Hospital of St John the Baptist and St Mary Magdalene, St John's Farm


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:
Location Description:
Statutory Address:
St John's Farm, St John's Road, Ely, Cambridgeshire, CB6 3BQ


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Statutory Address:
St John's Farm, St John's Road, Ely, Cambridgeshire, CB6 3BQ

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Location Description:
East Cambridgeshire (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:


The buried remains of the Hospital of St Mary Magdelene, first recorded in 1225. The hospital was merged with a second, c1251, St John the Baptist, becoming the Hospital of St John the Baptist and St Mary Magdelene.

Reasons for Designation

The site of the medieval Hospital of St John the Baptist and St Mary Magdelene, 1225, is scheduled for the following principal reasons:

* Period: it represents a category of monument: medieval hospitals, about 1000 of which are known to have existed before the Reformation. This type of monument is poorly understood;

* Rarity: not all sites of hospitals identified from documentary sources are known, and the presence of identifiable structures preserved in the context of buried hospital remains is rare;

* Documentation: the hospital of St John the Baptist and St Mary Magdalene is well documented in written records dating from the merger of the two formerly separate foundations in the mid C13. These add considerably to our knowledge of the history of the hospital and to our understanding of the nature and range of buildings and structures that would have occupied the site;

* Group value: the scheduled area has a very strong group value with the four Grade I listed buildings, and the Grade II 'Wall to St John's Farm', all of which are understood to contain medieval fabric. Together they form a historically coherent group which reflect changes to the status and use of the site over 800 years;

* Survival / condition: the buried archaeological deposits of hospital buildings, the burial ground for brethren and the hospital’s boundary ditch are highly likely to survive in good condition, within this relatively undisturbed urban context;

* Fragility / vulnerability: the historic fabric of the upstanding buildings is subject to damage and decay, while buried archaeology is vulnerable to ground works of any description. The good preservation of both is vital to further research and analysis, and this is best secured through the protection afforded by both scheduling for the below ground remains and listing for the upstanding buildings.

* Potential: the scheduled area has the potential, through both non-invasive and invasive analysis, to increase our understanding of the history of the hospital, the development of the site and its buildings as well as details of the domestic lives of its occupants. Although the hospital is well-documented, little is known about its role as an infirmary and who it served, and buried archaeological remains are the most likely source of this type of knowledge, through the survival and analysis of artefacts and environmental evidence.


The present farm of St John’s, Ely occupies the site of a medieval hospital, institutions established to care for the infirm poor (and also other groups of people in need) from the early middle ages until the dissolution of the monasteries in the C16. Typically, they formed a group of buildings housing a religious or secular institution which provided both spiritual and medical care. The idea for such institutions originated in the Anglo-Saxon period, although the first definite foundations were created by Anglo-Norman bishops and queens in the C11. Documentary sources indicate that by the mid-C16 there may have been about 1000 foundations in existence, most of which were run by a religious community headed by a prior or master. Half of the hospitals present at that time were suppressed as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. Some smaller institutions survived until 1547, when they were dissolved by Edward VI, but others continued in use as almshouses.

Buildings of hospital complexes tended to adopt a monastic form, with a similar range of buildings, but with the nave or body of the church containing the infirmary hall and its inmates, their beds placed in the aisles. The chapel itself was generally confined to the east end of the building, often a single cell, perhaps with a sacristy attached. Other ranges included cloisters, refectory and dormitory, accommodation for the master and guests, as well as service buildings, depending on the size of the hospital. The complex as a whole would have been surrounded by a wall or earthwork enclosure.

The present farm known as St John’s is thought to occupy the site of the Hospital of St Mary Magdelene, first recorded in 1225 when it was gifted the church at Littleport. In about 1251 this hospital was merged with a second, St John the Baptist, by Bishop Hugh Northwold, becoming the Hospital of St John the Baptist and St Mary Magdelene. The bishop also drew up a simple rule for communal living: the hospital was to be placed under the care of a Master, and was to have no more than 13 brethren, both lay and clerical. The Master was allowed a room of his own, but all others were to share a single dormitory, and all, including the Master, were to eat together in one refectory.

Specific hospital buildings mentioned in Bishop Fordham’s revised rule of 1303 include a chapel, refectory, dormitory and cloister, as well as the master’s own chamber. Guests are likely to have been separately accommodated. Bishop Northwold’s Rule of 1240 also made provision for the burial of the dead, specifying that the poor who died in the Hospital were to be buried in the parish churchyard, but that the brethren, both lay and clerical, were to be buried in the Hospital graveyard. The only reference to the buildings of St John’s Hospital in the earlier Rule is to a chapel, to be left at the disposition of the Sacrist of the monastery.

