The charity is one of the oldest charitable institutions in the country. The precise date of its foundation is uncertain although it is likely to have been founded in late Saxon times. The first clear references to its charitable role appear in the late 13th Century with the endowment by John Devenish of the Chapel in the Broadway attached to a hospital or hospice at St John’s House, which gave support to the old and infirm, needy travellers and the poor of Winchester.
The charity was known as St John’s Hospital following the dedication of its chapel to St John the Baptist. There may at one stage have been a second chapel. Considerable rebuilding took place in the early 15th Century and it is clear from medieval records that the hospital played an important role in the life of the city. There was a fraternity of St John to which local people of substance belonged, and the Mayor of Winchester was sworn in at the hospital chapel.
At the time of the Reformation, the hospital avoided suppression as a religious foundation because the legislation allowing Henry VIII to suppress the monasteries did not include foundations which could rightly be described as hospitals. The charity seems to have survived the Reformation because of a fresh endowment in the Will of Ralph Lamb in 1558. These funds were used to build the first almshouses behind St John’s House. Lamb’s portrait can be seen in our boardroom showing him dressed in ‘Spanish style’ for the marriage of Queen Mary to Philip of Spain. At this time, the hospital came under the control of the Mayor and City Corporation. This state of affairs was confirmed by Elizabeth I in her charter for the city in 1587.
During the next two centuries several further substantial legacies were left to the charity. The City Corporation, however, whilst maintaining the almshouses, increasingly used the assets of the charity for wider purposes. In 1811, a group of almshouse residents combined with the wardens of some local parishes to petition in Chancery against what was perceived to be maladministration by the City Corporation. The court finally found in their favour in 1829 and ordered the establishment of a charitable scheme, which, notwithstanding several subsequent variations, remains the basis for the organisation of the charity today.
Over the years several smaller charities have amalgamated with St John’s, most recently D. K. Murray’s Charity and Christes Hospital, the latter being part of the bequest of Peter Symonds. In 1984 the charity changed its name from St John’s Hospital and the Allied Charities to St John’s Winchester Charity. The modern charity derives much of its income from investment properties, a significant number of which formed part of past bequests.