The first hospital in Glastonbury was built by the monks of the Abbey on the site of St John’s Church on the High Street but this soon became too small and so in about 1250 they built a hospital on this site, just inside the chaingate entrance to the Abbey. The chaingate was used to control the number of pilgrims allowed to access the Abbey and was opened at sunrise and closed at sunset.
The street was called Spital Street, a common name for a street with a hospital. Some time later the name was changed to Magdalene Street, presumably in reference to the almshouses that were built after the dissolution of the abbey.
The hospital was built before the chapel and would have covered the area now occupied by the almshouses and garden. It was a large hall with willow hurdles to denote a bedspace and probably a straw bed. This hospital was only for sick men and the monks would bring food and administer medicines.
The chapel was an addition, built in 1444 and the monks would also have kept vigil and prayed for the sick men through the night.
After the dissolution of the Abbey in 1539, all the buildings were stripped and left to fall down. The hospital and chapel seemed to survive, perhaps because they were apart from the main Abbey. Sometime later, possibly in the 1600’s, the Town were in need of accommodation for the poor, homeless men and the hospital site was chosen to be developed into 2 rows of small dwellings paid for by the Crown. The structures show evidence of stone that was probably brought from the now derelict Abbey. The almshouses were managed by a charity and the occupants were given alms in the form of some money and food. The houses had no electricity and no sanitation. There is evidence that there was at least one well and compost toilets. One of the dwellings was designated as a communal wash house. These houses were occupied until 1954 when the buildings were condemned. There are records in the County archive showing details of the people who lived here and the alms they were paid. There are also various items relating to building works, builders estimates and architects drawings.
The Almshouses Today
The town intended to clear the site to build new, modern flats but there were many objections. In the end they compromised and built the new flats on the land to the west, they demolished one row of houses and restored the chapel and the other almshouses. The outline of the second row can be seen around the edge of the garden.
The first almshouse is intended to show how it may have looked around in the late 1800’s. The elevated section is a replica of the bedroom floor that we believe was accessed by a ladder or a spiral staircase.
Today we utilise these small rooms in different ways. One is a quiet room for meditation and offers a selection of books for reference. Another is often used to display the work of local artists. One is a shop offering items made by our volunteers and other local crafts people and the last one is under review. We hope to develop interpretation boards to explain the method of construction used.
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