History of the Archive

From the foundation of the hospital in 1123, record-keeping was a key function of the institution. As a major landowner, St Bartholomew’s Hospital had an extensive collection of deeds recording the hospital’s property holdings, as well as other rights and entitlements recorded in letters patent, grants, rentals, title deeds and other indentures, many of which are still held in the archive collections. The cartulary of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, sometimes known as Cok’s Cartulary since it was begun by Brother John Cok, was composed according to practice of the time to compile copies of documents relating to properties and rights of an institution in a single ledger. It is thought that one reason for this was for ease of consultation in the increasing number of lawsuits in which religious houses were involved over the medieval period. Cartularies also provided a copy of key documents in case of loss of the original records through negligence or fire, and when the names of donors and tenants mentioned in the rental of properties, 1456, are compared with those in the Cartulary, it is clear that many of the original deeds and leases had already been lost by the fifteenth century.

As a religious institution, custody and care of the hospital’s estate and endowment records would have been undertaken by a religious clerk or brother who also undertook the role of Renter. It is likely that the property deeds of the hospital and cartularies were the only pre-Reformation records of the Hospital preserved by the newly appointed Governors, as they were the only evidence of the rights of the hospital to its endowments.

Administrative records of the hospital were kept from the refoundation of the hospital in 1546/7. The hospital Renter also assumed the function of Clerk; he had to write and index the minutes of the meetings of the Governors, which were the main administrative records at this date, and presumably also had responsibility for keeping and caring for the records. By 1600, the post of Clerk had been established as a separate post, and the administrative business of the hospital, and hence the records created, continued to grow. From the late 18th century, the record-keeping began for the first time to include medical records of the hospital’s patients. The Clerk clearly continued to have a significant role in record-keeping at the hospital; in 1883, William Cross, Clerk to the Governors, undertook some early cataloguing of the medieval deeds.

The first person employed specifically to care for the hospital’s archives was D’Arcy Power, Surgeon to the Hospital, who became Honorary Keeper of Muniments in 1934. The first paid post was taken up by Gweneth Whitteridge, who became Assistant Archivist in 1935, and Archivist in 1947, and since then there has been an unbroken succession of trained archivists responsible for the preservation of and access to the historic records of the hospital.

The archivist was also responsible for a small collection of historic objects, which grew in size over the course of the twentieth century through acquisition from archaeological digs and other items found around the hospital site. In 1997, St Bartholomew’s Hospital Museum was opened to display some of these items, alongside documents from the archives; the Archives Department became the St Bartholomew’s Hospital Archives and Museum, taking on responsibility for the museum also.

Header image courtesy of Barts Health NHS Trust Archives & Museum

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