John Gilbert, Keeper of the Hundred Steps

John Gilbert, Keeper of the Hundred Steps

Water colour sketch showing a white man with a grey beard and round-framed glasses. He is wearing a long grey coat, black shoes and a tall brown hat. He is holding a mop in his right hand and standing in a stone archway.
John Gilbert, Keeper of the Hundred Steps, drawn by A.Y. Nutt [SGC F.136c]

The character depicted in this watercolour sketch is described as “John Gilbert ‘On duty’ after 40 years’ service. J.G. was latterly employed until his death in keeping clear ‘the Hundred Steps’.” [reference: SGC F.136c]

The painting was done by Alfred Young Nutt, who was the Surveyor of the Fabric for the Dean and Canons from 1873-1912, and simultaneously Clerk of Works for Windsor Castle from 1901-1912.

Much of his work as Surveyor consisted of routine maintenance of the Chapel and other buildings in the care of the Dean and Canons. There were special projects too, including the restoration of the south side of the Chapel, 1880-86, the conversion of the Naval Knights’ quarters at Travers College for use by St George’s School in the 1890s, and designs for many chapel monuments.

Surviving plans and architectural drawings in the Archives show that Nutt was a stylish draughtsman. It is clear from this sketch of John Gilbert that his artistry and eye for detail extended to more creative pursuits as well.

Apart from his work as Surveyor, Nutt undertook many private commissions for the Royal Family and the borough of Windsor, notably illuminated addresses. He also designed decorations and arches for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897.

In an article for the local newspaper following his death, an anonymous correspondent described Nutt as ” the soul of honour, integrity, generosity and unselfishness, and an example of a fine-souled English gentleman”.

The “Hundred Steps” for which John Gilbert became caretaker is a passage that connects the north wall of the Canons’ Cloister to the land that lies between the Castle and the river. In the present day, that is home to St George’s School and Windsor and Eton Riverside station. However, its previous occupants have included the Dean and Canons’ gardens and their stables. It was an advantage to them to be able to access those quickly and easily without having to walk around the Castle and through the town!

Evidence suggests that there has been a flight of steps down the north side of the hill since as early as 1353, when the Dean and Canons purchased 300 stone slabs “for a certain stair of a gate leading to the Canons’ cemetery.”

Five hundred years later, problems had arisen at the town end of the Hundred Steps. A representative of the Board of Health wrote to the Dean and Canons on 16 November 1853 [SGC I.E.2/102]. He reported that the recess at the bottom of the Hundred Steps, which formed the entrance to Chapter Mews, was in an “offensive state”. The Board of Health had unsuccessfully endeavoured to abolish the use of this space as a public toilet. Accepting defeat, they now sought the Dean and Canons’ consent to erect “a proper screen and other appliances necessary for an urinal”.

One wonders if John Gilbert, pictured here with mop in hand, had been employed to clear up after precisely this sort of behaviour.

Happily, the area is kept clean and clear today, although the Hundred Steps themselves are no longer in use. Chapter Mews (once the site of the Dean and Canons’ stables) is now home to a block of flats.

Kate McQuillian, Archivist & Chapter Librarian

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.