ORIGINAL FOUNDATION – 1135
St John’s has its origins in the 12th Century following the appointment of Roger de Clinton as Bishop of Lichfield in 1129. As well as rebuilding the cathedral, which was originally consecrated in 700 to contain the tomb and shrine of its first bishop, St. Chad (d.672), Bishop de Clinton fortified the Close and built a new town, protected by water to the north and a defensive ditch and rampart to the south in which there were four gates – or barrs – which were shut and locked at night.
To provide pilgrims to the shrine of St. Chad and other travellers who arrived after the curfew with shelter, Bishop de Clinton built a priory just outside Culstubbe Gate, staffed by Augustinian canons. Completed in 1135 this was known as the Hospital of St. John Baptist Without the Barrs of the City of Lichfield. The word ‘hospital’, sometimes still used today to describe St John’s, can cause confusion; in this context its meaning encompasses hospitality and living accommodation.
REFOUNDATION – 1495
By the fifteenth century there was no further need for a hostel outside the city gates and by 1458 St John’s had ceased to be a corporate institution led by a prior but had been declared by the bishop to be a benefice without the cure of souls (a true “sinecure”) which could be held by a secular clerk known as the Master.
However, in 1495 Bishop William Smythe re-founded the priory as a hospital for “thirteen honest poor men upon whom the inconvenience of old age and poverty, without any fault of their own, have fallen”. In addition to their lodging the men were to receive seven pence (7d) a week and free coal and clothing. They were required to attend daily prayers in the chapel. At the same time a free grammar school was founded to be supported out of the hospital’s revenues (although this became separated from the hospital in 1692). The hospital was still governed by a Master but it was now a requirement that he was to be in holy orders.
Bishop Smythe arranged for the Canons’ and Pilgrims’ long stone medieval hall to be enlarged into a three-storey house for the Master and a new wing to be added at right angles to the original building as an almshouse, providing each almsman with his own room and fireplace, this being the local landmark building with its eight distinctive tall chimneys which still stands on St. John Street today.
The hospital continued to be administered under the statutes of 1495 until the early part of the twentieth century: even when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries (c.1536-41) St John’s remained untouched thanks to Bishop Smythe’s wise changes.
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
In 1908 after lengthy negotiations between the Charity Commissioners, Bishop Augustus Legge and the then Master, Denham Rowe Norman, a Scheme under which the Hospital was to be administered was sealed. However this was not to become effective until the Master resigned (the Master was said to hold “one of the most wealthy benefices” in Lichfield) and this did not occur until 1925 when he was aged 98.
In 1923 the vast majority of the Hospital’s land holdings in Lichfield had to be sold to enable substantial repairs to be carried out to the almshouse. As a result of the delay and changes in the endowments a new Scheme was sealed in 1927 under which the administration of St John’s was transferred from the Master to a body of Trustees.
Under this scheme, many improvements were made:
- In 1929 the almshouse was completely renovated and the almsmen’s rooms rearranged to overlook the quadrangle which were then quieter and had more light.
- In 1958 the Master’s House was renovated and the top floor converted into a separate apartment, later sub-divided into two.
- In 1966/7 the original almshouse building, by now known as the East Wing/Yew Tree Lodge, was extended to add a common room, a warden’s flat and a new wing, known as the West Wing/Cherry Tree Lodge, providing eight further self-contained apartments.
In 1976 a new Scheme was sealed, bringing the 1927 Scheme up to date and authorising the appointment of married couples as beneficiaries: hitherto only single men qualified as beneficiaries. The new Scheme also made provision for the building of further almshouses, as a result of which a new almshouse, built on the former Theological College site in the Cathedral Close, St John’s within the Close, was opened in 1981.
In 1984 a masterpiece of stained glass designed by John Piper was installed in the east window of the chapel.
THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
- In 2006 the sculpture “Noah and the Dove” commissioned from Simon Manby, was installed in the original courtyard.
- In 2014 the charity was converted into a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO) known as St. John’s Lichfield, into which St John’s Hospital was merged. The CIO’s constitution authorised, for the first time, the appointment of single women as beneficiaries.
- In 2016, two new buildings, providing a further 18 new apartments, were constructed at St John’s without the Barrs. These were Passivhaus certified and officially opened by HRH the Duke of Gloucester in July 2017.