The history of almshouses stretches back to medieval times when religious orders cared for the poor. Originally called hospitals or bede houses, in the sense of hospitality and shelter. The oldest almshouse foundation still in existence is thought to be the Hospital of St Oswald in Worcester founded circa 990. It is believed that the then Bishop of Worcester (St Oswald) created this sanctuary where the brothers 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”.
By the middle of 1500s, there were about 800 medieval hospitals spread across the country but the dissolution of the monasteries meant that many were either sold off to landowners or left to ruin. It was during the late sixteenth century that the medieval craft guilds founded many hospitals to provide care for the “elderly decayed” members in their declining years. Today, links with the City Livery Companies remain strong, with many still retaining their own almshouses. Famous amongst these was the Mercer, Richard (Dick) Whittington.
Benefactors came from all walks of life; Kings and Queens, Archbishops and clergy, the aristocracy, merchants and liverymen. Undoubtedly, many benefactors were driven by conscience and the needs of their fellow men, and perhaps a less charitable explanation was the possibility of securing their own salvation!
In more recent Georgian and Victorian times, almshouses became more urban in character. During the Victorian era housing became a huge social problem as people migrated to towns looking for work. Scandalous conditions of the workhouses inspired wealthy philanthropists to endow almshouses, generally for their local area and in groups of 6-12 dwellings. It is estimated that some 30% of current almshouses were founded during this period.
Almshouses are often splendid historic buildings with fascinating features such as dedications, statues, inscriptions, coats of arms, clock towers and sundials. Many retain beautiful chapels where regular services are still held and provide delightful gardens for their residents. They are often laid out in the traditional three sided square providing a sense of security and community for their residents. A unique feature of an almshouse charity which has been consistent throughout the ages is that they are governed by locally recruited, volunteer trustees whose motives are purely altruistic.
Many of these beautiful, original buildings are still in use and are being restored and extended in order to provide warm, comfortable homes with modern heating, bathrooms and kitchens.
See also: Almshouses Today