Summary of a talk given by Evelyn Lord on 1st May 2021 to CALH members on ZOOM
Alms houses are dwellings endowed by an institution or individual offering accommodation for poor people.
Questions to ask about alms houses
What was the motivation for founding an alms house, how was this done, and how was it funded?
What were the qualifications for becoming an alms person? How were occupants of alms houses maintained?
What do alms houses tell us about poverty in Cambridge, and do alms houses related to policies on poverty.
Earliest foundation which eventually became an alms house was made in 1361 by Henry Tangmere who donated a house at Trumpington Gate to be used as Leper Hospital, which eventually became St Antony and St Eligius alms houses.
Motivation may have been altruistic, but may have been to ensure Tangemer’s soul a safe passage to heaven through perpetual prayers by the hospital’s inmates.
1469 Thomas Jakenett founded almshouses for 4 poor men or women originally situated in Great St Mary’s church yard, part of the money raised for the maintenance of the alms houses was to go towards obits for Jakenett and his wife.
Jakenett’s almshouses are now in King Street, moved there in 1790 as a consequence of the Act for Paving and Lighting Act for Cambridge.
1475 Richard Ely left money to house three poor people who were to pray for his soul. First situated in St Michael’s Lane these were moved to St Paul’s Road when the site was sold.
Obits for the Jakenets continued until 1542. By this time the Reformation had taken place and salvation was based on Biblical texts and good works rather than prayers for the benefactors.
In the 16th and early 17th centuries an increase in Cambridge’s population led to over-crowding and squalor. The response was the foundation of at least 4 sets of alms houses, a mere drop in the ocean.
The motivation to found a post-Reformation alms house might have been for the good of society, or it might have been to create a permanent memorial in the town for the benefactor. This comes across in the Matthew Stokys who founded alms houses for 6 poor widows and on his death bed uttered what might be seen as a curse ‘If any of these buildings are moved by others, they shall be anathema to Christ’. Despite this the alms houses were sold in 1860 and the money made given to St Antony and St Eligius.
1615 Stephen Perse’s will included a bequest for 6 one-roomed buildings for poor people to be placed in the grounds of the grammar schoo. Now situated in Newnham Road.
1629 Henry Wray a Cambridge stationer left a bequest to build a house for 4 poor widows and widowers residing in Holy Trinity Parish.
1647 Elizabeth Knight of Denny Abbey left money for the construction of 6 alms houses to be sited on the corner of Jesus Lane. By 1880 these were in decay and were moved an rebuilt in King Street with additional funds from Alderman Mortlock.
Edward Storey’s foundations date from bequests made in his will of 1693. So far no alms house foundation have been found for the 18th century, but by the 19th century the motivation for alms houses changed to providing accommodation for groups of people who were members of a society. The Victoria Homes built by the Cambridge Victoria Friendly Society, and the Royal Albert Benevolent Society are examples of this.
Royal Albert Benevolent Society
Founding an alms house had to be backed up considerable funds. Thomas Jakenett built a ‘ a high chamber over the alms houses to be let at a yearly rate to provide for repairs to the property.’ When his heirs defaulted or died St Mary the Great’s churchwardens took over. Matthew Stokys left a tenement and land in Chesterton in perpetuity to maintain his alms houses, and Edward Storey set up a trust based on his property. Elizabeth Denny left capital of £440 to build the alms houses, added to her with gifts from kin. By the 19th century this was exhausted. When the alms houses were moved to King Street management was taken over by the Cambridge United Charities, which also owned the St Radegund public house next door, with profits going towards the alms houses’ maintenance.
Who qualified to enter an alms house? Usually those admitted were poor, single godly people. It was not until the 20th century that a more enlightened attitude appeared. In 1913 Miss Adelaide Waters built 6 alms bungalows in Seymour Street for married couples, and in 1978 the Cambridge United Charities built a block of flats in John Street to accommodate those in need.
In the medieval and early modern periods once you had a place in an alms house shelter, food, drink, fuel and clothing was assured. The women in Matthew Stokys alms houses received 8d a week, plus 8s to buy material to make a gown at Stourbridge Fair, to wear when they went to church. Inmates of Storey’s alms houses received £10 a year each, plus a grey gown, and 2 pairs of shoes and stockings at Christmas and New Year.
Storey’s alms houses were divided between poor single or widowed women from St Giles and St Peter’s parishes, and the widows of Church of England clergymen who were housed in the building shown above.
The main difference between going into an alms house and relying on the parish was that the alms people were treated as individuals, for example Knight’s bequest stated that there should be 6 separate hearths so that each occupant had her own. Alms house buildings were in better condition that much of Cambridge’s housing. For example Mathew Stokys alms houses were to be made of brick and stone, and to have convenient windows and good easy steps old and impotent folk. Edward Storey told his trustees to build of brick with tiled roofs, each to have a downstairs room with a chimney and buttery, and an upstairs bed room.
How did alms houses related to the general policy on poverty. Changes in legislation meant that the parish became responsible for its paupers under the Old Poor Law, and by 1662 relief was only available from a parish of legal settlement. As the Old Poor Law fell apart due to the over whelming number of poor, so the New Poor Law ushered in the Bastille type work houses. Through all of this alms houses stood outside the national legislation on poverty and were examples of private enterprise and social relief.
So far as Cambridge is concerned there was always a large under-belly of poverty despite the wealthy colleges and merchants, but the alms houses could only deal with a small and select number of the poor, perhaps 50 or 60 at the most, and they would have been respectable deserving poor.
Even today alms houses are desirable residences in Cambridge – as for example the Storey alms house on Mount Pleasant.