29 January 2018

Theodolites and theology
at Saint Katharine’s
in London’s East End

The gardens and the former Georgian Vicarage of Saint James, Ratcliff, at the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

A team of surveyors has been going around the buildings and grounds in the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine in the East End of London, measuring the rooms and the corridors for a survey. I suppose you could say this is some heady mixture – theodolites and theology – while I am here for a two-day a residential meeting of the trustees of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel USPG).

I was last here over a year ago for a similar two-day residential meeting in November 2016.

I arrived back this morning at Saint Katharine’s, which stands at the East End crossroads connecting the communities of Stepney, Shadwell and Limehouse, close to the site of the old docks. It is just a few steps from Cable Street, the scene of a famous street battle over 80 years ago between Oswald Moseley’s fascists and the East End communities who protected the local Jewish people against racist taunts and assaults in 1936.

Saint Katharine’s offers a place of transforming calm for visitors who are in London on a short stay, on a business trip, or for a personal retreat and who find this is a unique alternative to London hotels.

Despite these busy two days, this is a relaxing place to stay, with a peaceful environment. The garden is home to undisturbed wildlife, with blackbirds, wood pigeons in the sheltered spaces. In the rose garden, there is a rose bush planted by Queen Elizabeth II during her last visit. This setting is enhanced by the lounge, conservatory, garden and small library.

The Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine’s dates back to 1147, when it was founded by Queen Matilda. Since then, this has been a centre for worship, hospitality and service for many centuries.

Originally known as Saint Katharine’s by the Tower, it has been a mediaeval church, hospital and centre of Saint Katharine’s precinct, a liberty housing over 2,000 people. It once had its own courts, prisons, factories and breweries and prisons.

Saint Katharine’s by the Tower – its full name was the Royal Hospital and Collegiate Church of Saint Katharine by the Tower – was a mediaeval church and hospital next to the Tower of London. The church was a royal peculiar and the precinct around it was an extra-parochial area, eventually becoming a civil parish that was dissolved in 1895.

Saint Katharine’s was founded in 1147 by Queen Matilda, the wife of King Stephen, in memory of two of her children, Baldwin and Matilda, who died in infancy and were buried in the Priory Church of Holy Trinity at Aldgate.

The endowment was increased by two Queens of England, Eleanor of Castile, who gave a gift of manors, and Philippa of Hainault. After a dispute over its control, Queen Eleanor granted a new charter in 1273, reserving the patronage of the Foundation to the Queens of England.

This was a religious community and mediaeval hospital for poor infirm people next to the Tower of London. The foundation included a Master, six ‘poor clerks’ or priests, three brethren, three sisters and a beadswoman. Unusually for that time, the brothers and sisters had equal rights.

For 678 years, the Foundation carried on its work in East London. In the 15th century, its musical reputation rivalled that of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, and in 1442 it was granted a Charter of Privileges. This charter made Saint Katharine’s and its precinct, extending to 23-acre (93,000 square metre) a Liberty with its own prison, officers and court, all outside the ecclesiastical and civil jurisdiction of the City of London.

Its status as a Liberty and the fact that it was personally owned and protected by the Queen Mother, meant that Saint Katharine’s was saved from being dissolved along with other monastic houses at the Reformation.

By the 16th century, there were 1,000 houses, including a brewery in the precinct, where the residents included foreigners, vagabonds and prostitutes. These people were crammed into houses along narrow lanes that had names such as Dark Entry, Cat’s Hole, Shovel Alley, Rookery and Pillory Lane. Many were in poor repair, and John Stow’s Survey of London in 1598 described them as ‘small tenements and homely cottages, having as inhabitants, English and strangers [i.e. foreigners], more in number than some city in England.’

The restrictions and rules of the London City guilds did not apply here, and so foreign craftsmen were attracted to the Liberty, along with many seamen and rivermen. Despite this high population density, the mortality rate in the Liberty during the Great Plague was half of the rate in areas to the north and east of the City of London.

The continuing establishment of lay brothers and sisters seems to have drawn hostile attention from extreme Protestants, and during the Gordon Riots in 1780 Saint Katharine’s was saved from being burned down by the mob.

In 1825, commercial pressure for larger docks up-river led to Saint Katharine’s, with its 14th and 15th century buildings and some 3,000 inhabitants, being demolished to provide a dock close to the heart of the City. The land was excavated and flooded to form a new dock. This was the smallest of London’s docks and was named Saint Katharine Docks.

There was some opposition to the demolition of an ancient establishment. But many others welcomed the demolition of ‘some of the most insanitary and unsalutary dwellings in London.’

Saint Katharine’s by the Tower was grouped into the Whitechapel District in 1855 and became a civil parish in 1866 when its extra-parochial status ended, following the Poor Law Amendment Act 1866. The parish became part of the County of London in 1889. In 1895 it was abolished as a parish and combined with Saint Botolph without Aldgate.

Meanwhile, the institution, now called the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine’s, moved to Regent’s Park, where it took the form of almshouses, and continued for 125 years.

After World War II, Saint Katharine’s finally moved back to its spiritual home in the East End in 1948, moving onto the site in Limehouse once occupied by Saint James’s Church, Ratcliff, which had been destroyed in the Blitz. It was just a mile from the original site, and the former chapel at Regent’s Park later became the Danish Seamen’s Church.

The foundation was housed in the Georgian vicarage and over time a new complex has grown up around it, carefully built to preserve the sense of an oasis in the city.

In Limehouse, Saint Katharine’s became a retreat house with Father St John Groser, the revolutionary Anglo-Catholic slum priest, as Master. A decade earlier, he had played a significant role in the defence of Cable Street in 1936. He was joined by members of the Community of the Resurrection from Mirfield in providing worship and service in the area, and the foundation remained under the care of the Community of the Resurrection for 45 years until 1993.

In 2004, Saint Katharine’s modernised and expanded its facilities to include a retreat and conference centre, so making available its hospitality more widely within the Church of England and to other churches, charities, voluntary and public sector bodies and to associated individuals.

The re-ordered chapel is normally the centrepiece of retreat and reflection, and is gracefully knitted into the fabric connecting the Georgian house with the retreat and conference centre. However, it is closed throughout this January and February while the lighting is being refitted and the chapel is redecorated.

In 2014, the Foundation opened Saint Katharine’s Precinct, a community project made entirely from shipping containers and yurts that will be recycled at the end of the project. The new facilities include a Well-being Hub, London’s first Yurt café and reflective space and artist studios in partnership with Bow Arts.

The Foundation is committed to Worship, Hospitality and Service. The vast majority of meetings and conferences here benefit from subsidised rates for Church-based organisations and for the not-for-profit sector, and thousands of people stay here each year during conferences, on personal retreats, or as an alternative to busy London hotels.

The Foundation is ranked 5 out of 949 places to stay in London as part of the ‘speciality lodgings’ category on Tripadvisor and rated 4.5 of 5 at TripAdvisor. It was recently included in Alastair Sawday’s ‘Special Places to Stay.’

The cloister-like passage linking the Chapel at the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine with the former vicarage (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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