like the hospital has survived and is now an iconic part of the hospital and stool considered a main entrance despite the new proper entrance on the opposite side of the site. It is perhaps odd that such a magnificent structure was commissioned as a street entrance to a hospital for the poor and is still going strong over 300 years later.

Just like me Henry likes to look at Smithfield market, opposite. Must be the butcher in him

St Bartholomew-the-less Church

There was once five chapels to serve the priory and hospital but only one survived the reformation. The nearest church to the hospital dedicated to the Holy Cross in 1123 was moved to its current site in 1184 and only it’s tower survives. The chapel became crown property under Henry and known as St Bartholomew-the-less to distinguish it from the other grander church up the road. It is also known as Little Barts.

The old tower has three bells, the eldest cast 1380 and supported on an original timber structure – the oldest in London. The original interior designer by William Dance the Younger in 1793, was of timber. Dry rot meant it had to be ripped out and replaced with stonework.

St Bart’s Hospital is actually it’s own parish and its parishioners are made up of hospital staff and patients. It was that attendance for all patients and staff was compulsory. The church also has traditional links to the Haberdasher’s livery Company. Haberdasher’s Hall stands directly opposite the Hospital entrance.

Buried in the church lies Thomas Bodley who founded the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Architect Inigo Jones was baptised here.

                           Entrance adjacent to Henry VIII gatehouse


Stained glass dedication to Nurses who gave their lives in WW 2


                                            Ornate marble pulpit

The Museums

                             The Pathology Museum

Opened in 1879 the Pathology Museum is a vast space made up of 3 mezzanine levels each around 8 metres high, all linked by a beautiful spiral staircase.

It contains some 5000 anatomical specimens, including forensic and historical examples, as well as some corresponding archive information. Housed within the grounds of the Hospital,
recent events have featured Sherlock Holmes, the unsolved murder of The Black Dahlia, Tattoos as a memento-mori and The Death of Marilyn Monroe. There is a regular taxidermy class and organ potting workshop if interested.

In addition to the pathology museum another little gem can be found just as you come through Our Henry’s gateway, on the left. It houses a small but fascinating history of the hospital from its humble and noble origins in a beautifully presented way with a great range of documents, instruments, art and attire of the day


A copy of the refounding document signed by Henry VIII 

I have thoroughly enjoyed putting this together and having got it out of my system can now focus at last on our joint travels, castles, abbey’s, villages, beaches and people of Britain here we come. First things first though, a nice cup of ‘ The Govnor’ and an Early Grey for Julie.

Somerset next

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