The C14 was a time of prosperity for the hospital, but by 1454 it had fallen into poverty. The Mastership was granted as a sinecure to Bishop Dunkeld, and it appears that by the late C15 and into the C16 many of the buildings had fallen into disuse. The dissolution of the hospital, however, did not take place until 1561, when it was presented by Queen Elizabeth I to Clare Hall (later Clare College) for the endowment of 10 scholarships. The farm and the Hospital were subsequently let, recorded in a rental of 1561. A lease of 1620, to John Orwell of Ely, a gentleman, describes both a mansion house and ‘a house called the Hospital with a yard thereto belonging’.

The earliest visual record of buildings on the site of the hospital is Speed’s 1607 sketch map of Ely. This depicts four buildings within an enclosed area of land bounded by to the north, west, and east by the roads currently known, respectively, as West End, St John’s Road and Cambridge Road. Three of the buildings are shown centrally placed in the northern part of the site, apparently arranged around an open courtyard, with gatehouses centrally placed to north and south. There is a fourth building set against the east wall. In the published version of 1610/11, the south boundary is obscured by the map key, but the north gatehouse is present.

The most detailed record of the main complex of buildings to the north is a plan thought to date to the C17, but which may be as late as the early C18. This records a number of buildings grouped around a courtyard, possibly part of the former cloister, and describes an apparently high status dwelling, compatible with the standing of the C17 tenant, John Orwell, but perhaps in the early stages of decline. This includes a partly ruinous building to the south, described as a ‘chappell without any roof’, with single-storey service buildings attached to the west. Two further former hospital ranges, the east side of the cloister and a building to the north (the latter now a two-storey service building) are shown as converted to domestic use, the northern building described as having ‘two large chambers over a kitchen and large parlour’, the parlour ‘now used as a dairy’. The plan also illustrates a substantial two-storey building, west of the cloister and attached to the south of the two-storey service building, its ground-floor rooms described as ‘The Hall’ and ‘a little parlour’, with two chambers and a narrow gallery over. A porch with a staircase, set in the east corner where the two buildings meet, provides the only access between them.

The immediate surroundings of the buildings are also described: the property boundary to the north and east which separates the north complex from ‘the towne street’ was a stone wall, with a short section of mud or clay fence. Immediately to the west of the surviving two-storey service building is shown the entrance from the street, running beside and around the south of the hall into the court. To the south of the ‘chappell’ was the garden and to the east and north was an orchard, on the west side of which, just east of the chapel, is shown the dove house. A ‘pale’ to the south divides the orchard and garden from ‘the close’. The orchard is still described as such on the 1st edition Ordnance Survey (OS) map, but was developed for housing in the late C20, along with the east side of the close.

Of those buildings shown on the early plan, the Grade I listed two-storey service building (NHLE 1126455) is the only hospital structure that remains, though radically altered. This seems to represent the remains of the hospital’s infirmary hall, built in the C13, and probably originally a four or five bay building. It was converted for domestic use in the late C15 or early C16, when it was reduced to three bays, and its north (and a possibly south) aisle demolished. A survey of the building undertaken by Historic England in 2014 suggests that its fabric demonstrates two phases of alteration. The first was when its mastership was held by Bishop Dunkeld, before its dissolution but following the loss of its brethren. The second was after its dissolution, when it became part of a more extensive high status dwelling. The surviving post-dissolution Grade I listed dove house (NHLE 1331739), is also shown on the plan.

About 120m south-west of the service building is a Grade I listed stone barn (NHLE 1126456) and three further agricultural buildings. Although this is referred to as the second complex, the other structures associated with the barn are relatively modern agricultural buildings. The barn is the only one of these structures to contain early fabric. Traditionally described as a chapel, neither its purpose nor its relationship to the hospitals of either St John or St Mary Magdelene is understood. It lies within the historic curtilage of St Mary’s, defined by a ditch to the south, but contains early-C13 fabric, apparently predating the merger of the two hospitals. Although evidently a freestanding structure, it is likely to have been associated with other buildings.

By 1792 the cloisters and ruinous chapel had gone, as well as the later hall, and had been replaced by the present farmhouse in the north complex. The buildings are described in a survey of that date, which also refers to an old stone building with two rooms and a dairy: this is evidently the surviving two-storey service building. The document also refers to four barns, which may have been located in the complex to the south.

