St. Katharine's By The Tower

"Beyond the Tower are the Docks named after St. Katharine. They are so named to commemorate an ancient monument and a modern act of vandalism more disgraceful perhaps than any of those acts by which things ancient and precious have been destroyed."

These words of Walter Besant in his book East London refer to the Royal Hospital and Collegiate Church of St. Katharine by the Tower. This Royal Foundation owed its origin to Queen Matilda, wife of King Stephen and was built in 1148.

Matilda, the foundress, created and endowed her foundation to commemorate the loss of two sons, Stephen and Eustace, who died as infants and were buried in the Priory Church of Holy Trinity at Aldgate. Eleanor wife of Edward I, added to the endowment with a gift of manors. The endowments of the foundation were again increased by Phillipa , wife of Edward III. The Establishment consisted of a Master, three brethren, three sisters, a bedes -woman and six poor clerks .Unusually for that day and age, the sisters of the Chapter had equality with the brothers. In the 15th.century St. Katharine' s had a musical reputation equal to that of St. Paul's At the reformation the foundation was spared by being particularly under the protection of The Queen Mother and its establishment was given a Protestant form . The precinct had become a Liberty, when granted a Charter of Privileges in 1442 with its own officers, court and prison, removed from the Civil Jurisdiction of the City and the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction of the City of London.

The Liberty of St. Katharine's was a crowded tangle of narrow lanes and mean streets of about twenty three acres. The area contained, in addition to the Foundation, about 1,000 houses and a brewery. The houses which most closely surrounded the Hospital were of the lowest class. Stow in his Survey of London (1598) remarks that the houses " were small tenements and homely cottages, having as inhabitants, English and strangers, more in number than some city in England". The character of the neighbourhood may perhaps be gathered from the names of some of the streets and alleys such as Dark Entry, Cat's Hole, Shovel Alley, Rookery and Pillory Lane.

However, despite the crowded living conditions, the mortality within the Liberty during the Great Plague was only half that of the area to the North and East of the City.

There is no doubt, that the area served by the Church and Hospital was rough and lawless; the home of many who were classed as prostitutes and vagabonds. The district attracted numerous foreigners who needed to be free of the restrictions imposed by the City guilds, in order to work at their trades. Many of the inhabitants had maritime connections; seamen and river water-men of various kinds provided a significant proportion of the population.

The buildings were demolished in 1825 to make way for the building of a new dock. This addition to London's dock-land was the smallest of them all and many who denounced the demolition of the ancient foundation firmly believed that the dock, built close to the heart of the city was unnecessary. Some of the houses occupied only 100 superficial feet and at the time when the area was cleared the Liberty was far from salubrious.

Whilst the promoters of the scheme for the new dock were to be condemned for the demolition of a historical edifice, they could , wrote Sir James Broodbank in his History of the Port of London ,"with some justification, claim their activities involved the disappearance of some of the most insanitary and unsalutary dwellings in London".

St. Katharine's was a memorial of more than local interest due to it being the personal property of the Queen Mother. However, although it escaped the fate of other monastic establishments at the hands of Henry VIII, it remain suspect by some stern Protestants because of its establishment of lay brothers and sisters. In 1780 when the Gordon Riots exposed London to the violence of a few fanatics leading bands of rioters, St. Katharine's was only saved from the flames by the efforts of loyal citizens who defended the Queen's property from the mob.

The sentimental interest of the public, in this ancient foundation was of course employed for all it was worth by the opponents of the new dock scheme. A large number of tracts were published for the purpose of propaganda. One such publication issued by "A Clergyman", has been described by a twentieth century commentator as making resort to "the most intense form of clerical eloquence". In the end, commercial interests prevailed over clerical eloquence. The last service in the church of St. Katharine's took place on 30th October 1825. The construction of the dock took less than eighteen months and the first ship to enter the dock did so on 25th.October 1828.

Some 11,000 people were evicted from their homes, mostly without compensation and without alternative provision for their housing; they were simply turned into the streets to find shelter where they could. The trustees for the St. Katharine's Foundation came to terms with the promoters of the new dock. A new church was built besides Regents Park, together with a large house for the Warden, six houses for the brethren and sisters and a small school. Walter Besant later described what had happened as, " a needless, wanton, act of barbarity". East London he said had lost "the one single foundation it possessed of antiquity. With St. Katharine's went an endowment income of between £10,000 and £14,000 a year. The Foundation had to a large extent become a Royal Grace and Favour establishment, separated from its roots adjacent to the City and transplanted to the quiet respectability of Regents Park, St. Katharine's had indeed become a Royal Peculiar.

