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Bridgnorth Castle

The two hospitals

What did these two hospitals look like? ‘We have an idea, of sorts, of what the constructs may have looked like but centuries later. ‘1570’ has St James’s represented with just a single church-looking chapel whilst Ernest Pee’s 20th rendition of 17th century Bridgnorth has it comprising of three structures running south to north: the two storey priory, the chapel, and the maladrerie/sick-house. John Wood's plan and early OS plans were very similar and all claimed the then priory and chapel were still then ‘remains’. Both sat on an east-west axis. All renditions show a walled perimeter.  The 1732 Buck panorama seemingly omits the hospital. St John’s is shown on ‘1570’ as a pitched roof affair of two wings set at right-angle to each other with another, smaller chimneyed building immediately behind. Being without a walled enclosure, later renditions are difficult to see whether the adjacent buildings are of the same building complex or separate. The 1732 Buck scene outwardly shows a more modern structure featuring a type of hipped roof.

As to the overall complexes, we know later medieval period versions nationally sometimes took on the look of a priory with a courtyard development built around a cloister area with a chapel, infirmary, refectory and separate sleeping abode(s). No doubt, the aspiration from the start would definitely be to go along that path. But little has been unearthed about the physical early development of hospitals. One such is St Mary Magdalen’s in Winchester. There, pre-1150 the buildings were timber but subsequently replaced with a masonry chapel and aisled hall. In the late 1300’s another stone building was attached, probably for staff.

At Bridgnorth, it is reasonable to assume that time and early financially constraints meant a not very grand start for our two establishments. Initially there would likely be a single hall building, acting as chapel, refectory, sleeping area for all, and infirmary. Unattached simple timber structures would suffice as a kitchen, washing place and cess pit weather cover. This usage has been seen as various sites including nearby Stourbridge. The chapel part would occupy the eastern end, as to be expected. In due course, a separate building for staff sleeping and provision of better sanitary and water supply arrangements, as well as a stand-alone chapel. Neither establishment could ever have had the fresh water and flushing toilets that the Friary achieved – unless some water conduit that we unaware of bought water down from the hillside behind. At some time, spring-fed water was obtainable from the ‘Hermit’s Well’ further up the hill.

St James’, as a leper establishment, may have consisted of just a number of (simple, crude) detached houses in its formulative years.

What material would these early structures be composed of? There is a fair chance that wood would dominate at first. Whether any of the buildings had moved on to stone has to be another speculation, but we can assume at least one hospital/chapel had a masonry main building by our date – perhaps both. After all, churches were predominately of this material by now. As to the St James’ site, it may be too early for a boundary wall. On-site burials appeared to be the norm, so each would have a cemetery.

All three would have had an adjacent herb garden for food and medicine use. The Friary could only have a limited area of land near it, so could do little else but the other two would have an adjacent area, the Toft, which would hold the likes of a pig pen, malthouse, small barn for winter protection for a cow or two, and graveyard. Pigs were particularly prized since they not only provided meat but also fat for medical balms etc. Some sort of orchard would be very likely. St James had its reasonably sized orchid across the road. It may have had a small fish pond, not having access to their own weir as St John’s had. The latter would surely have stables. From the start they both would have controlled an adjacent croft field, croft being the term used for such land dedicated to agricultural arable use. This would be used for growing food for their own consumption with very possibly a sellable surplus from the start. Endowed land further afield would add to this asset base. Our ‘1570’ map clearly has a number of (most?) fields / selions belong to one or other establishment.

The area taken up by St John’s in ‘1570’, and presumably also in 1275, was a large square of land with the junction of Mill and St John’s streets at its NW corner. To the west are the buildings set in the Toft whilst to the east is an area designated as Bacons Croftes, whatever that meant but unquestionably the hospital’s croft originally. With the hospital established, the main north-south road zigzags around to produce Mill Street, and thence onwards along modern Hospital Street.

St James’ sits astride this road about 200m south of its sister hospital and sat on the south side of the later Stourbridge Road, stretching as far as the junction with Barnard’s Hill. That road has yet to come. In time, it was one of the extra-mural suburbs found in the ‘courts’ (housing for the poor) on the medieval burgage plots system.  To the immediate south are between 7 & 10 selions, two of which are designated Rudding / Rydding meaning a clearing. Pitchford 1332 from the late 13th century records a piece of land somewhere between the two hospitals.