Hospitals: St Ursula, Chester

Pages 183-184

A History of the County of Chester: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1980.

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The short-lived hospital of St. Ursula originated indirectly with the will of Roger Smith in 1508. Smith, one of the sheriffs of Chester in 1499, wished his house in Commonhall Lane to be converted after his death into almshouses for the use of such members of the Twenty-Four [aldermen] 'as ben fallen into decay and necessitie'; if there were insufficient candidates among them, vacant houses were to be offered to the Forty-Eight [Common Councilmen]. (fn. 2) Smith left the residue of his estate to maintain his almsmen and requested that the mayor and aldermen should free the houses from all chief rents and pay for repairs in return for the right to nominate the inmates. (fn. 3) The executors of Smith's will, including his brother Thomas, to whom Roger Smith entrusted the realisation of his project, were responsible for transforming the original plan over the next two years. By a tripartite indenture of 6 February 1508/9 between the executors, the mayor, aldermen and commonalty, and the prioress and convent of St. Mary's it was agreed that the executors would pay for the building of six almshouses under one roof on a site in Commonhall Lane supplied by the corporation. The mayor was to have the nomination to vacant places from the Twenty-Four and the Forty or, failing suitable 'decayed' candidates, from the poorest of the inhabitants of Chester; widows were also to be eligible, provided they did not remarry and were 'of good disposition'. If the mayor did not nominate within a year and twelve days the prioress and convent were to fill vacancies and if they did not act within six months the right of nomination was to rest with the mercers' company. Upon election the almsmen and almswomen were to swear to say daily 'Our Lady Psalter with De Profundis' for the soul of Roger Smith but few other details are given about the management of the almshouses. (fn. 4)

The residue of Roger Smith's estate provided an annual income of only £8 for his almshouses (fn. 5) and fears of the consequences of under-endowment may have prompted another change of plan. In June 1510 the executors obtained a royal licence to found a chantry and hospital in honour of St. Ursula and her companions. That is the first mention of the new foundation's unusual dedication, which perhaps arose from Roger Smith's possible connexion with the Low Countries or from Thomas Smith's daughter being called Ursula. (fn. 6) The almshouses, now a hospital, were to be supported by a fraternity of St. Ursula which was licensed to acquire land worth 40 marks a year in order to maintain the poor and infirm of the hospital, repair the buildings, and support services in the hospital chapel. (fn. 7) The former Common Hall or Mote Hall of the city which lay behind the almshouses was adapted as a chapel for the hospital and fraternity. (fn. 8) In 1511 Thomas Runcorn was unaware of the changed status of the foundation for he left money for an almsman in Roger Smith's almshouse; (fn. 9) in 1521, however, Margaret Hawarden left 40d. to the poor men and women of St. Ursula and also 6s 8d. and some bedding to James Richardson, the chantry priest of the hospital. (fn. 10) In 1539 Thomas Baxter, rector of St. Peter's, left £6 13s. 4d. to the hospital and 16d. to each inmate; he also left clothes and hangings for the chapel, a fur-lined gown to James Richardson, and the residue of his goods to support an almsman. (fn. 11) Apart from those benefactions, which seem to have been due to the influence of Thomas Smith and James Richardson, the hospital received no further endowments. Nor is much known of the activities of the fraternity. In 1534 it was leasing a yard in Cow Lane and in 1541 the wardens bound themselves to distribute 30d. among the inmates each year on Maundy Thursday. (fn. 12)

The fraternity does not appear to have become popular with the citizens of Chester and it may have lapsed before July 1547 when the chapel, under the name of the Old Common Hall, was sold by the mayor to Ralph Goodman for £8. (fn. 13) The fraternity formally ceased to exist after the Act of the same year which dissolved chantries, fraternities, and hospitals. The hospital, however, continued as an institution for relieving the poor under the name of Sir Thomas Smith's almshouses. (fn. 14) The complicated rights of nomination evidently caused some confusion in the early 17th century when Peter Drinkwater, mayor in 1624-5, cited the indenture of 1508 when his right to nominate an almsman was challenged by the third Sir Thomas Smith. (fn. 15) In 1702 the heirs of Sir Thomas Smith, Bt., handed the almshouses over to a group of trustees which included eight aldermen of the city and, to ensure the continuance of the charity, paid £180 to the mayor to purchase a rent-charge of £9 10s.; that sum covered the original endowment of £8 a year and £1 10s. to meet the cost of repairs. When the arrangement was made the corporation reserved the right to visit the houses and remove any of the inmates. (fn. 16) The scanty endowment was just sufficient to ensure the continued existence of the almshouses and in the early 19th century the Charity Commissioners reported that they consisted of six separate apartments tenanted by the widows of freemen. When in 1837 the administration of the almshouses was transferred to the trustees of the Chester Municipal Charities it was admitted that the buildings were in a state of ruin and the houses eventually became so dilapidated that the trustees were unable to fill vacancies. In 1870 the trustees applied to the Charity Commissioners for permission to sell the buildings and use the proceeds for the benefit of the poor of the city. The almshouses were sold by auction in October 1871. The ruinous buildings were replaced by a row of red-brick cottages which have since been demolished. (fn. 17)


James Richardson, occurs 1521, 1536. (fn. 18)

There is a sketch of the oval seal of the fraternity on a copy of a document of 1541 (fn. 19) which shows the crowned figure of St. Ursula on a corbel holding a palm in her right hand and an arrow in her left hand; the saint is surrounded by kneeling figures of attendant virgins. The damaged legend reads: SIGILLUM CON. . . URSULE DE CESTER.


  • 1. For a full account of the hospital and its site see J. H. E. Bennett, 'Hosp. and Chantry of St. Ursula the Virgin of Chester', J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxii (2), 98–126.
  • 2. The Forty-Eight mentioned in the will (ibid. 100) became the 40 common councilmen established in 1506: Morris, Chester in Plantagenet and Tudor Reigns, 327.
  • 3. J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxii (2), 100.
  • 4. Chester City R.O., CHB/2, ff. 110–11.
  • 5. J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxii (2), 113.
  • 6. P.R.O., CHES 2/179, rot. 5; J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxii (2), 126–7; Lancs. and Ches. Wills & Inventories, ii (Chetham Soc. [1st ser.] li), 46.
  • 7. P.R.O., CHES 2/179, rot. 5.
  • 8. J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxii (2), 119–20. For a sketch of the figures of Roger Smith and Thomas Smith and his wife which were in the windows of the former chapel in 1663 see B.L. Harl. MS. 2151, f. 143v.
  • 9. 3 Sheaf, xv, p. 23.
  • 10. Lancs. and Ches. Wills & Inventories, ii (Chetham Soc. [1st ser.] li), 10, 12.
  • 11. Ibid. iii (Chetham Soc. [1st ser.] liv), 45–6.
  • 12. J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxii (2), 107–9; Chester City R.O., CHB/2, f. 111.
  • 13. J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxii (2), 123.
  • 14. Ibid. 110–11.
  • 15. B.L. Harl. MS. 2020, f. 77v.
  • 16. J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxii (2), 113–16.
  • 17. Ibid. 11–18. For a view of the almshouses in 1849 see ibid., facing p. 99.
  • 18. Above.
  • 19. B.L. Harl. MS. 2020, f. 77. The sketch is reproduced in J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxii (2), 109.