Cotswold Life

On the straight and nar­row

How the wealthy pro­vided shel­ter and com­fort to those bro­ken on the wheel of poor health

- Con­tact the­quill@bt­in­ter­net.com Ypres · Gloucestershire · Oxfordshire · England · Bath · Ewelme · Ewelme · Winchcombe · George Gilbert Scott · George Gilbert Scott · Cotswolds · Chipping Campden

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

 ??  ?? The 12th-cen­tury leper chapel of St Mary Mag­da­lene, Glouces­ter
The 12th-cen­tury leper chapel of St Mary Mag­da­lene, Glouces­ter
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 ??  ?? TOP: The orig­i­nal sand­stone ex­te­rior looked quite grim so Paul and his builder brother James Ket­tlety soft­ened it with cedar cladding
LEFT: Paul in his con­tem­po­rary kitchen
RIGHT: The hall, which bi­sects the two cubes of the house
FAR RIGHT: In­side the hall, which bi­sects the two cubes of the house. The be­spoke oak stair­case was made by join­ers Ald­worth James and Bond
TOP: The orig­i­nal sand­stone ex­te­rior looked quite grim so Paul and his builder brother James Ket­tlety soft­ened it with cedar cladding LEFT: Paul in his con­tem­po­rary kitchen RIGHT: The hall, which bi­sects the two cubes of the house FAR RIGHT: In­side the hall, which bi­sects the two cubes of the house. The be­spoke oak stair­case was made by join­ers Ald­worth James and Bond

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