St. Catherine’s Hospital - 700th Anniversary
1316 - 2016
Symond Potyn descended from an ancient Rochester family that can be traced back at least to the mid-twelfth century. On 20 November 1295 Symond and his wife Cicely first appear in the Rochester records as parties to a property transaction, and over the next three decades he continued to buy property in the Eastgate suburb of Rochester. Symond Potyn also played a prominent role in Rochester civic life, representing the city of Rochester in Parliament in 1305, 1306, 1307, 1311, 1313, and 1320. During 1310 he was one of three commissioners appointed to carry out repairs on Rochester Bridge, and during 1311 he was appointed one of two wardens and supervisors of the bridge.
On 25 December 1316 Symond Potyn drew up and signed the Foundation Deed for “the Spittell of St Katherine of Rochester in the Suburbe in Eastgate”.
The hospital was established to house any man or woman suffering from leprosy or other disabling diseases leading to poverty. The vicar of St. Nicholas parish, the bailiff of Rochester, and the heirs of Symond Potyn would govern the hospital.
The governors would appoint a prior to run the hospital and could remove him “if Laufull Cause askith”. Residents were to obey the prior, share any alms received by the hospital, not spend their days drinking in the local taverns, not be guilty of ribald speech, nor join in “other misrule nor evell governaunce”. Residents not co-operating with the prior could be removed from the hospital by the vicar after a complaint by the prior and two good men of Eastgate. Both morning and evening the residents were to join the prior in saying the rosary and praying for the king and Symond Potyn during their lives and for the repose of their souls after death. Eight years later in December 1324 Symond Potyn died. His will does not survive, but later records show that he bequeathed to the hospital property on the High Street and Star Hill, including The Star Inn.
Life in the Medieval Hospital
Little is known about daily life in the hospital beyond the details in the Foundation Deed, but glimpses appear in the wills of many fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Rochester residents who left bequests to the “house of St. Katherine next Rochester”. In 1455, for example, William Wodier left a bushel of barley to “the brothers of St. Katherine’s hospital”, in 1490 John Godewyn bequeathed “a hole bed into the Almes howse of seynt kateryn”, and in 1535 William Warner left 20d. “to the chappell of Saint katereynes for the most nedefull reparations ther to be done.”
The Eighteenth-Century Hospital
St. Catherine’s Hospital continued to function as almshouses during the early modern period, but by the end of the 17th century it had fallen on hard times. In 1705 a Court of Chancery commission of inquiry found that the hospital estate was let on long leases at low rents and that the hospital buildings were in disrepair. Tenants were ordered to pay £100 for immediate repairs and to accept new leases for shorter terms. During 1716 and 1717 the hospital was rebuilt on the original site at the corner of the High Street and Star Hill. The twelve hospital residents - all women by the 1740s - each received a stipend totalling £2 5s. a year plus an annual allowance of one dozen candles and a chaldron (36 bushels) of coal.
During the latter half of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century, the fortunes of St. Catherine’s Hospital improved, as various Rochester benefactors left legacies to the hospital:
Robert Bayley in 1752 bequeathed £300 in trust to supplement the stipends of the almswomen.
William Fruin in 1778 left £300 of stock “for investment and annual distribution of the interest and dividends during the week before Christmas to the twelve poor women residing in the Spytell of Saint Catherine”.
Thomas Tomlyn in 1790 bequeathed the annual interest from £1,100 in 3% bank annuities for the stipends of the almswomen.
Joseph Wilcocks in 1788 left £2100 in 3% Bank Annuities eventually transferred by his trustees to the vicar of St. Nicholas and the mayor of Rochester in 1810. The dividends from the investment were to be paid to the twelve almswomen of St. Catherine’s “for their better & more comfortable support & maintenance” in augmentation of their stipends (at the rate of 2s. per week).
Susanna Kettle in 1816 left the interest from £100 in 3% bank annuities to augment the stipends of the poor pensioners of St. Catherine’s.
Susannah Day in 1820 bequeathed the interest from £500 bank stock to be paid to the poor people of St. Catherine’s hospital on 29 October each year.
Although the hospital income varied from year to year, the dividends from these legacies, together with the rents from the estate, amounted in 1836 to an annual income of £545 6s.7d., and the annual stipend for each almswoman had increased to £30 13s.9d.
The Nineteenth-Century Hospital
Finances having been put on a firmer footing, the nineteenth-century vicars of St. Nicholas and mayors of Rochester concentrated on construction. The almshouses, although rebuilt almost a century before, once again needed extensive repairs. Fortunately, in a codicil to his will proved in 1797 Thomas Tomlyn had made a second bequest of £1,200 for moving the almshouses to a new site on hospital land at the top of Star Hill. With an additional £400 from the trustees of Joseph Wilcocks, the new hospital with rooms for 12 almswomen was completed in 1805.
Plan for four new almshouses designed in 1850 by County Surveyor Martin Whichcord.
Construction at the hospital continued with two new rooms added in 1831, followed by another four in 1850, two in 1860, and two in 1867 housing a total of 22 almswomen.
The Twentieth-Century Hospital
During the twentieth century the finances of the hospital began a steady decline, as properties were sold in order to maintain the hospital. During the 1950s the Victorian almshouses were modernised. The outside washhouses were removed, and the hospital was re-modelled to contain indoor sanitation, central heating, a common room and 12 two-room flats, each having a bed-sitting room and kitchen. However, to pay for modernisation, more High Street properties had to be sold and income declined further. In 1959, a new Charity Commission scheme increased the number of trustees, ending the centuries-old administration by the vicar and the mayor; but the estate continued to decrease in value, and hospital finances finally failed. In 1975, the Charity Commission transferred administration of the hospital and its assets to the Richard Watts Charity. Since 1977 the hospital has operated under the umbrella of the Richard Watts and the City of Rochester Almshouse Charities. Further modernised during the 1980s and 1990s, St. Catherine’s Hospital now comprises 11 self-contained flats and, seven centuries after its foundation, still fulfils the will of its founder Symond Potyn to care for the elderly poor of Rochester.