Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome Sarah back to the Parish Room, to tell us the fascinating story of the history of Almshouses in East Anglia; the subject arose from her love of quirky history and early years historical research when she kept coming across the same type of building, namely the Almshouse.

The History of Almshouses

Sarah began by giving us the Chambers Dictionary definitions of Alms and Almshouse:

Alms: Plural noun, historical charity donations of money, food, etc to the poor.

Alms House: Noun, Brit, historical a place where the aged, poor, etc were supported by charity.

The giving of alms started with the medieval monasteries, where Christianity demanded the poor should be cared for, beginning with provision of shelter and food for travelling pilgrims and then onto the most needy, and in particular to lepers.

During the medieval period, leprosy’s disabling consequences became visible in all communities across England – rural and urban, rich and poor – and its impact changed both the landscape of the country and the mind-set of the people. Reaction to the disease was complicated; some believed it was a punishment for sin whilst others saw the suffering of lepers as similar to the suffering of Christ. Because lepers were enduring purgatory on earth, they would go directly to heaven when they died, so were therefore closer to God than other people. Those who cared for them or made charitable donations believed that such good works would reduce their own time in purgatory and accelerate their journey to heaven.

Leper houses and hospitals were built on the edge of towns and cities, or in rural areas near crossroads or major travel routes. Lepers needed to stay in contact with society to beg alms, trade items and offer services such as praying for the souls of benefactors. There was high demand for places in leper hospitals, and ‘leprous brothers and sisters’ were often accepted fully into the religious order of the house. Many of these buildings were subsequently destroyed during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, though some remain, including St Mary Magdalene in Stourbridge – the Cambridge Leper Chapel.

                                                                                                                             The Cambridge Leper Chapel by Andrew Dunn

The derivation of the word Hospital is from Hospice, a place where care, health and wellbeing was provided for the spirit, soul and body of the inmates; they provided hospitality and a place to rest and recuperate. Care in religious leper houses and monastic hospitals centred as much on a person’s spiritual needs as on their physical problems, and most hospitals consisted of a group of cottages built around a detached chapel, where praying and singing continued throughout the day.

Most hospitals were actually almshouses for the elderly and infirm, which provided basic nursing, but no medical treatment. An almshouse (also known as a bede-house or poorhouse) is charitable housing provided to people in a particular community. They were often targeted at the poor of a locality, at those from certain forms of previous employment (or their widows), and at elderly people who could no longer pay rent, and are generally maintained by a charity or the trustees of a bequest.

By the time of the Dissolution, religious orders had set up as many as 1,000 hospitals, almhouses, leper hospices and hostels for travellers across the country – vital to the social fabric of the period. These included the six hospitals of Bury St Edmunds, which were run independently of the abbey. Most were extensively endowed with lands and in the 1295 rental the Wardens of St Nicholas and St Saviour hospitals were second only to the church in their holdings of property. Along with St Peter’s and St Petranilla’s they were among the largest landholders in the suburbs as well, and were exempt from municipal tithes. Because of the presence of these hospitals, located on the major routes, Bury itself became an important centre of medicine. For more information please visit:

                                                                                                         St Nicholas Hospital today

Sarah told us that St Saviour’s was the richest and best known, founded by Abbot Samson around 1184 according to Yates. In 1190 the Bishop of Norwich confirmed to it two thirds of the tithings from the same manor. Its endowments were enlarged throughout the 13th century and its complex became one of the most impressive collections of buildings in the Banleuca (*), which area was used as the boundary of the Borough of Bury St Edmunds until 1934. At this time St Saviour’s had a Warden, 12 chaplains and 6 clerks, with 12 poor men and 12 poor women in residence.

(*)        In 945 the monastery was granted a large area of land from the crown, known as the Banleuca.

