Almshouses …1000 years and beyond


A recent article by Julian Marczak, Deputy Director, The Almshouse Association.

Almshouses go back 1,000 years and many were founded over 500 years ago. Their history goes back to medieval times when religious orders cared for the poor. Originally called ‘hospitals’ or ‘Bede houses’, many were lost at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, but over time numbers increased and almshouses are very much still in existence today.

St Clement Danes (London), Coventry Church Municipal Charities & Lord Leycester’s Hospital (Warwick).

Benefactors came from all walks of life; kings and queens, archbishops and clergy, merchants and livery men. Some of the most famous almshouse charities in England date back to the 10th century: St Oswald’s Hospital, Hereford, St John’s Hospital, Canterbury, The Hospital of St Mary Magdalen, Colchester and the Hospital of St Cross, Winchester.  To this day these charities combine a wealth of historic tradition with the provision of affordable homes for needy residents.

The traditional layout for an almshouse is the three sided square that provides both security and a sense of belonging. There is a rich national heritage amongst the buildings, but 21st century  almshouses are wonderfully diverse, ranging from magnificent Grade II listed buildings to purpose built bungalows and apartments.

Links with the City Livery Companies remain strong, with many still retaining their own almshouses. Almshouse charities frequently bear the name of the founder or have a religious connection, while others are descriptive of the residents’ profession. The Eight Men of Broadclyst, Twitty’s Almshouses and Fishermen’s Hospital illustrate the variety of titles. There are other wonderful names such as The Brothers of Lord Leycester’s Hospital and The Sisters of Castle Rising. The historical aspect of the movement is immense as is the legacy of the benefactors.

Given their history it would be easy to assume that almshouses are merely a relic from the past, yet almshouses remain vibrant today. Within the walls of the ancient buildings, technology makes life easier for residents; disabled access, internet connection, electric doors and alarms contribute towards enabling residents to remain independent in their homes for as long as possible.

Each almshouse charity is run independently by local trustees in accordance with a Scheme issued by the Charity Commission and derived from the wishes of the benefactor. In order to qualify to live in an almshouse a person must be in need and while the majority of almshouse residents are older people, others are catered for, including the young, the disabled and ex-servicemen and women. Some schemes are drawn up to benefit particular groups, such as specified trades and key workers, including retired fishermen and miners.

The Almshouse Association supports over 1,600 member almshouse charities which, collectively, accommodate around 35,000 people. This makes the almshouse movement a significant provider of social housing in the UK and in rural areas almshouses are often the only provider of such accommodation.

However, it is not just a question of numbers. It is the quality of life that almshouses offer to residents that makes them special. Almshouses are unique in offering people the opportunity to remain independent and live their lives with dignity and fulfilment in the knowledge that in the background there is someone who may be called upon in times of need. This is vitally important, as many almshouse residents, being elderly, are frail and vulnerable to falls, as well as sudden illness when it is essential to summon help immediately.

An increasing number of people are living well beyond retirement age into their eighties and nineties and therefore providing suitable accommodation and care for our ageing population is now of far greater significance. Almshouses fulfil a vital need by providing good quality housing to residents within a special almshouse community in a locality of their choice near to their families.

The benchmark of The Almshouse Association is to ensure that almshouses are good enough for one’s own family and the majority of almshouse charities meet this test. Part of our reason d’etre is to advise and assist our member charities fulfil their objective. Inevitably there are some challenges. For example 80 per cent have fewer than twenty units, rely solely upon the maintenance contributions; and over 30 per cent of almshouse charities occupy listed buildings. These are expensive to maintain within conservation requirements but nevertheless very worthwhile when completed.

All charities must conform to charity law and as such do not pay rent but weekly maintenance contributions set at a level that  is considerably lower than market rents which means that almshouses are excellent value for money for both residents and the tax payer.

Many almshouses require re-modelling and modernisation, conversion of bed sitting rooms and the installation of new bathrooms and kitchens so that residents may enjoy safe and easy access. Specialist modernisation is also necessary so that the elderly and frail residents with disabilities can use wheelchairs throughout their homes. Rising aspirations, better living standards, an ageing population and the need for independent living, have led to the almshouse movement becoming increasingly important and worthy of support.

The Association, which originated in 1946, is the only organisation in this country providing a vital link for almshouse charities and helps trustees to maintain the highest standards of accommodation, comply with an increasingly complex regulatory framework and manage the financial resources of the charity efficiently. The Association’s advice on governance and best practice is achieved through visits and advice to member charities, a website, a quarterly Gazette and training seminars held throughout the country. Two manuals, Standards of Almshouse Management and Support and Care for Residents present member almshouse charities with comprehensive reference guides on all aspects of almshouse management.

The Association liaises with government on relevant matters both directly with government departments and through the All Party Parliamentary Group. It also enables almshouse charities to bid for Social Housing Grant through the Homes & Communities Agency.

The cost of such a service is considerable and while some of the Association’s income is derived from member subscriptions, a conscious decision is made to keep these low in recognition that the majority of almshouse charities are small and have limited income.

The Almshouse Association’s Rolling Fund is able to grant interest free loans to almshouse charities and helps extend the Association’s overall services. The loans are granted to assist with the cost of essential repairs to the almshouses, as well as to help fund modernisation projects and the building of new almshouses. Demand continues to rise and the Association is now lending almost £700,000 per year.  A fundraising campaign to raise funds to top up the Rolling Fund and sustain its ability to lend in the future is on-going. In order to support the fundraising effort an extensive group of distinguished Vice Patrons help with their extensive network of contacts to achieve fundraising goals.

2018 looks to be a busy year for the Almshouse Association. Aside from the usual casework and replying to enquiries from member almshouse charities, we shall be responding to the government’s consultation paper on supported housing and ensuring that almshouse residents receive the same level of welfare benefits as others. Influencing the inclusion of almshouses in housing policy when formulated will also be a priority and we shall therefore be engaged in further discussions with the Department of Communities and Local Government. We will be ‘recruiting’ further members to the All Party Parliamentary Group as well as new Vice Patrons to help us with the Association’s fundraising effort. Our newly created website will present a host of information to highlight the wonderful work of almshouse charities in providing unique homes for those in need and describe in detail the role of the Almshouse Association as an essential component of the almshouse movement.

Almshouses have been described by one of the Association’s Vice Patrons as ‘communities of people living together for their mutual comfort and support. Almshouses speak of hope and optimism’. This description says it all and the Almshouse Association is committed to doing everything within its power to help sustain and preserve the special form of housing which almshouses provide in order that they may flourish and continue for the next 1,000 years and beyond.


Go back