The College as it is

Survey of London Monograph 1, Trinity Hospital, Mile End. Originally published by Guild & School of Handicraft, London, 1896.

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'The College as it is', in Survey of London Monograph 1, Trinity Hospital, Mile End, (London, 1896) pp. 18-21. British History Online [accessed 17 April 2024]


I pass now to a brief description of the existing buildings, and shall hope to still further show how they remain for us an object lesson in national history. There is a peculiar, and, in many cases, a personal interest in the variety of objects that at present form this little living museum on the Waste. For we have here the Wren work of the Hospital itself, the records of two later dates, the remains of the previous Deptford Hospital, the remains of the old Hall, the records from Sayes Court and the statues of two founders, besides other trophies. In short, associations with the names of Sir Christopher Wren, John Evelyn, Sir Richard Browne, Samuel Pepys, Captain Sandes, Captain Mudd, Captain Maples, with a number of earlier and later worthies of the Trinity House recorded in one way or another either in glass or inscription. Let me take the architecture first.

Mr. Barrett speaks rather as an antiquary than as an architect when he says that "the Trinity Almshouses at Mile End are, from an antiquarian point of view, of considerable interest, though architecturally they cannot boast of any remarkable beauty." Allowing for all possible latitude in matters of taste, the statement is an unfortunate one and conveys an opinion that is not held by any practical architect and certainly not by those eminent artists who recently gave their judgment as to the æsthetic importance of the building. It is to be hoped that the verdict of the historian may not have biassed the Corporation towards the destruction of their Ancient Trust.

The plan (pl. 1, p. 34) may be consulted for the disposition of the buildings. The whole plan is of a T shape, but of this only the stem of the T is of the 17th century or Wren period, the back court being structurally later. There is something singularly bold in the general arrangement of the earlier and older portion. Whether or not the exigencies of site demanded it, the plan is so conceived as to give the greatest amount of vista to the Chapel, the two wings of the buildings being thus set askew, while in order to obviate any sense of a want of symmetry intruding itself on the beholder from the south, the designer has screened off the Mile End front by a wall of singular grace and beauty. As Mr. Thackeray Turner pointed out in his evidence before the Charity Commissioners' enquiry, this wall could only have been the work of a great master.

Alterations.; Gribelin's Print.

With the exception of the two houses subsequently removed, but once standing east and west of the Chapel, before the second court was constructed at the back, the plan is the same as originally laid out, but a reference to Gribelin's print of the early 18th century (fn. 1) which should be compared with Mr. Garbutt's bird's-eye view (pl. 2, pp. 4, 5) of the grounds as they appear at the present day, will show certain dissimilarities between the 18th and 19th century drawings. Of these the most important is the existence of nineteen dormers in the roofs in Gribelin's print; the "Palisadoes" round the grass mentioned in R. Seymour's Chronicle of London are removed, as are also the two houses above referred to as adjoining the Chapel; the brickwork at the side of the steps is shown in the print as without cement, and the two little statues of youths holding nautical instruments and standing within the two niches towards Mile End Road are absent; there is also a very high vane.

An early 18th century print, even of classic architecture, must, however, be taken with reservation; historical accuracy was not a quality that the engraver felt himself called upon to exercise. If the dormers looked nicer on paper, they were put in; and if the niches looked bare without statues, their insertion in the drawing could not but redound to the credit of the Brethren, so they were put in also. I have not been able to find any structural evidence of a previously gabled roof, and I am inclined to think that the roofs are as they were originally designed.

It is possible that the Chapel may have been originally in brick in the same manner as the houses, but that, too, is doubtful. The floor level of the Chapel was lowered in recent years owing to an accident that happened to one of the old pensioners who it is stated fell down the steps on the ice. Though the steps remain, the actual entrance to the Chapel is now underneath them on the ground floor.

Section and Rooms.; The Library.

The section by Mr. E. Godman (Plate 6) which shows the Chapel, shows also the interior treatment of the rooms, which are painted throughout and look much like ships' cabins; for old folk, and especially old sea men, few methods could be better devised. The end house at the south-western side is given over to the Governor of the Hospital, and that on the south-eastern is occupied in part as a library. It is a cheerful little room within, well stocked with books and papers, and the old men sit here, with the quiet garden for a look out on the one hand, and with the great moving panorama of the Waste seen through the windows to the south. Preferably within sight of the Thames says one of the bequests for the founding and maintenance of the Trinity Almshouses, and when the buildings were originally erected, the masts and traffic of the river must have been easily seen across the fields of Stepney from this coign of vantage. Mr. M. Balfour's two drawings (pls. 11, 12, pp. 18, 28) give a very charming picture of what may be seen inside there any day by those anxious to have some illustration of what is meant by the collegiate life, and what it has been recently proposed to do away with.

