The Restoration of Dover’s Iconic Maison Dieu
At a recent meeting Members of the Rotary Club of South Foreland enjoyed a presentation about the project to restore the historic Maison Dieu. It was given by Martin Crowther, Engagement Officer for the project, whose role is to involve the local community in a series of events and activities related to the restoration. Martin has worked in heritage preservation for thirty years, including time at Canterbury Cathedral and has been leading the Dover Project for three years. His knowledge, experience and enthusiasm were apparent and he certainly engaged his listeners.
The Maison Dieu is a wonderful building with an 800 year history; a building much loved by the people of Dover, for whom it has provided an extraordinary range of events such as weddings, parties, concerts, theatrical performances, wrestling, boxing, and beer festivals.
Some years back it became clear that major building work was necessary and that a creative approach was needed to restoring the Maison Dieu and developing it as a community and cultural venue. The work is now underway and many people from the local community have been involved.
The restoration has been supported by Heritage Lottery Funding of 10.5 million, the Wolfson Foundation, Dover District Council, the Dover Society, and the Landmark Trust which will be developing holiday lets in the Mayor’s Parlour area.
There is an active team of over 100 volunteers who have taken on the role of greeters or guides when it was possible to open the building. Now that restoration has begun many volunteers have been finding out more about the building, its history, artefacts and people.
In an Edwardian photo the exterior of the building looks much the same as today. What is different is the tramway shown in the road. Dover had a fine tramway system and was at the forefront of this technology in 1899. An example of finding out about the building occurred in July 2022 when it was discovered that the electricity input room was once the Borough Tramway Office. It was an enquiry office and the hub of the tramway operation. Phone numbers from World War One were found, reels of unused tram tickets and information on major milestones in the history of the tramway, when it was extended to Maxton and then to Crabble.
The Stone Hall, built in around 1300, was designed to impress with its high ceiling and magnificent windows. When royal visitors stayed at Dover Castle, many of their retinue would be accommodated here. One of the Victorian stained-glass windows in the Hall depicts Hubert De Burgh who was an important figure in the reign of King John, being Justiciar of England, Earl of Kent, Constable of Dover Castle and Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. He defended Dover Castle from French invasion in 1216 and the following year defeated them at sea in the Battle of Sandwich.
It was he who founded the original Maison Dieu in circa 1203 as a hospital run by Augustinian monks for pilgrims on their way to the Shrine of Thomas a’ Becket at Canterbury. It was also known as St Mary’s Hospital: Ladywell is named after the well near the Maison Dieu which was in use until Victorian times.
As well as pilgrims, the monks looked after injured soldiers returning from France in the Hundred Years’ War (started in1337), and ‘corrodians’ who were permanent pensioner residents able to pay for accommodation and food, with money or land. The Maison Dieu looked after the land along to St Mary’s Church and to the boundary with Dover Castle, as well as owning farms and land in many parts of Kent, including Romney Marsh.
Richard of Chichester died in the Maison Dieu in 1253. He was educated at Oxford University where Edmund of Abingdon, who became Archbisop of Canterbury, was his former tutor. Richard dedicated a small chapel to St Edmund and then died in the Maison Dieu where a monk recorded his dying prayer. There is now a large wooden statue of Richard of Chichester in the Stone Hall. It was carved by Dovorian Bob Forsythe out of elm wood from Waldashare Park. It was so large that he had to carve it in Buckland Mill. St Edmund’s Chapel survives, narrowly avoiding demolition in the early 1960s before being restored at the end of that decade.
With Henry VIII and the Reformation resulting in the Dissolution of the Monasteries around 1544, the role of the Maison Dieu as a pilgrim hospital came to an end as anything to do with pilgrimage or the veneration of saints, such as at the shrine of Thomas a’ Becket at Canterbury Cathedral, was banned.
The Maison Dieu then became a victualling yard for Royal Navy ships in the harbour or anchored in the Downs, a role that was to last for around 300 years from well before the Spanish Armada until after the Battle of Trafalgar. The Stone Hall was turned into a three floored factory producing ships’ biscuits, bread and salted meat to provision the ships. A mill and a slaughterhouse and bakery would have been out-buildings. As one of five Navy victualling yards, it became an important building in Naval History. The transition between the medieval hospital and Naval Victualling Yard, is currently being researched by a PhD student from Canterbury Christchurch University as there is much to discover about that change.
In 1665 the brick-built house next to the Stone Hall was built to house the Agent Victualler who was in charge of the yard. Thomas Papillon of Acrise Place, who was MP for Dover as well as a merchant, took on this role from 1689 until 1699.
By the late 1830s the Maison Dieu had been taken over by Dover Town Council who were to oversee many changes. In the 1850s the Stone Hall was improved with architect Ambrose Poynter managing the restoration which included a new entrance and a raised floor. Unfortunately, Poynter became blind and didn’t complete the work so William Burges took over. He was an architect much influenced by French medieval design which is evident in his decorations and carvings. He overspent the budget given him by the Council so there was a pause in the work while this problem was resolved.
