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.
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.
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.