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Down A Well In Spitalfields

February 26, 2018
by the gentle author

Twenty-five years ago, eighteen wooden plates and bowls were recovered from a silted-up well in Spitalfields. One of the largest discoveries of medieval wooden vessels ever made in this country, they are believed to be dishes belonging to the inmates of the long-gone Hospital of St Mary Spital, which gave its name to this place. After seven hundred years lying in mud at the bottom of the well, the thirteenth century plates were transferred to the Museum of London store in Hoxton where I went to visit them as a guest of Roy Stephenson, Head of Archaeological Collections.

Almost no trace remains above ground of the ancient Hospital of St Mary yet, in Spital Sq, the roads still follow the ground plan laid laid out by Walter Brune in 1197, with the current entrance from Bishopsgate coinciding to the gate of the Priory and Folgate St following the line of the northern perimeter wall. Stand in the middle of Spital Sq today, and you are surrounded by glass and steel corporate architecture, but seven hundred years ago this space was enclosed by the church of St Mary and then you would be standing in the centre of the aisle where the transepts crossed beneath the soaring vault with the lantern of the tower looming overhead. Stand in the middle of Spital Sq today, and the Hospital of St Mary is lost in time.

In his storehouse, Roy Stephenson has eleven miles of rolling shelves that contain all the finds excavated from old London in recent decades. He opened one box containing bricks in a plastic bag that originated from Pudding Lane and were caked with charcoal dust from the Fire of London. I leant in close and a faint cloud of soot rose in the air, with an unmistakable burnt smell persisting after four centuries. “I can open these at random,” said Roy, gesturing towards the infinitely receding shelves lined with boxes in every direction, “and every one will have a story inside.”

Removing the wooden plates and bowls from their boxes, Roy laid them upon the table for me to see. Finely turned and delicate, they still displayed ridges from the lathe, seven centuries after manufacture. Even distorted by water and pressure over time, it was apparent that, even if they were for the lowly inhabitants of the hospital, these were not crudely produced items. At hospitals, new arrivals were commonly issued with a plate or bowl, and drinking cup and a spoon. Ceramics and metalware survive but rarely wood, so Roy is especially proud of these humble platters. “They are a reminder that pottery is a small part of the kitchen assemblage and people ate off wood and also off bread which leaves no trace.” he explained. Turning over a plate, Roy showed me a cross upon the base made of two branded lines burnt into the wood. “Somebody wanted to eat off the same plate each day and made it their own,” he informed me, as each of the bowls and plates were revealed to have different symbols and simple marks upon them to distinguish their owners – crosses, squares and stars.

Contemporary with the plates, there are a number of ceramic jugs and flagons which Roy produced from boxes in another corner of his store. While the utilitarian quality of the dishes did not speak of any precise period, the rich glazes and flamboyant embossed designs, with studs and rosettes applied, possessed a distinctive aesthetic that placed them in another age. Some had protuberances created with the imprints of fingers around the base that permitted the jar to sit upon a hot surface and heat the liquid inside without cracking from direct contact with the source of heat, and these pots were still blackened from the fire.

The intimacy of objects that have seen so much use conjures the presence of the people who ate and drank with them. Many will have ended up in the graveyard attached to the hospital and then were exhumed in the nineties. It was the largest cemetery ever excavated and their remains are now stored in the tall brick rotunda where London Wall meets Goswell Rd outside the Museum of London. This curious architectural feature that serves as a roundabout is in fact a mausoleum for long dead Londoners and, of the seventeen thousand souls whose bones are there, twelve thousand came from Spitalfields.

The Priory of St Mary Spital stood for over four hundred years until it was dissolved by Henry VIII who turned its precincts into an artillery ground in 1539. Very little detail is recorded of the history though we do know that many thousands died in the great famine of 1258, which makes the survival of these dishes at the bottom of a well especially plangent.

Returning to Spitalfields, I walked again through Spital Sq. Yet, in spite of the prevailing synthetic quality of the architecture, the place had changed for me after I had seen and touched the bowls that once belonged to those who called this place home seven centuries ago – and thus the Hospital of St Mary Spital was no longer lost in time.

Sixteenth century drawing of St Mary Spital as Shakespeare may have known it, with gabled wooden houses lining Bishopsgate.

“Nere and within the citie of London be iij hospitalls or spytells, commonly called Seynt Maryes Spytell, Seynt Bartholomewes Spytell and Seynt Thomas Spytell, and the new abby of Tower Hyll, founded of good devocion by auncient ffaders, and endowed with great possessions and rents onley for the releffe, comfort, and helyng of the poore and impotent people not beyng able to help themselffes, and not to the mayntennance of chanins, preestes, and monks to lyve in pleasure, nothyng regardyng the miserable people liying in every strete, offendyng every clene person passyng by the way with theyre fylthy and nasty savours.” Sir Richard Gresham in a letter to Thomas Cromwell, August 1538

Finely turned ash bowl.

Fragment of a wooden plate

Turned wooden plate marked with a square on the base to indicate its owner.

Copper glazed white ware jug from St Mary Spital

Redware glazed flagon, used to heat liquid and still blackened from the fire seven hundred years later.

White ware flagon, decorated in the northern French style.

A pair of thirteenth century boots found at the bottom of the cesspit in Spital Sq.

The gatehouse of St Mary Spital coincides with the entrance to Spital Sq today and Folgate St follows the boundary of the northern perimeter .