The Great Hospital of St Giles in Norwich was founded in 1249 by Bishop Walter de Suffield, the original beneficiaries being aged priests, poor scholars and sick and hungry paupers. Clerics remained unmarried at this time, so had no family to support them in old age. Thirty beds were earmarked in the west end of the church for the sick poor, and thirteen paupers were to be fed at the hospital gates each day. Four chaplains, a deacon and sub-deacon, as well as a master of St. Giles were appointed. The hospital was modelled on the Augustinian rule, which discouraged excessive liturgical ritual and permitted more time for charitable works; despite this, the master and chaplains were bound to sing three masses a day, including one for Bishop Suffield’s soul, as well as a weekly mass in honour of St Giles.

The hospital avoided the dissolution of the monasteries, but on the death of Henry VIII it was surrendered to his son, Edward VI, who subsequently passed its guardianship to the city corporation. From then on the religious functions of the hospital were suppressed, allowing it to return to its original raison d’être of caring for the elderly sick and poor, and for the first time it provided medical care to its residents. It is now a sheltered housing and care village.

                                            1630 map of Norwich showing the Great Hospital

                                                                                                                               The Great Hospital today

The Role of Private Individuals

We were told that private individuals also established Hospitals (or Almshouses), which in the Middle Ages were broadly of four types; for lepers, for poor (and sick) pilgrims, for the poor and infirm, and almshouses or bedehouses. The last often included explicit instruction that the brothers and sisters resident there long-term should pray daily for the souls of the house’s founders and benefactors – the term ‘bede’ meaning prayer. Poor pilgrims often just stayed overnight at a hospital, and while some medieval hospitals took in the sick, others seem to have cared only for the old and infirm.

Typically we know more about the founders of the 850-plus medieval hospitals and almshouses in England than about those who resided there long-term – the brothers and sisters – and we know almost nothing about the people who were cared for in hospitals. Some leper hospitals housing those believed to have leprosy also took in those suffering from general infirmity, and by the later Middles Ages many of these leper hospitals no longer housed any lepers at all, instead taking in the old and infirm. Additionally, most hospitals accommodated no more than 20 brothers and sisters, 12 being the most common, along with a priest.

In leper hospitals an emphasis was on cleanliness and wholesome food, with clothes washed twice a week and, if possible, a varied diet supplied, often from the house’s own fields and livestock. The therapeutic effect of horticultural work and the beauty of nature were recognised; many houses had fragrant gardens of flowers and healing herbs residents took part in up-keeping. Many lepers also stayed in touch with family and friends, being allowed to make visits home and to receive visitors.

Sarah then introduced us to some of the more notable private individuals and the institutions they created:

Thomas Seckford: In 1587, Queen Elizabeth I granted Seckford a royal licence to build and endow almshouses in Woodbridge. Those interested in becoming almsmen were selected by Seckford and the local vicar, just needing to show they had lived honestly in Woodbridge for at least three years. The original Almshouses consisted of seven, two storey flats, constructed of brick and stone and set within two acres, close to the land the almsmen cultivated. Within them lived twelve men and a principal almsman. The Woodbridge almshouses received £112 13s 4d a year (more than £200,000 today) from Seckford’s business interests in Clerkenwell.

The Woodbridge almsmen were mostly skilled or semi-skilled workers around the age of 60. There was no provision for poor women, although three widows were employed as nurses for the sick almsmen, for which they received accommodation and £2 13 4d a year. In return for their £5 annual pension, the Almsmen lived by strict rules, wearing uniforms and silver badges bearing Thomas Seckford’s coat of arms, following regimes to keep them from ‘idleness’, abstaining from alcohol, attending church three days a week and unable to leave the Almshouses without permission. If they failed their responsibilities, they were made to pay fines or risked being expelled from the Almshouses altogether. In 1977 a day centre and residential home were added and in 2005 the old almshouse buildings were converted into 28 self-contained very sheltered flats.

