Almshouses: a social history

Almshouses are a fascinating curiosity left over from an age when the poor and destitute would typically fall through the gaps as universal care as we know it, did not exist.

You will find almshouses in the centre of busy towns, on high streets, beside churches or tucked away in the corner of a field, the remnants of former communities and their social needs. Typically Georgian in style, there are some Tudor, one Strawberry Hill Gothic, whilst others have had a Victorian makeover, but still include interesting features, elaborate chimneys, often with pretty cottage gardens or courtyards the perfect location for the residents to spend time in.

A Safe Passage for Souls

By definition, an almshouse is charitable housing provided to enable people to remain in their own particular community. They are often targeted at the poor, at those from certain forms of previous employment, or their widows, and are generally maintained by a charity or the trustees of a bequest. Originally formed as an extension of the church system, benefactors were not exclusive to this order however, and some where established primarily to ensure safe passage for the benefactors’ souls to make it to heaven.

Alms are, in the Christian tradition, money or services donated to support the poor and indigent. The first recorded almshouse was founded in York by King Athelstan; the oldest still in existence is the Hospital of St. Cross in Winchester, dating around 1132. In the Middle Ages, the majority of European hospitals functioned as almshouses and for those established for the benefit of the founder of their family, usually incorporated a chapel. As a result, most were regarded as chantries and were dissolved during the Reformation, under an act of 1547.

Residents no longer have to wear special items of clothing, emblems or badges that would signify where they lived, or to remind others of their benefactors’ largesse. Dwellings too have been modernised which has meant that in some instances, fewer residents can be housed with the addition of indoor plumbing for example. An impressive 2,600 almshouses continue to be operated across the UK, providing 30,000 dwellings for 36,000 people.

The Chilterns has a wonderful collection of these buildings that are still functioning as charitable associations, housing those in need and below are some that I have visited, and will add to this as I encounter more. Suggestions most welcome!

Aylesbury Old Town

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Hickman Almshouses with their elaborate mock Tudor chimneys, Church Street

Aylesbury old town centre is a crowded cluster of cottages in just a few narrow, largely car-free streets that surround the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin whose ornate clock tower dominates this skyline. Many of these dwellings are in fact almshouses, administered by the Thomas Hickman Charity. Founded in 1698, the charity works to support the people of Aylesbury and aims to benefit those in a similar state of need; an aim broadly in line with almshouse charity foundations across the country.

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Church Street Aylesbury

To say these lanes are a delightful surprise is an understatement! A pretty church square with beautiful trees and lopsided headstones are from another age surrounded by multiple terraced houses or apartments now providing accommodation for small numbers of residents.

Ewelme

William and Alice de la Pole were benefactors of the almshouses and school built in 1442. The almshouses were to consist of twelve old men, bachelors, poor and in reduced circumstances, but not from the lowest class of life. Over them was set the thirteenth man, who was to be of a ‘superior type’, a kind of head-brother to the twelve. All were to wear a habit consisting of black tabards or gowns of wool with a red cross upon the breast. Closely incorporated with the church through whose west door leads you into the pretty cloister around which the 14th century almshouses residents now live, which in turn lead into the compact school grounds that makes for a magical medieval complex, complete with their very own Grande Dame of Ewelme.

Medieval Alms Houses
The Almshouses in Ewelme

Lady Dodd’s cottages Ellesborough

A Grade II Listed block of four almshouses in Ellesborough, that were formerly eight, date from 1746. Founded in 1720 by the bequest of Dame Isabella Dodd for the maintenance of 4 old men and 4 old women, but is unclear what her connection with the Ellesborough area was.  Over the road form the church, these cottages are now a private home with one of the loveliest of Chilterns views. Lady Dodd made similar bequests in Little Budworth in Cheshire.

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St Peter & St Paul church with Dodds cottages in the foreground

Weedon Almshouse Gardens Chesham

A Grade II Listed building, founded in 1624 by the bequest of Thomas Weedon of Pednor, Weedon Almshouses were rebuilt in the late nineteenth century of flint rubble and red brick quoins. The four almshouses with their gables, barge-boards and chimneystacks are difficult to see as they sit obscured behind a high flint wall, so an image is not readily available.

Sir William Drake’s Almshouse Amersham

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The dwellings are typically set around the communal courtyard

A Grade II listed property, the Drake’s almshouses were a gift to the market town of  Amersham by local bigwig, Sir William Drake who built them in 1657 ‘for the relief of 6 poor widows of good repute in the parish’. Originally six dwellings, they were converted in 1997 to provide increased accommodation and modern conveniences for four residents given them greater comfort including indoor plumbing.

There is a tablet to the rear of the buildings commemorating John and Alice Day, who used to run the Swan Inn.  Their daughter Harriet built these almshouses in 1875 for six poor women of good character.  Men are now permitted to live here – how times have changed!

Amersham Museum garden
The John and Alice Day almshouses are visible from the Museum garden.

John Sayer Almshouses Berkhamsted

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Located on the high street in Berkhamsted,  John Sayer, chief cook to Charles II,  bequeathed £1000 in trust “for the building of an almshouse and the purchasing of lands for the relief of the poor widows in Berkhamsted St Peter”. The inscription reads: “The Guift of John Sayer Esq 1684”. They are noticeable for their simple, compact structure, along a high street messy with renovations and clutter.

Louisa Cottages Tring

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A Grade II Listed Building located on the original Roman road, Akeman street in Tring, opposite the quirky Natural History museum. They were built to house the retired workman from the Rothschild Estate, an entity that had a huge impact on this quiet market town and wider Chilterns. This lovely row of tudoresque-styled almshouses was designed by William Huckvale and are quite a local feature, with Nos. 1-5 dated ‘1893’ and Nos. 6-8 dated ‘1901’.

Further Information

Adventures and further inspiration in the naturally outstanding Chilterns.

Celebrating all that is quirky in the Chilterns, including museums, the famous and infamous past residents.

To find out more about Almshouses, the Almshouse Association has a useful website.