Category Archives: Almshouses

Almshouses & NCHA

As ‘Clerk to the Trustee’, David Simmons has overall responsibility for the management of the almshouses controlled by Nottingham Community Housing Association (NCHA). In this blogpost David outlines the evolution of almshouses from their Anglo-Saxon origins and the process through which a number have been incorporated into NCHA, while retaining their charitable status.

Miss M. E. Hardstaff Homes, Gedling, Nottingham

Miss M. E. Hardstaff Homes, Gedling, Nottingham

First, the basics – what are almshouses? Put simply, almshouses are the oldest form of social housing. They have been in existence over 1000 years. The first recorded Almshouse was founded by King Athelstan in York in the 10th century AD. The oldest charity still in existence is thought to be the Hospital of St. Oswald in Worcester, founded circa 990. The earliest English almshouses were closely linked with the Church, although not always founded by it. The word ‘almshouse’ was in early times interchangeable with ‘hospital,’ in the sense of hospitality for the poor, elderly, rather than for the treatment of the sick. The homes were supported by gifts of money, ‘alms,’ collected by the Church to maintain them.

The building of almshouses continued through the Tudor and Stuart periods to Georgian and Victorian times when more homes were provided in urban rather than rural areas. Many almshouses were built with money left in the wills of wealthy, philanthropic merchants and industrialists, and were a more humane alternative to the poorhouse and latterly the workhouse. These almshouses vary enormously in architectural style, from the unremarkable, utilitarian to the flamboyant, ornate and picturesque. Few new almshouses are being built in the present day, due mainly to the creation of the Welfare State after the Second World War, the increase in home ownership and the State’s provision of housing for elderly people.

Almshouses are owned by independent charities, run by voluntary trustees to provide independent living for people in need, mostly elderly. There are around 30,000 almshouses in the UK run by about 1,800 charities. Some of the almshouse charities exist to house very specific groups of people, for example retired miners, fishermen or retired members of the armed forces. Mary Elizabeth Hardstaff used her father’s fortune made from coal mining to build homes in Giltbrook, Nottingham and Mansfield Woodhouse, Nottinghamshire, to house widows and orphaned children of miners. The Pennhome almshouses in Sherwood, Nottingham were built in 1878 to house “poor women with a preference for widows or spinsters whose fathers were merchants, tradesmen or professional men and who are 50 years of age or more.”

The city of Nottingham has a rich tradition of almhouses. Writing in his book ‘Almshouses’ in 1988, architectural historian Brian Bailey wrote,

“Nottingham…is actually among the leading towns of England in its promotion of charitable foundations, but it is a city which has undergone a great deal of redevelopment since the Industrial Revolution, and few of the older foundations remain in anything like their original form.”

Bailey goes on to provide a league table of the top 20 charitable cities outside London, which Nottingham tops with 29 existing almshouse foundations, beating larger cities like Birmingham and Bristol.

Norris Homes, Nottingham

Norris Homes, Nottingham

NCHA has been involved with almshouses for over 25 years. What usually happens is we are approached by a charity’s trustees who may be struggling to manage and maintain their almshouses, which is often made more difficult as many almshouses are listed buildings or situated in conservation areas. The solution is often for the Charity to ask the Association to take over trusteeship in order to put in place the necessary management and maintenance. This process involves discussions, sometimes lengthy, with the Charity Commission, and consultation with the Almshouse Association and the residents of the almshouses. At the end of the process, NCHA as a corporate body replaces the individual trustees. Importantly, the Charity continues to exist in its own right and the original legacy is preserved. The Charity Commission, through the legal principle of “cy près,” (from the Norman French, “close to”) ensures that as far as possible the homes continue to follow the founder’s original intentions. A governing instrument, called a ‘Scheme,’ which mirrors the original Trust Deed, is drawn up by the Commission as a formal statement of the Charity’s purpose and responsibilities