The Seckford Foundation has, over the past 150 years, continuously developed the activities of the Foundation and its facilities. Since the turn of the century it has entirely remodelled the Almshouses, providing exceptional accommodation for its residents; constructed a 350 seat theatre for the benefit of the School and local community; substantially upgraded teaching facilities at Woodbridge School, to include a new classroom block, sixth form centre and technology centre; opened three new Free Schools, in Beccles, Ixworth and Saxmundham; launched Seckford Springboard to help young people under 25 to access education, employment and training; and led an initiative called ‘Flourish’, to help tackle rural poverty within Suffolk.

                                                                                                                            Seckford Almshouses

Sir William Cordell: The Hospital of the Holy Blessed Trinity was founded by Cordell, then lord of the manor of Melford and resident of Melford Hall, in 1573. He was a man of national prominence, holding such high office as Master of the Rolls, High Steward of Ipswich and, in 1558, Speaker of the House of Commons. Born and raised in Melford, it was to the poor residents of the town that he gave the almshouses, specifically for 12 aged men and a warden.

The Hospital housed twelve ‘brethren’, and was built in a quadrangle with an inner courtyard garden and an outer walled garden. When first constructed, the garden was enclosed by a wooden pale fence, but in 1632 the brethren requested the garden be enlarged slightly and enclosed in a high brick wall. This was prompted because fruit trees inside were planted so close to the boundary that much of the fruit was stolen before the brethren could pick it. Four or five feet was taken from the adjacent village green and the brick wall completed in 1633.

In 1731 the garden was used for supplementing the diet of residents by growing fruit and vegetables, as revealed by the Warden’s accounts that year. The property was largely restored in 1847 and continues to be administered by the Trustees of the Hospital, providing Almshouse accommodation for poor aged persons of good character who were born or reside in the ancient parishes of Long Melford, Glemsford, Stanstead, Shimpling, Alpheton, Lavenham, Acton, Chilton or Sudbury. Free accommodation, heating and hot water are provided for the almspersons, with each flat connected to a community alarm system to ensure 24 hour assistance is available if required.

                                                                                                                 Trinity Hospital, by Lynda Sebbage

Henry Tooley: Founded Tooley’s almshouses in 1550, with additional endowments in 1591 by William Smart. Rebuilt in 1846 with some C20 additions on the east side. The present buildings are on 3 sides of a garden court, with an entrance gatehouse on the west side. People still reside in the court, which is not open to unauthorised visitors. During Heritage Open Weekend, the main gate is opened so people can wander the grounds, privileged to be able to get a closer look at the iconic architecture of the place.

                                                                                                                                      Tooleys and Smarts Almshouses

Sarah then told us that not all almshouses were as grand as the above, and that philanthropic groups and charities also founded almshouses, including the Corporation of Great Yarmouth, who founded the Fisherman’s Hospital in 1702 for 20 old and “decayed” fishermen and their wives. The Charity now provides almshouses for retired fishermen and their wives or widows: not less than 60 years of age and who have served on vessels fishing out of Great Yarmouth.

                                                                                                                               Fishermens Almshouses

Arthur Winsley: Winsley left much of his property (Brickhouse Farm in St. Botolph’s Colchester) to the Charity in his will of 28th March 1726. The farm was converted into twelve almshouses and a Chapel for twelve ancient men ‘that had lived well and fallen into decay’. Winsley’s benefaction had included a weekly stipend of 2s 6d for each almsmen and 36 buckets of coal a year; on New Year’s Day a sermon in the almshouse chapel was followed by a dinner.

Over the years, the Almshouses have been added to as a result of a number of bequests and endowments. Although there were once 88, there are now 80, as a result of improvements which merged some properties, to provide a better standard of accommodation. Wives were originally evicted on the death of their husband, but happily this is not the case today.

                                                                                                                                           Arthur Winsley Almshouse in Colchester

Sarah now told us of the Charity Commission, which was set up in 1853 to improve the oversight of charities, and which required the formalisation of all charities and charity trustees.

