The Ancient Charity in Limehouse | The Royal Foundation of St Katharine
Right beside Limehouse DLR Station, you can find the most wonderful little place to escape the city.
The Royal Foundation of St Katharine has existed continuously since 1147, making it one of the oldest charities in the world.
Today it’s a place to stay the night, hire for events or just enjoy a meal.
History of the Royal Foundation of St Katharine
Originally based near the Tower of London, St Katharine’s was founded by Queen Matilda in 1147.
In memory of her two children that had died in infancy, Matilda established a hospital for the poor outside the Tower of London.
Image credit: Leaflet | © Maptiler and OpenStreetMap contributors (www.layersoflondon.org – Agas Map, 1561/1633)
It stood there for an incredible 678 years, all thanks to a charter from 1273. Queen Eleanor granted this charter to ensure masses were said for her late husband as well as all monarchs.
Amazingly, it also then survived Puritan rule under Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century. but by accepting a puritan preacher amongst their number, they continued.
You can see it on the 1799 map by R. Horwood, a curious Medieval relic that was managing to cling on, right beside the Tower of London;
Image credit: Leaflet | © Maptiler and OpenStreetMap contributors (www.layersoflondon.org – Horwood 1799)
The Final Straw
The ultimate downfall of St Katharine’s was the commercial expansion and the docks.
In 1825 the last service was held at the old church. It was then demolished, today an unthinkable act of vandalism, and in 1828 St Katharine’s Docks opened for business.
No compensation was paid to people – around 3,000! – who lived around the old church, they were turfed out while the Master at the time Herbert Taylor, happily pocketed the cash and built a new complex in Regent’s Park.
Herbert Taylor’s Memorial at the current St Katharine’s can be found in the cloisters
St Katharine Docks themselves closed in 1968 and are now home to a marina with shops, offices and restaurants. I believe that neoclassical white rotunda marks the approximate site of the destroyed chapel.
Move to Regent’s Park
Compared to their long history by the Tower, their Regent’s Park home was a mere blip in the timeline. But a beautiful new church building was constructed, designed by Ambrose Poynter.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Creative Commons
It still stands today, now home to the Danish Church.
But in sleepy, comfortable Regent’s Park, the Royal Foundation had a sneaky suspicion that they weren’t quite living up to their aim of caring for London’s poor. So in 1948 St Katharine’s rolled up their sleeves and returned to the East End.
Back to the East End
They bought the bombed out church of St James Ratcliff, as well as the Georgian manor-house, still visible today.
In 1952 a new Royal Chapel was built in a modern style but historic survivors – like the statues standing guard outside and choir stalls from the 1400s – were included.
It’s quite magical, to stand in side the chapel, even though it’s modern, and think about all the people who have used these stalls through time.
They also have individual misericord carvings, playful and artistic flourishes packed with detail.
St Katharine’s Today
Although still a religious charity at its heart, The Royal Foundation of St Katharine’s is an attractive, welcoming place for anyone.
It hosts regular retreats, you can book to stay overnight as a hotel or simply to use one of their workspaces for the day.
They have a great Yurt Cafe which also hosts regular events and live music.
Find out more on their website here. And if you needed more reasons to visit they also have resident cats!