The King James VI Hospital in Perth was first founded by a Royal Charter on August 9th 1569 by the young infant king’s regent, the Earl of Moray, and reconfirmed by the king himself on July 29th 1587. Its given remit was to raise revenue on behalf of the burgh’s poor from lands previously held by the church in the town prior to the Scottish Reformation in 1560, to act as both a feudal superior and as a charitable institution. The new protestant church would oversee the institution, with the day to day work carried out by an annually elected Hospital Master, whose key duty was to collect the rents and feu duties payable to the Hospital by the many tenants and tradesmen residing in the lands concerned.
All did not start well however. At its creation, much of the church lands granted to the Hospital had already been appropriated by leading civic members of Perth in the confusion after the Reformation, leading to many acrimonious disputes between the Town Council and the Hospital management for the next two centuries.
With ancestral connections to Perth, I decided in 2008 during my University of Strathclyde based genealogical studies postgraduate course to do a study of the Hospital’s role as a feudal superior during the 19th century. After seeking permission to access the records from the hospital’s current master (it’s no longer a working hospital, but still has a ‘master’), I was soon underway.
So what exactly was a feudal superior? Feudalism was the principle basis by which property was held in Scotland for hundreds of years, the practice finally ending with the Abolition of Feudal Tenure (Scotland) Act 2000, which finally became enacted into law in 2004. It concerned a series of relationships between ‘vassals’ and ‘superiors’, with the monarch the highest superior in the land, holding Scotland on behalf of God. Areas of the country were then parcelled out in ‘feus’ to various high ranking nobles or institutions, who duly became the monarch’s ‘vassals’, paying a ‘feu duty’ for the privilege to use the land in a manner agreed to by the monarch, now their ‘superior’. In turn, these vassals could then carve the land up further, and become superiors themselves, with their own vassals, and so on. Feus were hereditary, meaning the land could be passed on to an heir after death, who would then become a vassal in turn, and continue making the payments to the superior as before.
The charter details concerning the feu duties raised by the Hospital were recorded in huge volumes known as ‘chartularies’, whilst separate rental books also recorded the income derived from tenants based in additional Hospital owned properties. By examining the documents I was soon able to work out the pivotal role of the Hospital in Perth’s rapid regeneration in the early 1800s, and the income it was able to earn on behalf of the poor.
I first had to understand the Hospital’s position in 1800, and so in fact began by looking at earlier records from the previous century. In 1760 I learned that the management team of the Hospital at that time had conveyed the Blackfriars area of Perth to Lord John Murray of Pitnacree at a ridiculously deflated price. As Murray continued to pay an annual feu duty to the Hospital, he in turn parcelled the land up further into smaller feus and duly made an enormous profit from the money which he subsequently charged from his own vassals. With the land’s potential value increasing, in 1793 Murray then conveyed his lands to a developer called Thomas Anderson. Sensing that the land’s value was significantly increasing, both an alarmed Perth kirk session and the then Hospital manager began to demand a new financial arrangement. The two parties came to a new agreement, which included the thumbs up for a major residential development plan that Anderson wished to implement to develop Blackfriars even further. Five years later, however, Anderson suddenly went bankrupt. Rather than looking for someone to buy the lands, his creditors sold them back to the Hospital. Wisely opting to continue with Anderson’s development scheme, the charitable body soon made a substantial profit.
The Blackfriars development was a major success, creating some of the town’s most iconic streets, such as Rose Terrace. It was not long before the Hospital wanted to try something similar. In 1803 it agreed to a development proposal from the Provost of Perth, Thomas Hay Marshall, for the southern area of the town. In this the Hospital agreed to convey to the Council a part of the building’s own extensive gardens, in return for part of the town’s own adjacent Spey Gardens. A major street plan to the south of the town centre was created, with many new feus identified and put up for sale. Further plans were created from the gardens in 1830 and 1836, and at another area known as Carr’s Croft in 1869.
From a personal point of view, the Hospital’s role as a superior for Carr’s Croft was something that immediately grabbed my attention, as in the first half of the 19th century my four times great grandfather William Paton had resided at a row of thatched cottages there. William was a weaver, and from earlier research I knew that from 1797 to 1847 the Weavers Incorporation of Perth had held the cottages on a fifty year lease from the Hospital, before the control of the lands had reverted back to the Hospital. The 1841 census had shown William still resident at Carr’s Croft in that year, he having moved there in the early 1790s, but the burial register for his death in 1849 showed that he had later moved to nearby South Street. Why had he moved?
A rental book for the cottages, established by the Hospital in 1847, was able to show me that William had already moved out by then. However, William’s brother John, also listed as a resident at the cottages in 1841, was found to be still there, paying an annual rent of £2 15s to the Hospital. The description of many of the houses showed that they had been allowed to virtually fall to ruin in the last years of their management by the then destitute Weaver’s Incorporation. As many of the tenants listed in the 1841 census were still listed in the rental book, I was also able to identify the house in which William had himself resided, which by 1856 had been noted as “now in ruins and unlet”. The situation was the same for many of the cottages – “in very bad order at front”, “this tenement fell one stormy night in November 1848”, and “now in ruins and unlet” being just three examples. It seemed clear why William had moved and why the land was later ripe for redevelopment.
But there was another discovery to be made. On another branch of my family, my five times great uncle, Dr. William Henderson, had made several appearances within the Hospital’s chartularies. As an elder in the kirk session of Perth, he was duly noted as a witness on many of the feu charters recorded, and was also noted as a tenant within an adjoining property to one being purchased in the town’s Rose Terrace in 1826, confirming that he had resided there some fifteen years earlier than I had previously known.
When I exclaimed my delight at these discoveries with the present hospital master, he disappeared from his office and moments later returned with some cards listing the trustees of the Hospital in the late 1860s. William was named amongst them (in his capacity as an elder of the East Kirk parish of Perth), proving that he had had a substantial involvement with the body for most of his adult life.
For more on the role the hospital played as a feudal superior, you can read my dissertation on this site at https://scotlandsgreateststory.wordpress.com/free-items/.