Margaret Ogilvey: Ogilvie Charities were founded in 1887 and now run four sheltered housing schemes, two in Suffolk and two in Essex, to create a caring and supportive atmosphere for residents living independently in self contained accommodation.  The confusingly separate Ogilvie almshouses, comprising 12 self-contained cottages, were erected in 1926, originally for workmen, by Margaret’s son Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie as part of his Thorpeness fantasy holiday village (which includes his famous ‘House in the clouds’ water tower).

                                                                                                             Margaret Ogilvie Almshouses, Thorpeness

                                                                   Aldringham Almshouses

Sir Robert Gardener: Gardener founded a set of almshouses at Elmswell in 1620, entrusting their government entirely to six villagers and increasing the endowment in his will to keep pace with inflation. Over the central doorway a square limestone panel is inscribed: “Sir Robert Gardener KT. Sometime Lord of these Manors of Elmswell and Woolpit founded this almshouse in ye time of his life AN 1614 and gave unto it sufficient maintenance for six poore women widows to continue forever”.

                                                                                                                                               Elmswell Almshouses

Life in an Almshouse

Generally residents were treated well as they had a safe place to eat and sleep, but they often had to meet many rules and regulations regarding: their suitability for admission; continuing conduct; and ongoing obligations to attend religious services, including also sometimes restrictions on what they wore. For example:

Robert Cocks: A music publisher and local benefactor who erected ten almshouses in Old Buckenham in 1860, for the reception of aged and deserving persons born in the parish. Like many founders, he oversaw the creation of the rules and regulations governing behaviour and use of the almshouses; these could be quite arbitrary and very strict:

Rules and Regulations

for the government of the ten Alms Houses

at Old Buckenham, Near Attleboro’, Norfolk.

Founded by Robert Cocks, AD 1860l.- The intention of the-Founder is that these Alms Houses should be the home for those persons, of the age of Fifty-five years and upwards, who have seen better days, whose habits are known to be temperate and cleanly and who have kept themselves independent of parochial relief.
II.- The Pensioners, who shall from time to time partake of the benefits of this Institution, shall be ten poor persons or families, natives of the above-named parish of Old Buckenham; and be Unmarried Men, Widowers, Spinsters, or Widows; such Families to consist of Husband and Wife only (one of whom, at least, shall be a native of the said parish); or of a Widow born in the said parish and one infirm daughter; and if either be removed by the “will of God” then the Survivor shall enjoy every privilege as tenant during his or her life, in the same manner as if both were living, unless such Survivor shall marry again, in which case he or she shall thereupon immediately quit the Alms House, and shall lose all the privileges of a Pensioner. Each Pensioner, besides living Rent Free, shall receive, every Quarter, Two Pounds, and One Ton of Coals every Year.
III.- No Lodger to be admitted.
IV.- No Relatives or Survivors of a deceased Pensioner are to have any part of the current Quarters payment.
V.- The Pensioners to visit and assist each other in lameness or sickness.
VI.- The Men not to swear or quarrel, and the Women not to brawl or scold.
VII.- No nails to be driven in the walls without the consent of one of the Trustees.
VIII.- No Shrubs, Plants, Flowers, or Trees, to be nailed against any of the external or fence walls of the Alms Houses.
IX.– The Ground in front of the Alms Houses to be kept as a Flower Garden.
X.– No Pensioner to keep Pigs, Poultry, nor Animals of any kind, except Birds, or a Cat.
XI.- No Pensioner to build, or cause to be erected, any Shed or Building of any kind on the uncovered ground attached to the Alms Houses.
XII.- No Alms House to be used as a Shop, and no Sale of Furniture or other things to take place, either by Auction or otherwise, on the Premises.
XIII.- It is required that all Pensioners will have the Chimneys of their Rooms swept three times in each year, namely, on the first Friday in January; the first Friday in April; and the first Friday in October; and will keep their Rooms clean, and preserve the same from ill-usage.
XIV.- It is imperative that the Pensioners should be regular attendants at a place of worship on the Lord’s Day, unless prevented by illness.
XV.- Any Pensioner who shall wilfully Damage the Property, papering of the walls, painted wood, or any part thereof, shall, at his or her own cost, make good such damage to the satisfaction of the Trustees.
XVI.- All broken Windows, caused by negligence of a Pensioner, to be repaired by, and at his or her expense.
XVII.- The Trustees shall have power to remove any Pensioner known to be in the habit of tippling or frequenting the public houses, or not strictly conforming to the above Rules.
By Order of  ROBERT COCKS, the founder
And the Trustees, The Rev Thos Fulcher, Mr Richard Bird and Mr Stroud Lincoln Cocks
21 August 1876