Perhaps the most noticeable change to the Stone Hall was the replacement of the plain glass windows with colourful Victorian stained glass portraying historic rather than religious events. For example, the siege of Dover Castle by the French in 1216, the granting of the Maison Dieu Charter in 1227 by Henry the Third, and Henry the Eighth leaving Dover Harbour to meet with Francis the First at the ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’ in France. Artist Edward Poynter, son of Ambrose, was only 19 when he designed these windows: he later became President of the Royal Academy.
William Burges designed the Mayor’s Parlour with a colourful decorative scheme which reflected his interest in medieval animals such as griffins and dragons as well as birds (the parrot was his favourite), butterflies and flowers. The Parlour was opened in 1867 and replaced a rather staid Council Chamber that had been designed by the Borough Architect in the 1850s. In 1967 Burges’ decorative scheme for the Mayor’s Parlour as well As the Connaught Hall, had been painted over with grey ‘modern’ paint. This will be reversed, and the original decoration restored as part of the current project.
Burges also designed the furniture for the Mayor’s Parlour with a magnificent circular table and eighteen lion chairs of walnut and Moroccan leather. These chairs have not been changed in any way since they were made in 1883. Some can be used in their original state but some will need to be reupholstered. The original upholsterer was Flashman and Co. of Dover and Folkestone. An interesting feature of the table is the piece of shrapnel embedded in it from a bomb which landed on the fire station opposite in World War Two.
There are also twenty or so large oil paintings in the Council Chamber which are being researched. One is of St Martin, Patron Saint of Dover, cutting his cloak and giving half to a beggar. Another is of James Coulter, Mayor in 1853, a Quaker, who is holding the Act of Parliament which permitted non-Church of England individuals to stand for office. Coulter did much to improve water supply and drainage in the Borough.
The Connaught Hall, opened in 1883, was also designed by Burges but he died in 1881 and the work was completed by his partners. It was of gothic design and provided a large assembly and concert area with balconies, as well as some smaller rooms. There was a high proscenium arch with a balcony at the front of the hall before the concert organ was installed in 1902/03 when a Borough Organist was appointed. It is one of the finest organs in Kent, with four keyboards and will be restored when finances permit. Ron Chatburn, a member of the Rotary Club of South Foreland, was organist here for about ten years from 1978.
There is a courtroom in the Maison Dieu that was used as a Magistrates’ Court with a staircase from the Victorian prison below leading up to the prisoners’ dock. Terry Sutton as a young reporter first covered court cases here in 1948; his name is carved on the press bench, along with many others. By the 1960s and 70s this included female reporters. It wasn’t until 1987 that a new Magistrates’ Court was built in Pencester Road.
The old Victorian prison which housed Dover Museum after World War two, with a stuffed polar bear guarding its entrance, will become a café/restaurant accessible from the street. The main entrance to the Maison Dieu will be the same but with a lift available. The Museum moved back to the Market Square in 1989 where it had been before being bombed. Some of the artefacts from the old museum are being stored at Whitfield.
Behind the scenes of the high tower is the clock mechanism made by Wards, clockmaker to Queen Victoria. The clock was difficult to maintain and clean as it is high and overhanging the street. Its nickname is ‘The Old Frying Pan’.
On the roof of the Maison Dieu are three rare ‘sunburners’, which are basically vents which allow smoke to escape from the Connaught Hall. Up to 1500 people could have been in the hall for large Victorian events which, with the results of smoking, made this early form of air conditioning ineffective. By 1923 the number of people attending events was reduced for safety reasons.
On the roof are examples of graffiti as well as a VR weathervane. In many places in the building workmen have left their mark on stone or wood. The project is keen to find stories of as many people as possible, men, women and diverse groups, who have been part of the history of this fascinating building.
As well as the many volunteers there are now over 100 heritage specialists working on the building. Volunteers include a group of architectural students from Brighton University doing some research for the project. The project is now taking on apprentices, and the pop-up conservation studio for the public will be reopening soon. As the restoration progresses more of the medieval and older history of the building is being revealed. For example, what appeared to be a Victorian fireplace turned out to be the top of a medieval door. Fragments of medieval pillars which were built over in Victorian times have also been found. Recent community digs have unearthed 60 fragments of medieval glass and 1200 stained glass fragments. Finds from Victorian times have included ballot boxes and the script of a play about Suffragettes which was performed in the Connaught Hall.
As well as engaging the local community at events and activities at the Maison Dieu, the project has been out to local community centres, and to events such as the Regatta. They were involved in the Amal Syrian puppet walk last autumn and provided lanterns inspired by the Maison Dieu.
Martin estimates that the project will be completed and the building open for events and public admission by the autumn of 1924. It will then have established its latest role as a community and cultural venue for Dover. There will be events and activities as the restoration progresses. He was warmly thanked for his fascinating presentation.
To check on progress and to find out about upcoming events or activities go to: www.maisondieudover.org.uk.
Next event: History Talk
St Mary’s Hospital – its place in Medieval Dover
Wednesday 24th May 2023 18.30 – 19.30 In person and online
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