Almshouses and their History

A well attended meeting on Tuesday 20th April witnessed a most impressive tour-de-force enthusiastically detailing the history of Almshouses. Without a note Anna Hallett delivered names and dates covering nine centuries of demonstrated concern for those in need, variously described according to the mores of their time as "decayed" and "decrepit", "hamleteers", "brothers and sisters" or more acceptably "residents".

One can be reasonably sure that all present had, at some time, stopped to admire a picturesque structure in a 'Miss Marple like' village and wondered who had been inspired to create such a gem for a worthy cause. We have also passed by many buildings that have failed to inspire or to convey to us their original purpose and some have endured change of use and become community centres while others that were created with an integral chapel have continued to be used for religious worship.

Although many almshouses of historic or architectural importance are no longer in use, in some instances due to lack of local need or even fear of social stigma, a surprising number continue to exist and function as they were originally intended to do.

In England there are in the region of two and a half thousand almshouses consisting of 25,000 residential units. Conditions within some ar cramped and unmodernised whereas others have been refurbished to meet the standards of today. They continue to be built. In Bath there is one with a computer point in every unit, built last year.

Many were dedicated to venerated saints and continue to carry their name in their title, while others carry the name of the benefactor by whom they were initially endowed.

Thus in two of Lichfield's five almshouses we have St John's without the Bars (for men) and Dr. Milley's (for women) founded by Thomas Milley a cannon of the cathedral. Some were originally hospital wards for the sick and elderly in monasteries, others were part of leprosy hospitals.

Those found at river crossings or route junctions were created as pilgrim hospitals The nomenclature of "hospital" has been dropped in many instances to avoid confusion of function and others carried the title of "College" in recognition of the fellowship envisaged by their founder.

Although we often think of almshouses as being gender separated many are now designed for couples. The age related qualification for admission has in many instances been changes as the level of life expectancy has increased. Each almshouse had its own rules and customs to which residents were expected or compelled to conform. Uniforms were sometimes worn and some of these carried the coat of arms of the benefactor. There is now an Almshouses Association and all have to conform to standards established by the Charity Commission.

Who founded these symbols of historic social need through which benevolence and social conscience were demonstrated? Some were, of course, established by corporate bodies having a common purpose. In descending order or individual status we learnt of Henry VII's contribution in the vicinity of what is now the Savoy Hotel; Dick Whittington, Mayor of London; and many other wealthy merchants rewarded the communities that had no doubt contributed to their commercial success. Of these many endure through the guilds and companies with which their founders were originally associated.

Anna Hallett's slides carried us helter-skelter across the counties of England and over the Channel to France and Germany in search of a great variety of architectural styles. We learnt much that was new and were given much to think about. In these days of inflated property prices and the alarming shortage of affordable housing one is tempted to wonder why more of our economically successful contemporaries fail to use the opportunity to ensure that they will be remembered for their generosity, benevolence and goodwill.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in 1831: "If men could learn from history what lessons it might teach us". Thank you Samuel and many more thanks to Anna Hallett.

Ivor Mitchell
April 2004