NCHA’s involvement with almshouses started with the Norris Homes, close to the Association’s Head Office in Sherwood Rise, in 1989. The Homes are a fine example of celebrated Nottingham architect Watson Fothergill’s gothic style of architecture. Mary Smith Norris built the eight one bedroom houses in 1893 as a memorial to her brother John Smith. The residents were to be drawn from the higher or middle walks of life, to be “widows of professional gentlemen or ladies of superior education or refinement.” By 1989 the homes had fallen into serious disrepair, and NCHA undertook the refurbishment of the homes with the help of Housing Corporation funding. As a Grade 2 listed building, the renovations had to be carried out to a very exacting standard. Hundreds of hand cut bricks and roof tiles, a weather vane, sundial and even a terracotta dragon were produced to ensure a sympathetic rehabilitation of the almshouses.

David Simmons


Report on Project Talks May 5th and 6th

Two talks by Almshouse Tempera Project participants on successive days, both well attended, opening up debates around the themes discussed – thanks to all participants; speakers and audiences.

On Tuesday May 5th Atsuhide Ito and Aimie Purser discussed the subject of ‘Art, ALterity and Attunement’ at Nottingham Trent University’s Department of Fine Art. Aimie Purser explored the concept of attunement, discussing its relationship to ideas of empathy and intersubjectivity embedded in concepts of the ‘other’. Atsuhide’s discussion centred on his approach to making tempera artworks for the Almshouse Tempera Project, in which his attunement to the work’s subjects is part of the process of creating the work.

Wednesday May 6th Jonathan Hale and Deborah Harty centred their discussions on; ‘The Role of Drawing’ at the University of Nottingham’s School of Architecture. Jonathan Hale presented a detailed paper drawn from his research into the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s writings on the role of embodiment in the creation of understanding, whether through language or through drawing. Deborah Harty’s presentation drew on her extensive research into the idea of drawing as phenomenology, including work with visually impaired respondents. She then went on to discuss the artwork she is making for The Almshouse Tempera Project, which is focussing on ideas of the liminal expressed through the entrances to the almshouses.

Derek Hampson

Project Talk – Art, Alterity and Attunement

Tuesday May 5th @ 3pm, talk by project artist Atsuhide Ito (Southampton Solent University, Fine Art) and Aimie Purser (University of Nottingham, Dept of Sociology) chaired by Derek Hampson. Open to the public.

Location: Room 002 (Fine Art) Bonington Building, Nottingham Trent University, entrance, corner of Shakespeare Street and Dryden Street, ask at reception desk.

Theme: for this talk Atsuhide Ito and Aimie Purser will use attunement as a departure point for their discussion

Any questions, please get in touch

The Cotton Tempera Diary 2

28th July 2015

According to the weather forecast it was going to rain, even a storm would visit Venice today. However, it turned out to be sunny. I left the hotel before 10 am and took a boat to Burano and visited the lace museum. I was the first and the only visitor to the museum facing the main square in the island of Burano. The museum was a small two-story building. There were intricately woven laces in large and sizable glass and wood cabinets. When I reached at the end of the exhibition I saw someone seated on one of the chairs in the last room. It was strange to find another visitor who had come even before me though I entered the museum as the door opened at 10 am and saw no one before me. Her leather handbag was hung on the chair. She was sitting, a case for her eyeglasses was on another chair next to her and even a white plastic bag was resting on the floor near her. She was in fact making lace. I walked past her and descended the staircase at the end of the room and almost left the museum, but decided to go back up the staircase and returned to her. She began explaining in Italian about the lace making school, Escuola Merletto. I asked her if she did not mind me drawing her. She was happy with the idea. I began drawing her. She wore glasses, her hair standing here and there, her arms were tanned, but still strong despite her advanced age. She wore a green half-sleeved T-shirt and her skirt was dark navy blue. She wore a pair of half-closed leather sandals. Her glasses had a pink tint. The drawing took me approximately several minutes to complete. Before finishing, her friend came to visit her who sat on a seat opposite her. My sitter explained to the friend that I was drawing her. As soon as I finished it I showed it to her. She held my arm and repeated “Bravo” twice. I was not sure if she even looked at the drawing, but my suspicion was perhaps more about my artist’s ego seeking others’ approvals. I was tempted to ask her name, but when she said “ciao”, I felt that it was time to leave. I took rhythmical steps down the staircase and went out of the building and walked into the sunny square where tourists were busily inspecting laces to buy. I needed to know her name. She could not stay in my memory as “someone I met in Museo del Merletto”. The thought of sending her the drawing crossed my mind but I felt that it was not good enough as a gift. The drawing was a way to spend several minutes with her, but also to learn something from her: the quality she possessed, her generosity, like Theseus who offered safety and security as well as a right to be, to Oedipus. This is what I was seeing in her while drawing her making lace. I returned to the museum and asked the young man at the reception desk who she was. “Her name is Elisabetta.”