                                                                                                                                    Old Buckenham Almshouses

Henry Howard: Founded the Hospital of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in Castle Rising, between 1609 and 1614. Howard’s will established a charity to provide sheltered accommodation for 12 women from the Parish, with rooms for the Sisters arranged around a central courtyard.

Sisters had to attend chapel every day, attend St Lawrence Church every Sunday and Holy Day dressed in their distinctive black hats and blue (later red) livery gowns, and say prayers for the founder whose badge they wore. In the early seventeenth century each Sister was given eight shillings (40p) per month, eight pence (3p) on festival days, an annual ‘chauldron (*) of coal’ and a gown ‘of kersey’ (brown woollen cloth) for everyday wear. There’s no dress code now, yet the residents take great pride in dressing in the “uniform” provided by Henry Howard for special occasions such as Founder’s Day.

                                                                                                                                             Residents in costume

(*)        A chaldron (also chauldron or chalder) was an English measure of dry volume, mostly used for coal, the word being an obsolete spelling of cauldron. It was used from the 13th century until the end of 1835 when the Weights and Measures Act that year specified coal could then only be sold by weight. It was not standardized and there were many different regional chaldrons, the two most important being Newcastle and London.

Many attempts have been made to calculate the weight of a Newcastle chaldron. Historian John Nef estimates it weighed 2,000 lb (907 kg) in 1421, and that its weight was gradually increased by coal traders due to taxes on coal which were charged per chaldron until 1678, when its weight was fixed by law at 52 12 long hundredweight (5,880 lb or 2,670 kg). It was later increased in 1694 to 53 long hundredweight (5,940 lb or 2,690 kg).

A London chaldron was defined as 36 bushels (8 dry gallons) heaped up, each bushel to contain a Winchester bushel and 1 imperial quart (1.14 L), and to be 19 12 inches (495 mm) in diameter, roughly a weight in coal of around 28 long hundredweight (3,140 lb or 1,420 kg).

Generally pensioners (residents were sometimes called this) had to keep premises clean and in good repair, were often prohibited from keeping any animal that could damage the property or upset neighbours, and had to attend church regularly. Chimneys usually had to be swept once or twice a year, and commonly men could not swear or quarrel; women were not to brawl or scold. If people broke the sometimes arbitrary rules, trustees had the power to reprimand, formally give warning or even to eject transgressors, when their only course of action was probably the dreaded workhouse.

Almsmhouse Buildings

From her researches, Sarah advised that almshouses came in all shapes and sizes. Originally they were a bit like modern day hospital ward where pensioners resided in cubicles down each long side. Many almshouses were arranged around a courtyard, and many comprised a terrace of varying length. There were also some of completely different shapes, presumably reflecting the venefactor’s personal wishes.

The Rest, in Reydon, near Southwold, opened in 1908 and consists of a group of individual houses behind an unusual gatehouse. It was a charitable housing development for eight people established by Andrew Matthews, a successful art dealer. Residents had to be natives of Southwold, have lived there for more than twenty years, have limited income, be over 65 years of age and be of good physical and mental health. One unusual rule was that any resident displaying a certain photograph of Matthew’s wife, Ellen, on her birthday, was given a 5 shilling reward (approx. £30 today).

