House of St John’s: A family history

St John’s Foundation has a long history. During our 850 years, much has changed, but our mission to support local people in the Bath and North East Somerset region has remained unwavering. We are fortunate to have been supported by many generous donors over the years to facilitate this work, and some of the gifts we’ve received have granted us opportunities for many years after they were given. One such gift is No. 1 Queen Square.

Now home to the House of St John’s, this remarkable property was bequeathed to St John’s Foundation in 1953. However, until recently, the history of the House was relatively unknown, until a deep dive into our archives revealed a fascinating tale.

The story begins in London with the legend of Dick Whittington.

The name Dick Whittington may stir memories of an old folk tale, in which a young boy becomes wealthy by selling his cat to merchants to help solve their rat problem, and later becomes Mayor of London. The real Richard (Dick) Whittington was certainly Mayor of London, but he was never poverty-stricken and it’s unclear if he ever had a cat.

Born in Gloucestershire into a wealthy family, Richard Whittington grew up in affluence. However, as he was not the eldest son, he would never inherit his father’s estate, so he moved to London to make his fortune as a cloth merchant. With kings amongst his clientele, he gained great influence, becoming the Mayor of London.

Throughout his life, he invested in numerous community projects. Despite coming from a wealthy background, he recognised the difficulties faced by those living in poverty and worked to improve sanitation in some of London’s poorest areas and build hospitals, almshouses, and refuges for unmarried mothers.

Richard Whittington never had children, but his charitable legacy continued through his relatives.

One such relative, Reverend Robert Esbury Whittington, born in 1842, was the Master of St John’s from 1872 until his death in 1899. It was his responsibility to manage the charity’s affairs and ensure the wellbeing of its residents. It was the Reverend’s son, the solicitor Robert Hugh Whittington, who first bought No. 1 Queen’s Square and lived there with his wife, Edith. They also died childless, bequeathing their home to four unmarried ‘Whittington sisters’, Dolly, Beryl, Joan and Winnie.

In 1953, eleven years after they were bequeathed 1 Queen Square, the sisters decided to gift it to St John’s. Knowing their ancestor was Master of the charity explains why they chose to do this, and the religious connection between their Rector father and Robert Hugh’s Reverend father may explain how the families were aware of each other in the first place.

Whilst their exact connection is still to be discovered, the evidently close ties between these two families and their commitment to the local community is a legacy that still survives today. In 2021, the building was sympathetically restored into a luxury co-working space, complete with a range of meeting rooms and event space. The House gifts  its profits back to St John’s to support the aims of the charity’s Foundation Fund –  established specifically to close the Key Stage 2 attainment gap (i.e. to reduce educational inequality).   

Understanding more about the history of our charity helps to give us perspective on the work we do and appreciate all those who came before. Improving the lives of people in our community is a legacy we are proud of, and one we will continue to build on. With 850 years of history to dig through, there is so much more to discover, but each piece of the puzzle will help us tell the story of St John’s Foundation.

Read more about how we support our founders, the St John’s Foundation.