On a slightly meandering walk through south London, I was surprised to stumble across a row of almshouses. I thought these institutions had been left in Dickens’ London, abandoned in the rise of social housing during the 20th century, yet there I was admiring the striking line of terraced homes that is the Hibbert Almshouses.
London is in fact dotted with similar such buildings. Long before social housing became a responsibility of the state, it was almshouses that provided a home for the most vulnerable members of society.
We know the tradition stretches back over a thousand years, with St Oswald’s Hospital in Worcester, the oldest almshouse still in existence, established in 990. Having originally had deep connections to religious institutions, the almshouses took a battering during the dissolution of the monasteries. Yet they were always needed, meaning benefactors would ensure some could stay open.
It was during the Georgian and Victorian eras, when the UK underwent rapid urbanisation, that these institutions really developed. Some 30 per cent of the country’s almshouses were built in this time.
Usually set up at the behest of wealthy donors, they were a direct answer, along with the more notorious workhouses, to the rampant urban destitution of the time. Of course the donors would then bag the glory by lending the almshouses their name; the Hibberts, for example, were two sisters, local to Clapham, who named the houses after their father.
Often there were eligibility requirements imposed; the Hibbert Almshouses were built solely to house elderly impoverished women, but as the years have passed these requirements have somewhat relaxed. But not entirely.
Most almshouses still require people to be from the local area and over the age of 60, which is very understandable. More worryingly some still have requirements of religious beliefs, which you can imagine was far less problematic in the 19th century than in the multi-cultural society in which we live today. Despite the best intentions in the world, the fairly opaque selection process involving a board of trustees and relying on constitutions established in a different era, means government-organised social housing will most likely be more egalitarian.
The country’s current tapestry of almshouses is patchwork at best. Around 1,600 individual charities run 35,000 homes – each with their own management structures. The smallest charities run one or two dwellings, while the largest, the Durham Aged Mineworkers’ Homes, owns 1,700 in the north-east of England. The Almshouse Association unifies these groups, offering advice and lobbying for policy change through the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Almshouses.
The number of almshouses may appear small compared to the four million social houses provided by local authorities and housing associations, but they are still an important contribution to the texture of the UK’s social housing landscape, as well as being an important aspect of the country’s heritage (over 30 per cent of almshouses are listed buildings).
Pretty buildings aside, in the face of a housing crisis that is magnified in regards to social housing, almshouses offer an essential home to thousands of people in need. The failing in governance of the individual charities were identified in an independent report as one of the key threats to their longevity.
A more involved Almshouse Association could not only ensure the survival of these important housing providers, but also insist on fairer eligibility requirements: bringing this ancient and valuable institution into the 21st century whilst ensuring its future.