Saturday, 27 August 2016

The Wards of Old London: Portsoken - St Katharine's Hospital & Docks

This is the second of two posts on Portsoken Ward. The earlier one having dealt with its Saxon history, we come now to the Medieval and Modern eras. The somewhat mysterious "Knighten Guilde," established under King Edgar the Peaceable, did not long survive the Norman Conquest. There were only thirteen "knights," some of whom probably died at Stamford Bridge, and others at Hastings. Those who remained, and their heirs and successors, almost certainly lost their right to bear arms. The Guild continued in name only and, in 1115, its members gifted their land to the Augustinian Priory of Holy Trinity Within Aldgate.

In 1147, Queen Matilda, the consort of King Stephen, established a hospital dedicated to Saint Katharine at the southern end of Portsoken Ward, to the east of the Tower of London. That she did this with the support and assistance of the Augustinian Prior, who had a close relationship with the Royal Family, is almost certain.

The east end of the hospital church (image is in the Public Domain).

The hospital, London's second (after Barts), had a master, three brothers, three sisters, and a bedeswoman (an almswoman whose role was to pray for the benefactors). Whilst its medical facilities are likely to have been limited (one can, perhaps, imagine novices running between the city's various monastic houses in search of herbs), it played an important role, over almost eight centuries, in providing what we might today call "palliative care," for people severely disabled, or otherwise unable to care for themselves. By 1442, it had twenty-three acres of land, with its own prison, officers and court, all operating outside the ecclesiastical and civil jurisdiction of the City of London.

Saint Katharine by the Tower (image is in the Public Domain).

Like London's other religious houses, it was dissolved at the time of the Reformation, but was almost immediately re-established as a Protestant institution under Henry VIII. By this time, it had a brewery, and more than a thousand homes: a magnet for craftsmen who were not members of the City Guilds; for seamen and rivermen; but also for prostitutes (who were not allowed to operate within the City); and for those evading justice. The street-names tell their own stories: Dark Entry; Cat's Hole; Shovel Alley; Rookery; Pillory Lane.

The Brothers' House of the hospital in 1781 (image is in the Public Domain).

The rivermen who lived within this expanding, and increasingly insanitary and lawless, village to the east of the city used their boats to unload cargoes from ships that sailed directly into, and berthed in, the Pool of London (the stretch of river between the Tower and London Bridge). As Britain's mercantile economy grew, this expanse of water became more and more crowded with ships.

The London docks in 1757 (image is in the Public Domain).
Detail from the Rhinebeek Panorama of 1806, Museum of London (image is in the Public Domain).

In 1825, an Act of Parliament provided for the creation of a new enclosed dock, to be built by the engineer, Thomas Telford. The Medieval hospital buildings were razed to the ground, and, with them, around 1250 homes, 11,300 people forced to move northwards, into the already overcrowded slums of Stepney and Whitechapel.

The plan for Saint Katharine's Docks (image is in the Public Domain).
Saint Katharine's Docks under construction, by William Ranwell (image is in the Public Domain).
The opening of Saint Katharine's Docks in 1828, by W.J. Huggins (image is in the Public Domain).

Saint Katharine's Docks were never a commercial success. Even as they were created, ships were being built, only a few miles downstream, that would be too large to enter them. Ivory, sugar, marble, rubber, carpets, spices, perfumes and indigo, were unloaded at Saint Katharine's for a period of decades only, before shifting to newer, and much larger, docks to the east.

Saint Katharine's Docks: Photo: Metropolitan Police, NPAS.
Saint Katharine's Docks. Photo: Matthias v.d. Elbe (licensed under CCA).

The docks themselves survive (now a marina for pleasure-boats, surrounded by hotels, restaurants and luxury apartments), and with them the dedication to Saint Katherine, which, for most visitors today, is only a name.

Post-Script: I recently learned that a series of misericords and other Fourteenth Century wooden sculptures from Saint Katherine have survived, and may be viewed by arrangement at the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine in Limehouse. Further information may be found here.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

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