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Tuesday, 9 February 2010

A farewell to alms(houses). Revised April 2011

From my window I can see an 18th town-house bearing the date: 1797. It formed part of a £600 bequest left by a certain Mrs. Elizabeth Simon to the poor of the parish in 1801. According to the 1912 edition of “A History of the County of Surrey” there was sufficient money for six almshouses to be founded. Unfortunately these fell into a state of dilapidation, as it proved impossible find suitable tenants whilst the land remained subject to a legal dispute. I have no idea what happened to the other 5 almshouses. I do know I received a shock one day when I looked out of my window and it seemed as if a duplicate almshouse had sprung up behind the Georgian original overnight. The building work on the new almshouse must have been hidden by trees, which I presume were later cut down in a single day.

Mrs Simon was sometimes referred to as the Widow Simon. In this instance the widow’s mite seems modest compared with that of the former Lord Mayor of London Sir Robert Geffrye, whose baroque almshouses at Shoreditch have afforded me such pleasure over the years. Certainly the architecture of the widow’s remaining almshouse is very bland and but for the date on the front of the building, it would be hard to appreciate its relative age. I have often wondered whether it has sustained significant damage over the centuries and consequently been partly rebuilt, as its bricks seem a very different colour to those of other 18th century building in the vicinity.

Another set of splendid almshouses I have been fortunate enough to visit were built by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift, in 1596. I first spied these almshouses through a closed wrought iron gate. It seemed extraordinary that such a place could survive into the 21st century amongst modern shopping centres and office blocks, having real commercial potential if redeveloped. Yet it is precisely because of its origins that it has survived. Originally known as the Hospital of the Holy Trinity, the almshouses stand in the centre of Croydon, close to where the medieval summer palace of the Archbishops of Canterbury is also to be found. Little did he know it but John Whitgift left land which, in later centuries, would prove to be prime retail estate. As a result, the Archbishop’s legacy continues to generate huge sums of money centuries after his demise. Therefore, the foundation set up in his name does not need to sell the land on which the almshouses were built to raise funds for their continuance. Built around an enclosed and gated quadrangle, the almshouses are afforded far more privacy and security than was ever available to the pensioners at Shoreditch in later years.

Other than forming an enclosed quadrangle, the original almshouses at Croydon followed a similar pattern to those of Sir Geffrye’s at Shoreditch (the latter has been turned into the Geffrye Museum). They consisted of separate houses, (9 to Shoreditch’s 14) accessed by an external door leading directly onto the quadrangle. Likewise, each house contained four rooms, one room per pensioner or couple. There was also a chapel. The major difference to Sir Geffrye’s almshouses at Shoreditch is that the Archbishop’s still function as almshouses today. Naturally, they have been adapted to modern living. I would not be averse to spending my declining years in such congenial surroundings, given my private passion for history and architecture.

If they were fitted with modern conveniences (in every sense of the word) I would be even more than happy to take up residence at one of Sir Robert’s almshouses. Turned into separate townhouses, their elegant exteriors would make them highly desirable. Their interiors are not to be sniffed at either. Although only granted one room for their personal use, the height and generous proportions of the rooms would make the pensioners the envy of many a modern bed-sit dweller. They certainly made my former bed-sit seem more akin to a box room in terms of size. Each room had a closet where food could be stored and prepared. Again, the closet was bigger than my former kitchenette. The plain shaker-style cupboards and beech countertops echo those in the kitchen of my current flat. The rooms had open fireplaces, where food and water could be cooked or boiled. Ever since I was a child I have loved the idea of having working open fireplaces in the house. We had them in my original childhood home, although the sheer daily drudgery of looking after them was alleviated by storage heaters, a luxury not afforded to Sir Geffrye’s pensioners of course. Even in the early 20th century, their rooms still did not have piped water, although a cold war tap was introduced into the basement of each house in the late 19th century. At least this meant that the occupants no longer had to haul water indoors from the pumps outside for their everyday use. In addition, an internal water closet was installed in the basement around the same time. This was an improvement on having to use the earth closet housed in the yard outside. Gas lighting was also introduced into the rooms in the 19th century. At first they used the so-called fish-tail burners, in which the naked flame was directed upwards. This was later replaced by the more efficient covered mantel gas lighting, which enabled the flame to be drawn downwards. On Saturday, one of the guides at the Geffrye Museum gave a demonstration of how such fish-tail gas lighting worked. The flickering light would have driven me mad and it produced too little light to have been able to read or sew by for prolonged periods.

The two rooms on display are staged as how they might have looked in the late 18th and the late 19th centuries. The former is more sparsely decorated compared to that of the 19th century, when advances in mass production meant that even the relative poor of the almshouses could afford to furnish their rooms with a greater range of cheap manufactured goods than had even been available to the middle classes of early generations. (as the period rooms in the main museum demonstrate).

I do not know how typical of their periods the almshouses at Croydon or Shoreditch were but they are far more appealing to me than many of the present-day counterparts that I have seen.

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