Exploring our 850 year history

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We feel very proud at St John’s Foundation to be celebrating our 850th year. Throughout the centuries, whilst the backdrop has changed dramatically, our mission to support the local community has remained unchanged and our commitment unwavering.

Through several celebration events during this year, we aim not only to recognise those who came before us, but also call attention to the issues that the people of Bath and North East Somerset are still facing today.

Our beginnings and evolution

St John’s Foundation, previously named St John’s Hospital, was first founded in 1174 by Bishop Reginald Fitzjocelyn after he was appointed the fourth Bishop of Bath. After witnessing the poverty faced by many in the area, he established a refuge to provide food and shelter for the vulnerable in his parish. Astonishingly, St John’s Foundation still operates from the same location that Bishop Fitzjocelyn chose eight and a half centuries ago.

Since St John’s Hospital was founded by a Roman Catholic Bishop, the Tudor era heralded an abundance of problems. In response to the religious and cultural upheaval during King Henry VIII’s reign, St John’s Hospital had to adapt quickly and strategically. Fortunately, the Hospital survived, and received the support of Queen Elizabeth I to undergo improvements and development, allowing St John’s aid to reach more people in need of refuge.

The expansion of St John’s Hospital helped to house many of the poor and sick, offering shelter, protection, and sustenance. Contributions from the parishes of the sick helped maintain the Hospital and made it possible to begin purchasing property around the city, to use the income from rents to continue funding its services.

A change in attitude towards charity

Changing attitudes to poverty and poor relief in the nineteenth century led to the 1832 Reform Act and the 1934 Poor Law Amendment Act, which introduced a significant restructuring in how charities operated.

A ‘moral’ separation was introduced between the ‘deserving’ poor, who were defined as moral citizens made poor through no fault of their own, and the so-called ‘undeserving’ poor, those who were not living by the values of society and perceived to be making little effort to help themselves. This changed attitude meant charities were often restricted in what aid they could provide.

The establishment of workhouses was an attempt to make those living in poverty fund their own survival by encouraging them to work. In reality, it left many living in more destitute and desperate situations than before. Charities, and all people, were also discouraged from providing aid to those deemed fit enough to work, even if there was no work available.

During this period, St John’s Hospital turned its attention towards those unable to work, primarily older members of the community. The charity provided food, lodgings and support with everyday needs. Towards the beginning of the twentieth century, the Hospital also began distributing its funds to those who needed aid living within Bath or three miles of the city limits.

The world at war

In the twentieth century, attitudes changed again. The First and Second World Wars wrought devastation across the globe. Mass unemployment following both World Wars brought on by changes in how society operated, and the bombings of the Second World War, left many in poverty.

Greater emphasis began to be placed on state welfare and those living in poverty began to be viewed in a more sympathetic light. Charitable giving became more popular, and charities were encouraged to participate in critical post-war support in their local communities.

It was at this point that St John’s Hospital began the expansion of its almshouses. Old buildings belonging to the Hospital that had been damaged during the bombing raids were restored and converted to provide more housing for older residents. In 1974, St John’s Hospital then transformed into a housing association to help cover the costs of further almshouse expansion.

Where we are today

In 2017, St John’s Hospital became St John’s Foundation – still offering almshouse accommodation for older adults and support for those facing hardships in our community. In recent years, we have expanded our services to support people in crisis and have a significant focus on children aged 0 to 12, with an underlying aim to provide all children in our community with equal opportunity to live happy, healthy lives.

Throughout our many years of history, St John’s Foundation has evolved and adapted to meet the requirements and cultural pressures of the time and continued to provide support for those who need it most. We have had the privilege of the support and dedication of so many incredible partners and individuals throughout the years who have gone to great lengths to continue delivering our mission.

However, in the story of St John’s, we still have many historical mysteries to uncover. We are digging through our basement archives to complete the puzzle and shed more light on those who came before us. As we celebrate our 850th year in 2024, we hope to demonstrate how the legacy of Bishop Fitzjocelyn and all our supporters over the years continues to bring hope to the region of Bath and North East Somerset.