4th April 2015
I read more about Elizabeth Cotton. She was born in 1834, the same year as Mary Elizabeth Hardstaff who built the almshouse in Nottingham. It appears that Elizabeth Cotton worked as a milliner in the Lace Market for some time. Elizabeth had a son with William Cotton, the owner of a lace manufacturing company.

2nd March, London
Found out a little about Elizabeth Cotton

7th March 2015
While I was waiting for the tour of the almshouse to start I have noticed the text on the wall and realized that I was sitting in the chapel of the almshouse. The text said the following: “The resident chaplain conducted Sunday services at 11 am and 3pm, and attendance was compulsory. In 1882 the chaplain’s son thirteen-year old Ernest Baker, described how the elderly congregation may have sounded, noting irreverendly in his diary that “…the old ladies were vainly trying to sing [a symn:] at first I thought it was a conglomeration of soft husky coughing”. I made a note above at the chapel in the Geffrye Museum. I found this part Ernest Baker says “a conglomeration of soft husky coughing” interesting. My paintings should convey this sense of “soft husky coughing”.

At two o’clock in the afternoon there were about a dozen of us waiting for the almshouse tour in the former chapel in the Geffrye Museum. A guide with glasses in a black velveteen coat took us out of the museum into the courtyard. She stopped us in front of an engraved relief carving of Sir Geffrye and described us who he was. Geffrye was a successful merchant and later had a political career as a Mayor of London. He had no children so he left his wealth to the ironmonger company which build the almshouse in 1714. The entire Geffrye Museum was in fact an almshouse. She explained to us that the location was chosen as at the time the air here was clear and pure. It was just outside London, though now it had become one of the most fashionable and busiest parts of London.

Then we were led to a house, a part of the large museum building. In one house there were four rooms which were occupied by four separate individuals or families. One of the four rooms was restored to the imagined condition in which an eighteenth century pensioner would have lived. It was a basic room with a small kitchen adjacent to the back of the room and there was a window in the kitchen, but the window was added in the nineteenth century to increase an amount of light. There was a bed covered by a red burgundy blanket, and it had a white and long pillow. A wooden chair with wicker seat was placed in the middle of the room. A simple dark wooden chest was near one of the walls. There was a table with another chair, and there was a fireplace. The floorboards were perhaps oak. I walked out of the room and walked up the staircases, each step was shallow. There were rooms to both sides. I turned to the right and entered into an interior, which could have been occupied by an educated and pensioner in the nineteenth century. A black cap with a pair of long ribbon strings caught my attention as it was hanging on a wall and it had an unfamiliar appearance though I could tell what it was. The pensioner would have worn it when she went out. Six framed photographs were on the wall, a chest of drawers below it. On the chest of drawers there were six wine glasses, certainly fancier than the eighteenth century room below. A glass and a decanter and two thick books were piled like two gigantic toasts on a small bedside table next to the bed. Near the window there was a wooden shelf. On the top row, a photograph of a boy is placed against a ceramic cup. A small and thin flower vase was placed next to it. Below on the second shelf, there were books such as dictionaries. She also had a pair of gas lighting near the shelf. The fireplace was small as she would have had enough money to eat out every evening and she would not have cooked ever in her entire life. I walked out of the room and walked down two flights of stairs to reach the basement. There was a washroom in which a whit large ceramic sink was placed near a window facing south. In the middle of the room near one of the walls there was another sink to which firewood could have been added to heat water. I walked up the staircase and talked to one of the guides who explained to me that the pensioners in the eighteenth century were poor and illiterate so they did not leave any records about how they lived. Only reliable records came from Ernest Baker, the fourteen-year-old son of the chaplain. I also asked how dark the room could have been. As candles were taxed and expensive, the guide told me, the pensioners went to bed early. They were given only six sacks of coal a year and cheap meat they ate needed a long cooking time and the fire in the fireplace did not give much light. I imagined that light had conditioned their sense of time and their lives more than the spatial configurations of the rooms in the almshouse.

