Visit to St John's Hospital in Lichfield

For one or two members the eagerly anticipated evening visit to St John's Hospital almost did not happen on time; but we eventually gathered inside the calming quietness and welcome peace of the hospital grounds. There we were met by the Master, Cannon John Howe, who took us straight in to see the full glory of the colours used by John Piper to create Christian Majesty in stained glass whilst sunlight was still pouring in through the Chapel windows. In 1982 the sum of 2,000 had been left to the hospital by "one of the poor gentlemen on which nature hath not shone" and the commission was agreed; in fact the last one on which John Piper and Patrick Reyntrens worked together as designer and Glazier.

We were given a sense of the history of the place in which we sat through a story which began in 1135 when the City had a number of gateways through which pilgrims travelling to the cathedral had to pass. At night these gateways were closed and there was a need to establish a place of hospitality at the South Gate where travellers could rest overnight. This long, narrow, building lasted until the 15th century when the gates were no longer closed at night. William Smythe, the master at that time, saved the building from dereliction by creating a home for twelve poor men of the city. The new living quarters, with unusual high chimneys rising on the roadside, had windows between them until the 1920s when the busy thoroughfare led to the windows being moved to open onto the gardens - 'an island of tranquillity'. We were privileged to be able to inspect one of these homes since there was an empty one available.

Further changes are envisaged to allow each unit to have a doorway opening onto the garden. It was hard to believe that it is difficult to fill vacancies from Lichfield inhabitants. In the 1960s two bedroom flats were made available for couples. One of the disadvantages of the present day is the security measure of an alarm system - it is possible to be locked out! An earlier disadvantage concerned the wanderings of a ghost - experienced by at least four former masters. When the Priors and Cannons were replaced by a Warden a Chaplain and a Master of Grammar (to run the original school on site) extra accommodation was needed and the old Priory was extended to include a Master's House. In 1720 the Master was Edward Maynard and he also needed new school buildings.

Indeed the Hospital of St John provides "an archaeological nightmare" but to us is gave a wonderful impression of the historical changes which have added so much to the quality of life in Lichfield in so many ways; charitable, social, religious, educational and the ongoing care of people and buildings. There was much to enjoy through our senses as we were taken around these buildings and so much more to reflect upon as we made our way back to the car park.

Brenda Tolson
May 1999