The Tithe map of 1838 and the later, C19 OS mapping show relatively minor changes to both the south and north complexes. A lean–to was then added to the farmhouse (Grade I listed : NHLE 1167882) between 1838 and 1848, and there were alterations to the arrangement of farm buildings in the south complex. These are shown on the OS map of 1885. Later alterations include the removal of a structure attached to the south of the west end of the stone barn in the south-west complex.


Principal elements: the scheduled area includes the buried remains of the Hospital of St Mary Magdelene, first recorded in 1225. In about 1251 the hospital was merged with a second, St John the Baptist, becoming the Hospital of St John the Baptist and St Mary Magdelene.

Description: the area occupied by St John’s Farm in the early C21 represents just over half of its extent as shown on Speed’s map of 1610/11. The scheduled area occupies just under 1.5 hectares of land to the south-east of St John’s Road, Ely, defined to the north-east and north-west by roads, and to the east by later property boundaries. To the north-east, a Grade II listed wall (NHLE 1167908) marks the boundary of the site, turning the corner for a short distance along St John’s Road. This is constructed of stone rubble, with some ashlar, with brickwork forming the upper courses of the east end. This fabric is presumably recycled from hospital buildings, but original material may survive in the footings of the wall. The base of a pier is set into the wall on the inside, close to the Grade I listed Dove House (NHLE 1331739). The remainder of the boundary with St John’s Road is marked by a modern timber fence, and this is not included in the scheduling, although the ground beneath it is included.

Almost the whole of the site is under pasture and gardens, and contains two discrete building complexes. To the north, this includes the two-storey service building, the dove house and St John's Farmhouse, all of which contain medieval fabric, although the farmhouse and dove house are later constructs. The south barn is the only surviving medieval building in that complex. Both the south barn and northern service building are now used for storage. These structural remains, combined with both documentary accounts of the hospital at the time of its merger with St John’s and with the plan of the C17 or early C18, allow for a possible reconstruction of the layout of the northern complex. The complex to the south is less well-documented, and is more difficult to reconstruct but would have included a wider complex of buildings to support the hospital, the remains of which are highly likely to survive archaeologically.

The two-storey stone service building 'Barn to the north of St John's farmhouse': the plan of the C17 or early C18 shows three ranges apparently representing the north, east and south sides of a cloister. Of these, only part of the north range survives, and is thought to represent three bays of the infirmary hall. This is constructed largely of rubble and Barnack stone, and is substantially of C16 construction, the east and west elevations with crow stepped gables. The north elevation has a blocked C13 arcade, buttressed between the arches and at the west end, but the stonework used to construct the buttresses and to infill the arches contains none of the evidently recycled material seen in the other three elevations. This may indicate that the alterations to the building for domestic use was undertaken over two phases, with the blocking of the arcade dating to before the dissolution. The conversion created two storeys, with a two-light, mullioned window inserted into both the ground and first-floor of each blocked bay of the arcade, the upper windows set directly beneath the apex of the arches. The ground-floor window to the east is the exception, and has a wider and deeper opening, with a relieving arch over. It has three internal mullions, its lower part bricked-up, and has timber louvres rather than glazed casements.

The reconstruction of the three other walls may be contemporary with the addition of the hall to the south, and of a second domestic range to the east. Although there is no evidence in the stonework of the two-storey hall building and porch in the south wall, there is a C16 timber-framed door with a four-centred arch towards the east end of the ground floor, in the same position as the porch door. A stone piscina is set into the wall above the door. An opening, blocked with brick, to the south end of the first floor of the east elevation, may have given access to the long gallery described in the early plan. Amongst other reused stonework, the east gable end contains fragments of the piers of an internal arcade, either recycled from further bays of the north arcade, or perhaps from the arcade of a south aisle.

Interior: the ground floor originally contained two rooms divided by a timber stud partition covered in wattle and daub. Both have an axial beam, chamfered and stopped at both ends, running east and west from a ceiling beam above the stud partition wall. In the east room a short beam containing mortices for joists extends north from the axial beam. A mortice in the same position on the opposite side of the axial beam suggests there was also a beam to the south. This room contains a fireplace to the east end which has been altered for more recent domestic use, perhaps in the late C19 or early C20, and is a brick structure containing a large copper for washing clothes.

A few glazed floor tiles beneath the cill of the door connecting the east and west rooms, may represent the original floor of the infirmary hall. The door has a timber frame with a four-centred arch. Part of the east room has been partitioned off to create a coal store. In the east wall is a fireplace with a timber bressumer with an arched upper profile. The brickwork to the back of the fireplace is laid in a chevron pattern and does not appear to be fire-blackened. This is compatible with the room’s former use as a dairy, as described on the early plan, but the form of the fireplace suggests the room had been originally intended for polite domestic use.