Drone Video 1

Click the links below to view experimental drone videos taken at Robert Wilkinson Smith Almshouses

The Cotton Tempera Diary 1

Part one of Atsuhide Ito’s journal detailing his experiences of working on The Almshouse Tempera Project
23rd February, Nottingham
As Derek recommended me that I took 8.14 train from London Kings Cross to Nottingham on Monday 23rd February, instead of leaving on the day earlier. From Kings Cross, I read one chapter in Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time which I had left unfinished some time ago. I read a section in which Heidegger described Descartes’ incorporation of the human body into the notion of space before Immanuel Kant, that meant before Merleau-Ponty. When arrived at Nottingham Station, Derek and Peter picked me up and Derek drove us to a car park near his studio. The car park was an open area with bare soil, perhaps some derelict buildings had been knocked down and temporarily the space was made into a car park. We walked along a busy street to reach Derek’s studio, which I had visited a few years ago.

The studio was in a red-brick building in a triangle island in the middle of the town. Derek unlocked and opened the main door and we climbed up a few flight of stairs to the top floor. We all huddled together in front of a gas heater and had a cup of coffee while waited for Deborah’s arrival. On the walls of Derek’s studio there were six tempera paintings of non-places in Nottingham. The illumination against the blue skies of early evenings in Derek’s paintings struck me when contrasted against the architectural structures of bicycle storage system, bus stops, and street lamps.

Derek gave us an initial introduction to tempera painting. Although I had used tempera to repair a portrait painting from the nineteenth century my experience of it was limited. Wendy, my student in Southampton had been working with tempera for more than a year now so that I was aware of the potential of tempera in the contemporary context. Deborah, Peter and I sat at a table and tried to use the colours Derek prepared by mixing with egg yolk and water. We needed to use small amount of paints and mix with small amount of egg yolk which Derek carefully took away the membrane out. We spend a significant amount of time playing with the medium, not knowing how it would behave or how we could control. At the end of our attempts, all three of us came up with a drastically different outcome. I enjoyed painting as I had not approached painting in such an innocent way for a long time. There was a sense of contingency on the medium which determined the outcome to a degree.

After our painting workshop Deborah had to leave so Derek drove Peter and me to The Primary, a studio complex which used to be a school. Derek took us to see Mik in his spacious studio. Mik then gave us a tour of the entire studio building. After that we went to dine in a Turkish restaurant.

24th February
In the morning Derek drove us to one of the almshouses in Nottingham. It was facing a busy road and it was under serious repair. Then we met with David Simmons who works for Nottingham Community Housing Associations in Nottingham and in sum he was entrusted to coordinate key parties and manage the almshouses in Nottingham. We only saw the facades of the almshouses. Then the question was “how do we get inside, how do we investigate and how do we search and establish an artistic research methods, how do we know what we do not know yet?”

Aerial Photography @ RWS Almshouse

Screenshots of aerial video recorded Friday 20th March 2015, at Robert Wilkinson Smith Homes almshouses, using a Hubsan X4 drone. To view the videos click here

All went well until I landed the drone in a gutter, but got it down with the help residents. Not much damage done, only lost one of its four rotor blades, as I didn’t have a replacement that meant the end of the session. I will definitely use it to collect more images of NCHA almshouses.

Derek Hampson