                                                                                                                      The Rest – Matthews Almshouses at Reydon

The Hospital of the Holy Blessed Trinity: Founded in 1573 by Sir William Cordell, then lord of the manor of Melford living across the road in Melford Hall. Born and raised in Melford, he gave the almshouses to poor residents of the town, endowing them with land and property in the surrounding area to ensure a regular source of income. The Hospital housed twelve ‘brethren’ and was built in a quadrangle with an inner courtyard garden and an outer walled garden.

When first constructed the garden was enclosed by a wooden pale fence, but in 1632 the brethren requested the garden ‘be enlarged slightly and enclosed within a high brick wall to prevent fruit from being stolen’ – 4 or 5 feet was duly taken from the adjacent village green and the wall completed in 1633. The garden was used to supplement the diet of residents by growing fruit and vegetables, as revealed by Warden accounts for the year 1731. Major building renovations were undertaken In 1847, with further modernisation of the interior completed in 1964. In 1981 the south and east faces of the garden wall were rebuilt, and the property continues to be administered by the Trustees of the Hospital for the benefit of the poor of Long Melford.

                                                                                                                                                 Long Melford Hospital plaque

Hyde Park Corner Cottages, Cavendish: These much restored 16th century cottages on the village green below St. Mary’s Church became known as ‘Hyde Park Corner’ because of the practice of rectory visitors engaging in outdoor preaching on this area of the village green. They were rescued from the threat of demolition by the Cavendish Preservation Society and renovated, after which the George Savage Trust accepted responsibility in November 1957. It was thought that provision of ‘almshouse’ accommodation was within the spirit of the original bequest and they are now administered for the benefit of people connected with Cavendish, and form an outstanding group of renovated buildings of international interest. There are five separate dwellings, some with two bedrooms, and new residents must be over the age of 60 and have some connection with Cavendish through family or residence. Maintenance charges are kept at reasonable levels and seven village residents serve as trustees.

                                                                                                                                         Cavendish thatched almshouses

Stuart Court Norwich: Built in 1915 in memory of James Stuart, privy councillor and sometime resident of Norwich. Comprises 14 bedsits, three one-bedroom flats and five two-bedroom flats, the latter allocated to couples who can show a health or similar need for the additional bedroom. The lovely gardens were renovated in 2015 as part of the celebrations for the centenary Stuart Court, and they are currently managed by the Norwich Housing Society.

                                                           Stuart Court Almshouse and residents

                                                                                                                                            James Stuart plaque

The Present Day

Many almshouses continue today, looked after by trustees of charities overseen by the Charity Commission. The Almshouse Association, virtually unknown outside the sector, sets best practice guidelines and also has a small fund to allow almshouses to modernise.

Some 2,600 almshouses continue to exist, operating some 30,000 dwellings and support around 36,000 people, mainly of retirement age, of limited means and who live locally to the almshouse.

Sarah then showed us a final gallery of some other almshouses images before concluding her fascinating talk on our local history and heritage, something she believes has been largely ignored by historians to date. The twenty plus audience were warmly appreciative of her efforts.


Our next events will be at 7.30 in The Parish Room on:

17th April: The Amazing Story of Rev’d. John Heigham Steggall, the Suffolk Gypsy, by Pip Wright

Around 1800 this son of a parson ran away to live with gypsies. In a remarkable life, he was a surgeon, sailor, soldier and parish priest at Great Ashfield.

22nd May: The History of Landguard Fort, Felixstowe by David Wood

First built nearly 400 years ago, the fort guards the Orwell navigable channel because Harwich Harbour was the best haven for large ships between the Thames & Humber.


Both events are going to be great, and we very much look forward to welcoming guests both new and old to the Parish Room in Little Waldingfield.