The first-floor is reached by a staircase in the east room. Formerly two rooms, it consists of a single open space, and has a principal rafter roof without a ridge piece, and with collars and staggered purlins. Substantial repairs to the roof were undertaken in the 1980s . In the north wall plasterwork has fallen away to reveal two of the arches of the C13 arcade at the point where their shafts spring from head corbels. To the east is brick backed fireplace with a substantial chamfered bressumer, with an arched upper profile similar to the ground floor west fireplace. To the south is a timber framed doorway with four centred arch. This opens onto a brick backed alcove, visible as a blocked opening in the east elevation. To the north is a window with three arched lights, the two outer lights infilled with brick. The east end contains a large, centrally placed opening with moulded surround, formally a window, now blocked, to the south of which is an inserted opening containing double timber doors. This is thought to be in the position of the former fireplace.

If the original use of this building was as an infirmary, further bays to the east are likely to have included the chancel or chapel, with the cloister attached to the south. Of the other buildings described in the rule of 1303, the refectory and dormitory are likely to have formed part of the claustral ranges to the south, which may have included the master’s lodging: a plan of the Great Hospital, Norwich (founded 1249) shows the master’s lodging next to the dormitory, in the north corner of the cloister. Alternatively, the master may have been separately accommodated, as he was by the late C14. Speed’s sketch map of 1607 shows a gatehouse to the north, giving access from West End, and a second to the south, and archaeological evidence of these is likely to survive. Other significant elements of the hospital will include the burial ground for lay and clerical brethren: if this was to the east, within the area described as an orchard on the C17 or early C18 plan, and also on Ordnance Survey maps of the C19, only a small part will lie within the area under assessment, with the remainder in the C20 housing development to the east. However, its location may be elsewhere within the proposed scheduled area.

South Barn 'Barn to the south-west of St John's farmhouse': the complex to the south includes only one building that retains medieval fabric: this dates to the early C13 and appears to predate the structures in the complex to the north-east. Although traditionally described as a chapel, it may have served as an infirmary building as part of an earlier and smaller hospital, prior to merger. The building is rectangular in plan, of four bays, built of stone rubble, and with a later hipped roof. The north elevation has four high level narrow lancet windows, all blocked with brick, with ashlar stone surrounds, and also a C13 pointed arched doorway, also blocked. Above the arch is a stone carved to represent a man with a horn and an ox. A later door has been added further to the east. The south elevation contains a full height cart door, immediately to the west of which is a high level square window, also a later insertion. Further to the west is an original opening, similar to and opposite the entrance from the north. The west elevation had a single, high-level window, its presumed arch truncated by the later roof. The east elevation contains the outer jambs of two high-level windows, also with arches truncated. Most doors and windows have splayed reveals on the inside. The roof structure is modern.

About 25m to the south of the barn a map generated by a Lidar survey shows a substantial linear feature, probably a boundary ditch. This separates the hospital from medieval common fields to the south, surviving as two furlongs of ridge and furrow, set at a right-angle to each other. Both the ditch and ridge and furrow are clearly visible on the ground and on satellite imagery. The Lidar image also shows a square or trapezoidal enclosure with an area of about 0.20 hectares, partly overlying the boundary ditch.

Extent of scheduling: the scheduled area is defined by the boundary with West End to the north, and by St John’s Road to the west and north-west. Where the wall survives, it follows its outer edge. To the west, south and east the site is defined by the boundary between it and late-C20 housing and other development.

Exclusions: the above-ground buildings including: service building to the north (possibly the former infirmary building: NHLE 1126455), the barn to the south-west (NHLE 1126456), the C17 dove house (NHLE 1331739) and C18 farmhouse (NHLE 1167882) are best managed through their Grade I listed status and are not therefore included in the scheduling. However, the ground beneath all these structures is included in the scheduling. The relatively modern agricultural buildings north-east of the barn known as St John's Chapel (NHLE 1126456), C20 fences and modern path surfaces are excluded from the scheduling although the ground beneath all these features is included.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
CB 30
Legacy System:


Books and journals
Cobbett, L, Palmer, W. M, 'The Hospitals of St John the Baptist and St Mary Magdelene at Ely and the Remains of Gothic Buildings still to be seen there at St John’s Farm' in Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, , Vol. 36, (1936), 58-108
Pugh, R. H, ed 2002. A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4: City of Ely; Ely, N and S Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds pp. 28-33 British History on Line, accessed 24th September 2016 from
Salzman L F,1948. Hospitals: A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2: Hospitals of St Mary Magdelene and St John pp. 308-310 , accessed 24th September 2016 from


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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