The Elevations

Architectural descriptions are unsatisfactory, and I cannot do better than refer to Mr. Allen's three sets of drawings in elevation (pls. 3, 4, 5, pp. 6, 8, 30) with the larger drawn detail for those to understand who can read in the language of the architect. The drawings, as they are presented, are just such as might have been prepared originally for the builders to work from. The elevation of the S.E. gable, however, shows the windows of the library from the Mile End Waste, to the interior of which I just called attention.

The Gardens and Statues.; Capt. Maples.

Passing to the two little gardens within the enclosure, those precious open spaces of which we have so few left in East London, I would like particularly to call attention to the formal planning, the arrangement of the grass plats, the true naval flagstaff, and the position of the two statues. The statue to Capt. Sandes, or Sanders, as he appears in Pepys and Evelyn, stands in the front court (pl. 10, p. 20), that of Capt. Maples (pl. 9, p. 26) in the back, the inscriptions respectively record the reasons why. Æsthetically the two statues are of vital importance because of their costume. (fn. 2) In the day when everybody with the least pretension to "taste" insisted in masquerading, if immortalized by statuary, in the classic toga, as Roman consul or Attic orator, these two honest seamen had the common sense to see that their own clothes suited them best. Contemporary statues that are not in the pedantic costume of Greece or Rome, but in the periwig and tails of Mr. Vanslipperken, might be numbered on the fingers of one hand; in London, I believe, these two statues are unique. They are of interest, moreover, for the little biographical touches that they call forth. Both these old mariners were men of note as well as benefactors, and in a comprehensive history of British seamanship would find an honourable place. Capt. Maples was one of the pioneers of English enterprise in India, in those early days just after Bombay had come to us by the dowry of Catherine of Braganza. He appears as Capt. Maples of Madrasspatam, and when his will was proved on August 28th, 1680, it was found he had been faithful to the old Trinity spirit of fellowship. There is a glimmer of romance and generosity about the record that he had left diamonds to the value of 1,500 pagodas to be sent over for the use of the Guild.

Capt. Sandes.

Capt. Sandes has an equally interesting record. Like most of the Trinity Brethren he was a staunch royalist, and he seemed to have been trusted with important letters by both the Duke of York (afterwards James II.) and the King. When poor Pepys was sent to the Tower in 1679, on a charge of popery, Capt. Sandes, with whom he was intimate, did him a good turn, and was committed with an open letter from the duke, at Brussels, to the King. We have the record of these various journeys of Capt. Sandes and his ship. (fn. 3) His principal work subsequently was that of naval organization, he appears with Pepys in the Guild's Charter of re-incorporation, and was associated with Evelyn and Sir Christopher Wren in 1695, in the Greenwich survey. It was the reversion of his estate in Lincolnshire, that went to the maintenance of the Mile End buildings.

A museum of 17th century art.

Just as the Hospital is the historical record book of so many worthy and famous English citizens, so is it the repository of some of the most interesting specimens of 17th century art remaining in London; interesting, primarily because of their setting, but, in addition to the actual buildings and the statues, the specimens of stone carving, of lead work and of glass, have all of them a charm and an individuality of their own. Of the carved work I give illustration in pls. 3, 4, 6, pp. 6, 8, 14. The stone ships on the ends of the gables, and the arms of Sir Richard Browne have been already referred to; and the beautiful little mediæval coat of the Trinity House, which is observable in various parts of the building, is worth examination. So are the lead cisterns in between the houses, which are exceedingly good of their kind.

The glass.

Mr. Barrett has made a special study of the glass, which represents a series of memorials to various Elder Brothers and Masters, but he hazards the rather rash conclusion that it ought to be removed from the chapel and carried off to the Trinity House on Tower Hill. Apart from the risk and impracticability of removing valuable glass, the obviously right thing to do with it is to leave it where it is. It is well placed, it is much more applicable with its little lattice panes to the 17th century character of the old College, than it could ever be to the rather frigid Adams' work of the great house on Tower Hill, and the records of these simple seamen of the 16th and 17th centuries, whom it commemorates, are more aptly preserved in the Mile End College than in the Trinity House itself. The former, as we have seen, preserves for us the true mediæval spirit of the old Guild, the latter rather suggests admirable organization and able officials, with an exalted board of royal and distinguished Elder Brethren who are too busy with the great things of the world to trouble themselves with the records and the intentions of the old mariners' Guild, or what becomes of them.

As I have not thought it necessary to go over the same ground as Mr. Barrett, I have contented myself with making good the only defect in his admirable investigation of the glass in the Chapel, and have given a complete hand-coloured representation of the various lights in the two windows (pls. 7 & 8, pp. 22 & 24); from which the names and merchants' marks of the different Brethren may be more carefully studied.

To those whom a slight description does not satisfy, I recommend a visit of inspection. With the few historical data which this monograph may supply, they will be able more fully to judge for themselves how far we are justified in calling the Trinity College in Mile End an object lesson in National History.


  • 1. This print may be seen in the Crace Collection, Print Room, British Museum, or in the Governor's Room in the Trinity Grounds.
  • 2. See letter of Nauticus (page 27).
  • 3. Pepys' diary. Braybrook's edition, vol. iv.