SAINT Oswald's Hospital in the Upper Tything, Worcester, may well be the oldest surviving complex of almshouses in the country with a history spanning 1,000 years.

Historians down the centuries have fondly believed that it was founded around the year 990, in the time of the early Bishop of Worcester from whom it gets its name - St Oswald.

Unfortunately, however, no charter nor documentary evidence still exists to prove the truth of this belief. The first definite record is in the year 1268, when the Register of Godfrey Giffard, the Bishop of Worcester, noted that William de Beauchamp had left 10 shillings in his will "for the infirm of the Hospital of St Oswald".

I've been learning all about St Oswald's from Mrs Ruth Piggott, honorary assistant archivist of the Worcester Cathedral Library, who is compiling a brief history of the almshouses.

She has been heavily involved in research and cataloguing work on a collection of 10,000 documents relating to St Oswald's Hospital and dating back to 1308. Two years ago, the collection was passed into the safe keeping of the Cathedral Library.

Mrs Piggott suggests that the beginnings of St Oswald's Hospital could possibly be linked to the opening in the 10th Century of the White Ladies Nunnery, also in Upper Tything.

"After establishing the nunnery, Bishop Oswald may well have created a small sanctuary in the same area, circa 990, where brothers, like the sisters of the nunnery, could 'minister to the sick, bury the dead, relieve the poor and give shelter to travellers who arrived after the city gates had closed at night', " she suggests.

Mrs Piggott points out that an archaeological excavation on part of the St Oswald's site in 1991, unearthed Saxo-Norman mouldings, re-used in later mediaeval walls. "Do these indicate that the original hospital existed about the year 1000?" she asks.

In 1085, St Oswald's successor as Bishop of Worcester, St Wulstan founded a similar religious house, the Commandery, also for the aged poor and as a place of hospitality and shelter for travellers arriving after the nearby Sidbury Gate had closed.

Mrs Piggott says: "It is tempting to wonder whether the Commandery, just to the south of the old city limits, was built to complement a similar institution established by St Oswald on the northern outskirts of the city?

"If it could be proved that St Oswald's Hospital was indeed established in the time of the saint from whom it takes its name, then it would be the oldest charitable trust and surviving almshouse complex in the country," stresses Mrs Piggott.

But like all historians and researchers she must, in the end, rely on hard facts and surviving written records, and these can only prove the definite existence of St Oswald's 733 years ago, as opposed to 1,000 years or more.

The documentary evidence starts with that record of a 1268 legacy to St Oswald's by William de Beauchamp and moves on to 1291, when money was given to the "Brothers of St Oswald" by one Nicholas Mitton.

It is known too, that during the late 1200s, land at Whittington was gifted to St Oswald's, and that in 1308, "Perdiswelle" landowner John Blankets gave 10 acres off Barbourne. Known as Blakeland, these meadows lay between Barbourne (near the former Eye Hospital) and Thorneloe Road and were once graced by a large windmill.

In the 1300s too, St Oswald's was given further lands - 100 acres in "Northwyck" and 100 acres at Lower Broadheath, then in St John's Parish.

St Oswald's Hospital would clearly have had a chapel from its foundation and, in its early days, it boasted "a chaplain, Master and four brethren," though it gradually grew in the number of its monks and residents.

Alas, during the 14th Century the monks of St Oswald's twice fell into disrepute.

In 1321, Bishop Cobham ordered Thomas Bromley and the Dean of Worcester "to make inquiry as to the truth of the report that the brethren of St Oswald lead dissolute lives and waste the goods of the hospital."

As a result of the inquiry, the Master of St Oswald's, William de Claines was "deposed."

Then in 1394, a commission was issued "to punish and correct the crimes and excesses of the Master and Brethren of the House of St Oswald." Once again, the Master was dismissed and a new one appointed.

There was also another black spot, literally, for St Oswald's during the same century. To the rear of the hospital was a large graveyard which, by the 14th Century, was recorded as being "the municipal cemetery" for the bodies of "strangers, criminals and travellers to the city" together, presumably, with deceased residents and monks of the hospital.

With the devastating arrival of the Black Death in 1349, the St Oswald's graveyard was required to take some of the bodies of the many victims, partly by providing a plague pit.

The graveyard was later to be the last resting place of St John Wall, one of the 40 English Catholic martyrs, who was hanged, drawn and quartered at Red Hill, Worcester, after being convicted of being "a Roman priest".

