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Gift Aid: a history of giving at St John’s College

Published on 16/01/2018

Archive photo of cooks making soup

A new exhibition opening today in the St John's College Archive Centre offers a fascinating insight into some of the College’s early charitable activities.

The exhibition entitled ‘Gift Aid: a history of giving at St John’s College’ offers insights into two projects the College was involved with: the Bread and Broth Charity and the College Mission. It displays College photographs and correspondence from the early 20th century, a poverty map of London from the late 1800s, programmes and posters for fundraising events, and a soup recipe that feeds 50 people.

One of the projects, the Bread and Broth Charity, predates St John’s College and has its roots in the St John’s Hospital which stood on what is now the College site from around 1200 to 1511. The exhibition shows a hospital expenses book from 1505 showing money given for “…bred to por folk on Saynt Jhon [sic] day 2s. 6d.”

Thirteen Thursday afternoons each year, beginning the Thursday before Christmas Day, the charity gave bread and soup to 50 persons in need in the town. The soup was made in College in a large boiler powered by steam, and until the Second World War, the College Bakehouse supplied the bread. A recipe for the soup, as served before WWII, was printed in The Eagle in and is on display in the exhibition. 

Soup recipe In the second half of the 20th Century Bread and Broth was a collaborative project between St John’s College and several Cambridge charities. The College ran the charity until the 1950s when the Red Cross took over its administration, with St John’s still providing the facilities and food. In the 1970s, further changes occurred to modernise the distribution of the meals in an effort to reflect increasing care options for the elderly, such as meals on wheels. Rather than providing meals on site, the College donated portions of food to the Salvation Army for their Wednesday Lunches, with the remaining portions being delivered to patrons by the Red Cross. During the 1980s, the Church Army took over the distribution of the food.  The Central Aid Society were also involved, providing the names of new candidates eligible for the scheme.

A poster asking for toy donations

The Mission of St John's College was established in 1883 as a means of providing aid to disadvantaged communities in London. Initially, members of the Mission focused on the foundation of the Parish of the Lady Margaret in Walworthbut following a generous bequest to the Walworth Mission in 1913, the College transferred its activities to Hoxton, where the Mission continued to operate until 1940. Sadly the work of the College Mission was halted in 1940 due to the pressures brought about by the Second World War. Although there were intentions to revive it, the Mission was never re-established after 1945, and the Church of the Lady Margaret closed in 1977.

However, during its operational years the Mission was very active in supporting the poor. Donations of food, books, clothes and toys were regularly given by members of the College, especially around Christmas-time. The Mission also helped to arrange events and activities for the local community, including lectures, men’s and women’s groups, Bible classes and Sunday School.  A copy of the Hoxton Eagle (October 1935), edited by members of the Hoxton Boys’ Club, is on display in the exhibition and includes reports on sports and social activities, such as football and cricket matches.

For more information about the history of the College Mission, click here.

The exhibition is free and open to members of the College from 16 Jan -22 Feb 10.00am-4.00pm, and to members of the public on Weds/Thurs and by appointment. For more information contact the archivist, Tracy Deakin, at

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