For more than 800 years Norwich’s first hospital has been helping the sick and needy. Its role has changed throughout the centuries, but it has remained constant.

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Nothing like the modern NHS...

Although the idea of free, universal health care was not entertained by the founders, the principle of not charging residents was at the heart of its philosophy. In 1249 the Bishop of Norwich, Walter Suffield, was full of care for his immortal soul. We dont know if he had a lot of sins on his mind, but we do know that for medieval man what happened in the afterlife was vital. Good works were one way into heaven; prayers on earth for ones immortal soul also helped. It would ensure that the soul got through Purgatory. It would be unfair to infer the bishop only cared about his own wellbeing when he created the hospital, but it was a condition of entry that its residents would daily pray for the bishops soul. The hospital was constructed on its present site in Bishopsgate, near the Norman cathedral and opposite the then site of the Church of St Helens.

Who were the residents?

A mixture of old and young. Aged and infirm clerics could face a miserable life after retirement. With no family to support them they could be reduced to begging. A number of scholarship boys, trained as choristers, were also housed there. Here was a genuine piece of enlightened philanthropy. The boys were selected on merit from poor local families, and educated by the church, particularly in Latin; it would have supplemented the work of the nearby cathedral school. With that kind of background they could become full-time choristers or even clergy. The hospital made 30 beds available to the sick poor, with food distributed to paupers, outside in summer and inside in winter. The inmates were supplied with daily food and drink no small matter at a time when people still starved to death. The diet would have been fairly monotonous; bread and fish or meat and drink, probably ale. Cheese and eggs would have been an occasional treat.

Where did the money come from?

Individual people made their own donations over the centuries, often for specific purposes. For example, leading citizen William Dunwich bequeathed money and property to care for the sick in 1272; as late as 1762 Norwich man John Spurrell left 4 a year to be spent on an annual feast, including strong beer, every August. But the hospital was partially self-supporting. Apart from its own brewery, which only closed in the last century, it also had kept swans. Cygnets had their wings clipped and bills cut with a distinctive pattern bearing the hospitals mark. They were a source of income for the hospital, being fattened up and killed.

Was it the only hospital in Norwich?

Although the Great Hospital was originally dedicated to St Giles, the patron saint of lepers and repentant sinners, people suffering with leprosy were not admitted. But our image of lepers as totally thrown out of medieval society is not quite accurate; there were leper hospitals outside the city gates at such places as Sprowston, St Giles and St Benedict. Other hospitals sprang up at such places as St Mary in the Fields, near modern St Stephens St. The Great Hospital grew steadily during the Middle Ages. Cow Tower, on the banks of the River Wensum, originally marked the extent of the hospital; in the 14th century it was handed over to the city corporation. By that time the master of the hospital and his Augustinian brethren had acquired the neighbouring St Helens Church. It was knocked down and incorporated into the hospital, where it stands today.

Was it men only?

For Bishop Suffield the thought of female inmates was ill advised. The temptations they provided would be too much for the men, so the only females originally allowed were all over 50, and took care of such onerous duties as the laundry. Many of the nurses were women, usually widows, who exchanged their property for the security of living at the hospital. Separate cubicles for men and women were built; these were not phased out until the 1980s although married couples were later admitted.

What happened at the Reformation?

During the later middle ages less emphasis was placed upon Suffields original instructions to care for the sick and poor, and more upon church duties. Cash was spent on a distinctive tower and cloisters. But in the 1540s the hospital was surrendered to the Protestant city corporation, and it became once again a centre for poor relief. Known as Gods House it thus returned to its original function, and attracted increasing numbers of patients. A keeper was appointed, with instructions on how to treat those in his care. Titus Norris, for example, got the job in 1575 on condition he did not beat the residents!

Any famous visitors?

King Peter and Queen Anne of Bohemia visited in 1383. In honour of this the church was decorated lavishly with the distinctive black eagle, symbol of that country, by Bishop Despencer. Queen Elizabeth I stopped by on her regal progress in 1578 (legend has it she also popped into the nearby Adam and Eve pub). Less welcome guests included Robert Ketts rebels, who made off with some of the valuables when they sacked Norwich in 1549.

And the modern day?

In 1835 hospital management was handed to a board of trustees. It continued to attract residents, aged over 65. Each had to bring a feather bed, a straw mattress and 10 shillings towards burial costs. Todays residents live in rather more luxury, enjoying an active retirement, complete with bowls green. The Great Hospitals long history of care and its surviving medieval buildings mark it out as a special place.


Further reading: A Short History of The Great Hospital, Elaine Phillips A History of Norwich, Frank Meeres


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