My vowes fly up to heaven, that I would make
Some pious work in the brass book of Fame
That might till Doomesday lengthen out my name.
Near Norton Folgate therefore have I bought
Ground to erect His house, which I will call
And dedicate St Marie’s Hospitall,
And when ’tis finished, o’ r the gates shall stand
In capitall letters, these words fairly graven
For I have given the worke and house to heaven,
And cal’d it, Domus Dei, God’s House,
For in my zealous faith I now full well,
Where goode deeds are, there heaven itself doth dwell.

(Walter Brune founding St Mary Spital from ‘A New Wonder, A Woman Never Vexed’ by William Rowley, 1623)

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19 Responses leave one →
  1. February 26, 2018

    Lovely piece.

  2. Jenni permalink
    February 26, 2018

    Fascinating. This is the type of social history that appeals to me. The patients, or were they inmates?, of St. Mary’s seem to live again through those wooden plates. Did each have his/her own in an early attempt at hygiene? Who might they have been and why were they there?
    It is a pity that so many interesting archeological finds have to be kept in drawers and rarely seen by the general public. I’d love to see these platters close up.

  3. Leana Pooley permalink
    February 26, 2018

    This was absolutely fascinating. Wonderful to read. As usual there is a jarring discord between Brune’s inspiring, solemn vow to build a house of God and the “glass and steel corporate architecture” that has been whacked up on that site recently.

  4. StephenJ permalink
    February 26, 2018

    Wowser, that was always a mystery. I could never figure out why the area was called Spitalfields…

    All has been revealed Gentle Author, many thanks, you are a real trencherman.

    I wonder if the fields were meant for the inhabitants to do some horticultural work and take a little exercise?

    Meanwhile in Rome, the Romans are still mad at the authorities for building that fascist monstrosity the Altare della Patria in the middle of old Rome. Why can’t we be more resolute here, I wonder?

  5. February 26, 2018

    So evocative of those long ago times. It’s the ordinary that is extraordinary in such objects.

  6. Paul Phillips permalink
    February 26, 2018

    What a fantastic complex incorporating the Church and ancillary buildings. It must have been a village all of its own. As for the chards of crockery and wood, not to mention the boots, they are all amazing. Does any of the Church stand today?

  7. February 26, 2018

    Do you ever share any of your photos with British photo history ?

  8. Sue permalink
    February 26, 2018

    What amazing finds.

  9. Paul Loften permalink
    February 26, 2018

    I hope the owner of the boots was a young man , perhaps like my son who rather than wear a pair of unfashionable boots that were once mine , would have thrown them in the cesspit. The alternative explanation of them being at the bottom of the cesspit does not bear thinking about

  10. Adele permalink
    February 26, 2018

    Amazing to think at least part of this lay beneath my school, Central Foundation Girls, in Spital Square. How my history teacher, Ms. Holt, would have revelled in this bit of local history and would have probably had us digging up the playground! When I go back to visit I will look at it through new eyes. Thanks again GA.

  11. Jean Skinner permalink
    February 26, 2018

    Having been to school in Spital Square, 1956 – 62, I find anything about this area incredibly fascinating.

  12. Susan permalink
    February 26, 2018

    Very interesting Gentle Author. When I was at Central Foundation school in Spital Square there was a blue plaque on the side of our school in Steward Street. You can see it in photographs on the Collage London photo archives site if you search for Central Foundation School. The inscription read ‘Opposite this spot stood the Spital Pulpit Cross’. The school was demolished in the late 70s and I wondered what had become of the plaque. In 2014 I found it on the City of London website as ‘pending erection’, at the given address (Spital Square). Reading your article I was reminded of the plaque. I searched again today and can’t seem to find any further information about it so I assume it hasn’t been put back in Spital Square. Such a shame that such an interesting part of our history seems to be unimportant. I wonder if it will ever be put back in its rightful place? I do hope so.

  13. February 26, 2018

    Facinating,makes me want to pump out the well in my garden.
    Did Barn the Spoon sell his 1000 spoons and buy the land for his woodland?

  14. Sharon permalink
    February 26, 2018

    What a wonderful find – I long to run my fingers across those plates and to place them in the impressions at the base of the jug as the potter did..

    Some years ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to a Time Team Live excavation at Canterbury with Sandi Toksvig. She read some words by D H Lawrence (which I don’t think were broadcast) Today’s post reminded me of them:
    “Things men have made with wakened hands and put soft life into
    are awake through years with transferred touch and go on glowing for long years.
    And for this reason some old things are lovely, warm still with the life of forgotten men who made them.”

  15. February 26, 2018

    Ding dong bell
    Pussy’s in the well
    Who put him in
    Little Tommy Tin?
    Who pulled him out?
    Little Tommy ?

    Forget other words. Can help?
    Old Girl from Spitalfields High School and evacuated wartime to Ely.
    Can I send you my book Cockney Girl signed, published in UK and US? If so, would you put it on this page? Can google it on Great reviews. Includes some reference to Spitalfield. Thanks, Gilda Moss Haber, PhD

  16. Gillian Tindall permalink
    February 26, 2018

    The answer to Gilda Harber was that Pussy was pulled out of the well by Little Tommy Stout. And everybody said of Tommy Thin that what a naughty boy was he to treat poor Pussy so. Quite right.

  17. pauline taylor permalink
    February 26, 2018

    The verse ends:
    What a naughty boy was that
    To try to drown poor pussy cat
    Who never did him any harm
    But killed the mice in his father’s barn.

  18. Donna Werner permalink
    February 27, 2018

    What an interesting article and photographs! I love reading about history like this! Thank you!

  19. February 27, 2018

    Those fabulous thirteenth century boots remind me of my 1960s ‘winklepickers’. I wonder about the music they danced too.

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