Much of the original St Oswald's graveyard - and probably St John Wall's burial place - is now believed to be covered by surrounding roads and development outside the confines of the almshouse complex today.

Over the centuries, St Oswald's had to rely in the main on rents from its lands and properties to run and maintain the almshouse complex. By 1535, St Oswald's was recorded as receiving revenue from property "in the city suburbs" (houses in Foregate Street and The Tything) and from lands at Whittington, Claines, Smite and Northwick Manor and in St John's.

Part of Pitchcroft was probably once held by St Oswald's as well as lands in Herefordshire and, for a time in the 18th Century, at Evesham.

Despite these fairly considerable holdings, there were occasions when the revenues were said not to be enough to cover the annual running costs of St Oswald's.

In 1539, the English historian John Leland wrote: "Worcester has a longe and fayre suburb by north without the Foregate, and at the north east part is an ancient and fayre large Chapel of St Oswald which first was erected for monks then affected, or should after be infected, of leprosie. After, it was changed to a hospital, and there was a master fellows and poor folkes."

Around the time Leland wrote this description, a move was being made in 1539 to out-manoeuvre Henry VIII on the eve of the Reformation and to keep St Oswald's Hospital in existence despite the imminent Dissolution of the monasteries.

However, St Oswald's fared almost as disastrously from the "out-manoeuvring" move as it would have done from the Dissolution.

All the lands and property of St Oswald's were let on a 99-year lease to one John Harford or Hereford. This meant that the King's Commissioners encountered a fait accompli when they appeared in 1540, to carry out Dissolution. St Oswald's had, effectively, gone out of monastic control into virtual private ownership.

However, the problem with the cunning plot was that John Harford was not required to maintain St Oswald's or its properties and, in time, some of the houses fell down, trees were felled, gravel extracted, and the grave-yard ploughed!

In due course, Harford conveyed the lease to the Catholic secretary to Queen Mary, Sir John Bourne of Battenhall, who continued to plunder St Oswald's, demolishing its chapel and using the stone, the roof and floor tiles in the repair of his country home, Holt Castle.

In 1631, however, the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral took a significant step which lead to the revival of St Oswald's Hospital.

From 1542, the Dean and Chapter had been given the legal responsibility of appointing the Master of St Oswald's - a right it still holds and executes today - and in 1631, it appointed Dr Samuel Fell D.D., as Master. He was professor of Divinity at Oxford and the university's vice-chancellor.

He is said to have "laboured much to recover the alienated lands" of St Oswald's and to secure for it a revenue of £200 a year. He also determined to rebuild the chapel and almshouse complex to serve "the many poore sowles" of the area. The Bishop gave his consent and re-building began almost at once.

In June 1633, Dr Fell laid the first brick of the new chapel which opened in 1638. The almshouse complex was completed a year or two later but then, alas, the English Civil War from 1642 to 1651, was to drastically undo all Dr Fell's good work of several years.

Some of the tenements owned by St Oswald's in the "city suburbs" were apparently torched, and then in 1646, the new church and almshouses at St Oswald's itself were "utterly demolished by the Royalist troops" who also burned down the whole of Foregate Street.

This obviously had a devastating personal effect on Dr Fell who, three years later, on being told of the execution of Charles I, became ill and died within two days, leaving St Oswald's without a Master.

During the subsequent Commonwealth, with Oliver Cromwell at the nation's helm, St Oswald's, bereft of its Upper Tything buildings, was clearly at a very low ebb, though Mrs Piggott thinks it possible that Samuel Fell's son John took an active interest in the stewardship of the surviving properties and lands of St Oswald's.

Dr John Fell later became Dean of Christchurch, Oxford, and then followed in his father's footsteps as Master of St Oswald's Hospital, spearheading the re-building once again of its chapel and almshouses in the 1660s. He remained as Master for several decades.

Further alterations and improvements were made to St Oswald's over the next two centuries, but then came another total transformation.

In 1873, work began on replacing the chapel and almshouses again, this time with new buildings "in the Gothic style," to designs produced by local architect Henry Rowe. The new chapel was consecrated in February 1878.

It is the fine buildings from the 1870s that form the bulk of the present day St Oswald's Hospital.

Lands once owned by St Oswald's in and around Worcester have largely been disposed of over 150 years. In 1940, for instance, land at Whittington Road was sold to HM Office of Works, or more likely commandeered by Whitehall, for the Government offices which still occupy the site today.

