On the straight and narrow
How the wealthy provided shelter and comfort to those broken on the wheel of poor health
People reveal much by their homes. In the way that books can be character witnesses, houses expose the nature of their owners. Of course, the Austen, Nietzsche and Carlyle tomes could be a front to hide gin bottles, Penny Dreadfuls, or the Pigeon Fancier’s Bible, bound in red Moroccan plush. But generally, volumes speak volumes. Our personalities are introduced at the door with signs such as ‘Please park shoes prettily’ or ‘Mind the doggerel’; interiors become Rorschach tests of taste.
But what if home was a regimented, uniform space that revealed only your station in life and need of shelter.
Such was the origin of almshouses, founded on religious principles in the 12th century and stemming from monasteries wherein ailing brethren could seek refuge. ‘Aged poor’ became a term of endearment for deserving and formerly hardworking people broken on the wheel by ill health or frailty. Charities set up lazar, or leper, hospitals sited discretely; the 12thcentury chancel of St Mary Magdalen’s leper hospital in Gloucester provides a reflective glimpse of sanctuary for pitiable women victims. These establishments, also called Maisons Dieu, saw leprosy as punishment for mortal sin, though sufferers and their carers would benefit in the afterlife. All’s well that ends well, then.
After the Reformation scythe severed institutions at their roots, leper hospitals evolved into almshouses and philanthropy became a clarion call to the wealthy, who could display their beneficence through aesthetic properties to house the poor. Each small dwelling was suffused by the presence of God, where piety and daily prayers – not for all souls, just the Christian variety – were requirements of occupancy. Proximity to the church was intentional; almshouses and their residents were under constant surveillance by the neighbour next door, monitored day and night by a sort of celestial CCTV.
In the pretty village of Ewelme, Oxfordshire, sits an aesthetic triumvirate of 15th-century buildings: church, school and almshouses, huddled together as one improving whole. Endowed by William and Alice de la Pole, the brick almshouses, completed in 1455, continue their original purpose. Built to house 13 poor men, who were expected to pray daily in exchange for free board and lodging, the properties form a quadrangle of peace and tranquillity, seemingly untouched by the span of nearly six centuries. The school is believed to be the oldest primary school in continuous use in England.
Some of the prettiest almshouses reside in Burford, but everything in Burford is lovely, apart from the incongruous lorries that offend medieval beauties lining the hill. The Great, or Warwick, Almshouses were founded in 1456 by Henry Bishop, a wealthy wool merchant, and accommodated eight poor persons. Juxtaposed with the church, they form a charming picture, their tiny doorways Lilliputian for today’s six-footers. The beneficent town also has almshouses endowed by Simon Wisdom, a wealthy clothier in the 1580s; in 1726, Burford doctor John Castle built in Guildenford to accommodate four poor widows. Price’s almshouses of 1897 comprise three properties, for which Miss Charlotte Anne Price preferred those who had ‘become reduced by misfortune from better circumstances’; and there are Briggs’ almshouses of 1966 in Sweeps Lane.
Dent’s Terrace almshouses in Winchcombe, built in 1865 to George Gilbert Scott’s design, are arguably some of the most picturesque in the Cotswolds, decorated with contrasting stonework and fronted by lushly planted gardens.
Another architectural treasure is Chipping Campden; most people would sell their grannie to live there, falling back on the collateral of mother, sister and child if the stakes ran high. The 17th-century mercer and philanthropist Sir Baptist Hicks was a major benefactor, and built Church Street almshouses in 1612. In 1849, the hatted, booted and aproned residents were immortalised by the vicar, Charles Edward Kennaway, in portraits that show them wearing silver stag brooches, emblematic of Sir Baptist Hicks’ coat of arms.
‘One life – a little gleam of light between two eternities’, is a personal favourite from the pen of Thomas Carlyle. I hope all those almshouse inmates saw a tiny glimmer in their final years, before disappearing into the dark forever.
It was a cold day in the winter of 2013 when Paul Kettlety came to view his 1980s cube house in Bath. “The house was even colder,” he says. “And it was also very dark with old-fashioned tiling everywhere and an altogether clinical feel. But it was immaculately kept and I loved it.”
The house was actually two cubes, one higher up the hill than the other, linked by a corridor which bisected them. They were faced in reconstituted sandstone – which added to the chill factor – and consisted of three levels with five bedrooms. A double garage took up the ground floor and the whole area was some 2,000 sq ft.
“It was in a great location with a great outlook and had been very well looked after,” he says. “But nothing had been done to it since it had been built.”
It emerged that the elderly owner was down-sizing and wanted to leave immediately – “taking only his personal bits,” says Paul. “So, I was able to move in straightaway – which suited me quite