The St. Katharine Dock Act, provided that, as the remaining inhabitants of the Liberty would no longer benefit from the religious ministrations of the brethren of the Hospital, they would be entitled to the same privileges from the incumbent of St. Botolph without Aldgate, in consideration for which, the dock company was to pay £50 a year to the incumbent. The rights of the King and Queen were preserved as were those of the Master and brethren. The heirs of persons whose monuments were in the church or hospital were permitted to remove them to consecrated places. The graves in the churchyard were to be disturbed as little as possible and friends of the dead were allowed the option of re-internment at a cost not exceeding £10 and bodies not so dealt with were to be removed to some consecrated place.

What was regarded by many as the despoiling of East London Church, by the removal of St. Katharine's from its site by the Tower of London was not quickly forgotten. The cause of St Katharine's, if it may be so described was revived vigorously in 1865. In that year at a meeting of the Clergy of the Stepney Deanery, held at Limehouse Rectory it was unanimously resolved that A committee be appointed to inquire whether any steps can be taken for repairing the loss sustained by the Church in East London in the removal of the Ancient Hospital of St. Katharine's-by-the-Tower. The prime mover of this resolution and most vigorous participant in the work of the committee was The. Reverend Frederick Symcox Lea incumbent of Holy Trinity Church, Mile End.

The object of the Stepney clergymen was to recover the charitable funds of the Foundation for use in East London. We deeply regret, said the campaigners the loss of so valuable a fund for supplying the needs of the East London Poor. The committee had a strong moral case, but alas this claim was strongly resisted by the authorities chief among whom was the Lord Chancellor. There is no doubt that in 1865 there was significant support for the view that The Royal Foundation In Regents Park was a kind of Aristocratic Alms House for the support by Royal bounty of certain well born persons of narrow means. However true such an expression of opinion might be, it was not one likely to appeal to the supporters of the status quo.

It was of course realised that the removal of the Ancient Hospital from what had been its home ground for 700 years could not be reversed, neither could it be challenged on legal grounds. The complaint of the campaigners was that the Royal Foundation had in the past, used part of its endowment for the benefit of the poor and needy residents within the Liberty of St. Katharine's. It was strongly argued that these particular financial resources, rightly belonged to that part of East London that was By-the-Tower-of-London. They had , it was contended, been wrongly alienated for use in a different area and for different purposes.

Despite the vigorous lobbying of The Reverend Frederick Simcox Lea and others, the cause for which they so strongly contended dragged on, the authorities making no effort to bring the matter to a conclusion. Eventually in 1880 a committee of the House of Lords recommended that the petition be dismissed. The cause had been prosecuted with great vigour, much moral fervour and some personal cost by Mr. Simcox Lea and his colleagues. As late as 1880 The Times newspaper published a column length letter from this reverend gentleman, who was by then living and ministering in a small Herefordshire village; all to no avail ,the cause of the campaigners had failed. There is a tradition in the Lea family , that at some stage in the campaign an attempt was made by the authorities to halt it by offering this gentleman an overseas Bishopric! The ruse to divert him failed. This clergyman was a man of high principles and was not to be lured away from the cause he had espoused by preferment.

Queen Victoria's Jubilee Institute for Nurses founded in 1887 was originally based at St. Katharine's. During the war of 1914-1918 Queen Alexander, the Queen Mother, granted the use of the Chapel to her fellow Danes in London.

The banishment of the Royal Foundation from East London was, in the end, only temporary. Over a century later, after the second world war, it returned to its natural habitat, East London. It is no longer by-the-Tower, it found a new home a little further eastward in the former Vicarage and on the site of St. James, Ratcliff, which had been gutted by incendiary bombs on the night of September 7th 1940. The coming home of St. Katharine's to East London is however another story. The former Vicarage is a fine house once the home of a well to do city merchant. The Church of St. James had been built in 1837 only thirteen years after the demolition of the ancient church of St. Katharine -by-the Tower

St. Katharine's Dock was closed in 1968, commercially it had only been modestly successful ,it had never produced the large profits that been the reason for its building. The site of the former Liberty of St. Katharine's today houses The World Trade Centre, The Tower Hotel, a Collection of historic boats and a housing development.

The Act for the making of the St. Katharine's Dock (10th.June 1825) has a schedule attached which lists all the premises involved , with the names of the owners and the occupiers. The records of the ancient Foundation are deposited at the Guildhall Library, Aldermanbury. London

Stows Survey of London. Everymans Press.

East London. Walter Besant 1899.

History of the Port of London. Joseph Broodbank 1920.

East London. Robert Sinclair. Robert Hale. 1950.

The Royal Hospital or Free Chapel of St. Katharine near the Tower Privately Printed c 1865.


Arthur Royall. June 1999

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