Almshouses were initially Christianinspired; supporting the poor, the sick and lepers was seen as a handy short cut to heaven. Built in the form of a quadrangle, they were the first sheltered housing. Residents were given their own room and a fire; travellers were offered succour.
In the 15th century, merchants founded almshouses for their guilds. More benefactors were spawned by the Industrial Revolution - sweet manufacturers, for example, who built for retired employees. Today's beneficiaries are mostly local pensioners of very modest means, though state benefits mean that most now pay a nominal weekly contribution.
In Whittlesey, near Peterborough, a small group of 19th-century almshouses built for widows is about to go on sale through local agents Grounds & Co; the price has yet to be determined. Though David Scott, chairman of the Almshouse Association, opposes such sales, trustees at the sharp end who have taken the decision to sell defend their actions.
Richard Hinton, clerk to the trustees of the Whittlesey almshouses, says they were proving difficult to let: 'Though modernised in the Sixties, they are enclosed and not very attractive. We also had competition from the council, who were putting up very nice custom-built units for old people.' Only after the almshouses had stood empty and wrangled over for 10 years was the decision taken to sell.
The lucrative cocktail of known history and ancient architecture attracts developers. Two years ago, a row of 17th-century derelict almshouses in the Lincolnshire fens was converted by local builder Terry Batten into upmarket homes. Exposed beams, ingle-nook fireplaces and other echoes from the past mean that these properties command high prices. Today one is for sale at pounds 68,500 through local Boston agents Halifax Property Services.
Many almshouse trustees, however, never need contemplate a sale, the original endowment having borne financial fruits over the centuries. Archbishop Whitgift's Hospital in Croydon, for example, was endowed with farmland which has been developed into Croydon itself.
Other survivors include three groups of almshouses clustered round a churchyard in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, just by the River Thames. 'They were founded for the poor,' says Brian McGhie, clerk to the trustees. 'Now anyone over 60 with strong Abingdon connections can apply.'
Long Alley, founded in 1446, is the oldest of the Abingdon almshouses. It has on one side a stone-flagged covered arcade, with oak mullions open to the elements; the rest is stone-built, with distinctive chimneys 20 feet tall.
Resident Pat Grundy, 87, sold her own house last year. 'I wanted to live somewhere where it was somebody's job to look in every day and not rely on a friend,' she says. Pat can now sit upstairs in her beamed living room, looking out through latticed windows over the peaceful garden with its clipped golden yews.
Though supporting charities for the elderly is unfashionable (two-thirds of the money left to charities by will-makers goes to children's organisations), some people do care. In Chailey, East Sussex, a group of almshouses built in the Eighties owes its existence to individual bequests.
The four blocks - 28 tile-clad flats with deep sweeping roofs and timber balconies - are architecturally a million miles away from traditional almshouse design but still perform their centuries-old function. Residents pay just pounds 20 a week for a single flat, pounds 28 for a double.
More encouragement comes from a letter received by David Scott. A Blackpool man has willed that proceeds from the sale of his house and land, valued at pounds 450,000, be used to build almshouses for 'married couples who have been tradespeople . . . in needy circumstances.' A dozen new almshouses will help compensate for those being sold, continuing a tradition that began in AD963.
The Almshouse Association, Billingbear Lodge, Wokingham, Berks, tel 0344 52922.
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