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Detail from a document connected with the foundation of Henry VII's chantry and almshouses at Westminster. The King sits in the Star Chamber and receives the Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham, Richard Fox, the Bishop of Westminster and clerics associated with Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's Cathedral as well as the Lord Mayor of London
Drawing of almshouses in Rochford, 1787
Almshouses at the parish church of St John in Thaxted.

An almshouse is charitable housing provided to enable people (typically elderly people who can no longer work to earn enough to pay rent) to live in a particular community. They are often targeted at the poor of a locality, at those from certain forms of previous employment, or their widows, and are generally maintained by a charity or the trustees of a bequest.


Many almshouses are European Christian institutions though some are secular.[1] Alms are, in the Christian tradition, money or services donated to support the poor and indigent. Almshouses were established from the 10th century in Britain, to provide a place of residence for poor, old and distressed people. The first recorded almshouse was founded in York by King Athelstan; the oldest still in existence is the Hospital of St. Cross in Winchester, dating to about 1132. In the Middle Ages, the majority of European hospitals functioned as almshouses.

Many of the medieval almshouses in England were established with the aim of benefiting the soul of the founder or their family, and they usually incorporated a chapel. As a result, most were regarded as chantries and were dissolved during the Reformation, under an act of 1547. Almshouses generally have charitable status and aim to support the continued independence of their residents. There is an important delineation between almshouses and other forms of sheltered housing in that almshouse residents generally have no security of tenure, being solely dependent upon the goodwill of the administering trustees.


In 1269 or 1270 an almshouse was established in Stavanger as the first known in Norway.[2]

United States

The English tradition of almshouses was introduced to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania by its founder, William Penn. The Maryland legislature created almshouses in Anne Arundel County, financed by property taxes on landowners throughout the state. Massachusetts also had a long tradition of almshouses.

In the United States, aid tended to be limited to the elderly and disabled, and children had to sleep in the same rooms as adults.[3]

Upon entering the Almshouses in Connecticut, patients were whipped up to 10 times. [4]

There were similar institutions developed from 1725-1773 in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, and New York. At the Pennsylvania Hospital, some "lunatics" were chained to a cellar wall or made to wear a primitive straitjacket.[5]

Physical form

The almshouse at Woburn, Bedfordshire

Almshouses are often multiple small terraced houses or apartments providing accommodation for small numbers of residents. Some 2,600 almshouses continue to be operated in the UK, providing 30,000 dwellings for 36,000 people. In the Netherlands, a number of hofjes are still functioning as accommodation for elderly people (mostly women). The economics of almshouses takes the form of the provision of subsidised accommodation, often integrated with social care resources such as wardens. The basis for civil almshouses and workhouses in England was the Act for the Relief of the Poor. These institutions underwent various population, program, and name changes, but by 1900 the elderly made up 85 percent of the population in these institutions (Day 2009).

Bakewell Almshouses

The Bakewell Almshouses date from 1709 and housed six separate homes, hence the six front doors that can still be seen today. The homes had one tiny room downstairs and one upstairs, no bathroom, toilet or kitchen. The Manners family, Duke of Rutland from 1703, maintained the building until 1920. They gave it and the adjacent former town hall to the trustees who had been running the charity. The town hall was sold at a 1966 auction for £1,137. Financial problems caused the homes to become derelict and unfit for habitation by 2001. They were rescued and restored by the trustees in 2004-2006 at a cost of £325.000, which was raised through donations and grants. They are now three larger homes, combining modern facilities with many historical features.

See also


  1. ^ "Photography » Ancestral Deeds - Research & Transcription Services". Retrieved 15 September 2016. 
  2. ^ "Diplomatarium Norvegicum Volum 10 No.4". Retrieved 15 September 2016. 
  3. ^ "Asian Caregivers & Elderly Care". Retrieved 15 September 2016. 
  4. ^ Nielsen, Kim (2012). A Disability History of the United States. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press. p. 38. 
  5. ^ Nielsen, Kim (2012). A Disability History of the United States. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press. pp. 37–39. 

Further reading

  • Heath, Sidney (1910). Old English houses of alms: a pictorial record with architectural and historical notes. London: F. Griffiths. 
  • Rothman, David J., ed. (1971). The Almshouse Experience. Poverty USA: The Historical Record. Arno Press. ISBN 0-405-03092-4. 
  • Caffrey, Helen (2006). Almshouses in the West Riding of Yorkshire 1600-1900. Kings Lynn: Heritage. ISBN 1-905223-21-8. 
  • Goose, Nigel; Caffrey, Helen; Langley, Anne, eds. (2016). The British Almshouse: new perspectives on philanthropy ca 1400-1914. Milton Keynes: FACHRS. ISBN 978-0-954-81802-9. 

External links

  • The Almshouse Association
  • The Almshouse Residents Action Group
  • List of English Almshouses associated with monastic institutions. (From public domain text, English Monastic Life)
  • Medieval Hospitals (Almshouses) of England, by Rotha Mary Clay. (Public domain text, including daily life, care, and the "Office at the Seclusion of a Leper".)
  • What Are Almshouses
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