Long before social housing became a responsibility of the state, it was almshouses that provided a home for the most vulnerable members of society. An almshouse is charitable housing provided to people in a parish or community. They were usually targeted at the poor and often catering for one’s previous employment, or their widows. In most cases, they supported the elderly who could no longer pay rent and were generally maintained by a charity of trustees. Inhabitants or inmates as they were referred to, included the crippled, the sick, the insane, blind and at times unmarried mothers with their babies, people with chronic disease, short term prisoners and out of work prostitutes.
Almshouses were originally formed as extensions of the church system and were later taken over by charitable foundations, local officials and authorities. The history of almshouses dates to medieval times when religious orders cared for the poor under the pauper’s Act. Originally called bede houses, the oldest still in existence is thought to be the Hospital of St Oswald in Worcester founded in 990. It was during the late sixteenth century that the medieval craft guilds founded many almshouses to provide care for the “elderly decayed” members in their declining years.
Benefactors of almshouses came from all walks of life including Kings and Queens, Archbishops and clergy, the aristocracy, merchants and liverymen. Undoubtedly, many benefactors were driven by conscience and the needs of their fellow men, and perhaps a less charitable explanation was the possibility of securing their own salvation.
There was an almost constant need for more money, and poor taxes were never enough to cover expenses. To dispense with the poor while simultaneously raising money, almshouses could engage in bonding out children. This involved indenturing children and even young adults to paying members of the community, who in return agreed to teach their charges useful skills and in some cases to educate them to some degree. This system had unlimited potential for abuse and sorrow. Children could easily be forcibly removed from their parents who would never see them again. In fact, almshouse authorities preferred to place children far from their homes to discourage runaways and to keep disgruntled parents from complaining about the condition in which their children were kept.
Some almshouses contained up to two hundred beds and dining rooms with up to fifty people in each. A matron would delegate work to the inmates which could include domestic duties and possibly gardening or tending to livestock in country areas. There were meals to prepare, lawns to mow and cleaning to be carried out depending on the capability of the inmates.
Most almshouses had rules regarding waking up, going to bed and general behaviour and any inmate found breaking them could be punished with the loss of privileges or in some cases a bread and water diet. Under no circumstances could inmates leave except with permission from the Superintendent.
Paul Rushworth-Brown is the author of three novels:
Skulduggery- An exciting, mysterious, fictional and historically accurate adventure pulls no punches about the life and hardships of peasant farmers living on the moors of Yorkshire in 1590.
"Was excellent reading . I intended to read it over the next week but once I started I could NOT put it down . Really enjoyed it !"
Winter of Red- Come on this historic journey, which twists, turns and surprises until the very end. If you like history, adventure and intrigue with a dash of spirited love, then you will be engrossed by this tale of a peasant family unexpectedly getting caught up in the ravages of the English Civil War in 1642.
"A fictional, historical novel about a loving peasant family caught up in a 1642 shocking Civil War. Humour, romance, adventure and excitement are here to enjoy. A great story.
"Dream of Courage- Soon to be released!
The much anticipated story of the Rushworth family and their journey out of poverty.
King Charles has been executed and England becomes a Republic under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell. Highwaymen, thief-takers, pirates and broggers tell
the story in this mysterious and bone chilling historical thriller.