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Down A Well In Spitalfields

April 20, 2021
by the gentle author

Thirty 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 had 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 were 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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4 Responses leave one →
  1. Kelly Holman permalink
    April 20, 2021

    I am captivated by the idea of being able to smell the Fire of London in 2021! Thank you for retrieving a story from the eleven miles of rolling shelves. The items and your words conveyed wonderfully the sense you can have sometimes of people and place long since disappeared in a physical sense and yet somehow leaving an impression that is almost palpable.

  2. paul loften permalink
    April 20, 2021

    In the 90’s I read a short article in the New Scientist magazine that a university had discovered sounds within the structures of ancient artefacts that they were able to pick up with a new sound technology they were developing. The article reasoned that possibly sound waves of the past trapped in the objects by chance in the same way as in the process of a manufactured vinyl disc . I never saw any further reports on the result of the research. Wouldn’t it be wonderful and perhaps a bit scary if it was possible?
    One could only imagine listening to the sounds of the Hospital and the noises of the unfortunate patients eating their dinner. On the other hand perhaps the sounds would be better left to go their own way .
    Thank you GA and also the Museum of London for bringing us this very interesting article

  3. April 20, 2021

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a wonderful look you have provided into the everyday life of our predecessors seven centuries hence. Thank you for that excursion into the treasures at the Museum of London. –“The intimacy of objects that have seen so much use conjures the presence of the people who ate and drank with them.”


  4. Christina Scofield permalink
    April 20, 2021


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