site unseen : Trinity Almshouses, Greenwich, London

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Having more and more people living longer inevitably poses problems for the welfare state. Resources are limited and the question of allocation involves politicians and administrators in the thorny dilemma of priorities. Should extra funds be devoted to the elderly at the expense of, say, cancer or Aids victims?

It is not a problem unique to our generation. In the past, either families looked after their own, or the companies which had once employed people accepted responsibility.

The latter solution took the physical form of almshouses, which sprang up all over the country during the medieval period - even today, few towns or cities are without these "old people's homes".

Many are superb examples of architecture. Just look at the Almshouse of St John the Baptist in Sherborne, Dorset. Founded by Henry VI in 1437, and still offering accommodation for the elderly, it retains its cloistered courtyard and chapel.

Others have been sensitively turned to different uses, such as the 18th-century buildings for the ironmongers in Kingsland Road, London, which now houses the excellent Geffrye Museum of Furniture. Visitors walk through a succession of period rooms ranging from Elizabethan times up to the 1950s.

Most of them have lost their former rural peace and quiet. For example, the Trinity Almshouses standing on the Mile End Road in London, and possibly designed by Sir Christopher Wren, are now besieged by the roar of traffic. The land was provided by a Captain Mudd and inscriptions still proclaim his intention that they should house "twenty-eight decayed masters and commanders of ships, or the widows of such", while the gable ends exhibit perfectly-detailed model ships complete with the rigging.

One feature is common to all almshouses: the chapel is always sited prominently, rem-inding the aged residents that their thoughts should be turning from this world towards the next.

Not that almshouses offered a warm welcome to everyone. Trinity Hospital in Greenwich, opened to residents in 1617, had a hit-list of undesirables: "No common beggar, drunkard, whore-hunter, haunter of taverns nor ale houses, nor unclean person infected with any foul disease, nor any that is blind, or so impotent as he is not able, at the time of his admission, to come to prayers daily...."

Dwarfed by the bulk of the nearby power station, the battlemented Trinity Hospital looks like a child's toy fort. A passage underneath the clock tower leads into a small courtyard with a fountain. Standing here on a sunny summer's day, it is an ideal spot from which to survey one's past life and think about the future.

Almshouses such as these represented the charitable ideal at its best. In a world of cut-throat competition and short-term contracts, however, few companies today care about their employees' future welfare, let alone go to the expense of actually building almshouses.

Mind you, as a confirmed "haunter of taverns", I wouldn't be admitted to Trinity Hospital.

Trinity Hospital, Riverside Walk, Greenwich, London SE10