This site and others had been held by St Oswald's for six centuries or more.

There's a waiting list for the city's 'little village'

ST Oswald's Hospital is "an extremely happy and very nice place to live, and an enormous amount of goodwill is to be found among its 23 residents," says the Chaplain, the Ven Frank Bentley, the former Archdeacon of Worcester.

He likens it to "a little village" in atmosphere with its 21 residential units around a central green square, forming a tranquil haven off a busy main road.

"We are very proud too of our superb gardens and grounds."

Archdeacon Bentley is, in essence, also the resident warden of St Oswald's and believes its chapel "causes the whole place to gel".

A Christian background and attendance at the chapel for its Sunday and Wednesday services are a strict rule at St Oswald's, but Archdeacon Bentley finds the residents happy and keen to share in the life of the chapel.

"Overall, St Oswald's is an incredible place and we don't have any difficulty in filling it. In fact, we have a waiting list."

However, Archdeacon Bentley explains that St Oswald's is "not an old folk's home". He says it simply could not operate if all its residents were in their 80s and over.

"It is essential to have a good spread across the age groups from the early retired upwards and also to maintain a balance of men and women.

"We have a very interesting cross-section of people here and, although residents enjoy their independence in their flats and maisonettes, they also readily join in the community life of the place."

Goodwill is such that the residents' annual fete and open day last year raised more than £1,000 for the Acorns Children's Hospice

The Ven Frank Bentley, who is Archdeacon Emeritus of the Worcester Diocese and one of the nation's 32 Royal Chaplains to the Queen, tells me he hopes to write a small book on the history of St Oswald's Hospital.

He believes it was most likely founded in honour of St Oswald shortly after his death and was certainly "a long and well-established community" by the 1200s, when it began to receive substantial gifts and legacies.

He says that for a time, early on in its history, St Oswald's was a haven for monks suffering from leprosy. For centuries too, its almshouse residents would have been men only, though its doors were later opened to women and eventually to married couples.

"There was a time when, if you were found drunk, insane or got married, you lost your place at St Oswald's," adds Archdeacon Bentley, who showed me a hand-written minute book for the hospital dating back to 1846.

He referred me, in amusement, to the following two entries:

6 "July 1878: Luke Weller, having been found in a disgraceful state of intoxication on four different occasions within months, is removed and expelled."

6 "April 1860: Sarah Chesterton, for improper conduct and for constantly absenting herself from chapel, is removed."

Archdeacon Bentley points out that for centuries, the chapel at St Oswald's was the only church between the ancient city boundary and Claines in the north.

"A fair number of the respectability of the area worshipped here, and a lot of them chose our burial ground as their last resting place. Gravestones show them to have included a former Mayor of Worcester and eminent surgeons of the Royal Infirmary.

"Our grounds are also scattered with some family vaults of the wealthy."

He explains that for a very long period, St Oswald's had 40 units, with residents each accommodated in just one room and sharing bathroom and lavatory facilities.

However, in more modern times, St Oswald's had been given "a terrific re-design internally," reducing the number of units by half and creating comfortable flats and maisonettes, each with a living-room, bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom with a lavatory. Even so, great pains had been taken to ensure that the essential character of the place was retained in this transformation and, in 1991, three new units were added in sympathetic design which won a City Award.

The Dean of Worcester, the Very Rev Peter Marshall, who is Master of St Oswald's, gave me these observations:

"St Oswald's Hospital is rich in its links with Worcester's own history. As the present Master, I have a right sense of pride that the community continues this story as part of our city's own today, still aiming to hold to its saintly Christian foundation of worship, hospitality, security and friendship.

"The pastoral care for the residents by the professional staff is today's expression of the love of God in action, and it is also found in the attention and care the residents give each other.

"That people come together in the latter stages of their lives, and from being strangers become friends, shows that the possibility of new friendships and new neighbours is always open to us.

"I think the chapel has a central place. The regular Sunday and mid-week services root its life in prayer, the source of all good things.

"People from outside are always welcome in their attendance, and one or two make it their regular place of worship.

"Of course, the Chaplain is key to making the whole community work and, in the Ven Frank Bentley we could do no better.

"As Master, my policy is to continue to improve the standards of the facilities available so that the St Oswald's community and its residents may continue to flourish."