A Discussion about Sources
There are many sources of information, all with their own benefits and disadvantages. They need to be regarded as complementary. Exhaustive histories are not appropriate for a survey such as this. The main aim is to list the respective establishments, then provide articles short and interesting enough for people to read while maybe suggesting further lines of enquiry. There is the need to be realistic about how much information can be studied in a reasonable time, else no information would be collated to help future researchers
I am in awe of those who found information before the days of easy travel to libraries and archives and access to the internet and other information technology.
Finding information requires specific search terms. Not all almshouses were known as such; Mr Gosling’s Homes and Glad’s Cottage are examples. Poor House may refer to the workhouse, or to an almshouse and the context may be the clue as to which is referred to.
The history of individual almshouses can be complex. Amalgamations, rebuilding, and relocating can lead to official or unofficial name changes which can lead to confusion. Howkins, Pooley and parish all refer to the same establishment in South Mimms. This also applies to place names – Chipping Barnet, Hadley Green or Monken Hadley can all be cited for the Wilbraham almshouses. Boundary changes mean that information about an almshouse in an area which was part of Hertfordshire for only a while will be found in a work about another county. The Watchmakers almshouse was in Hertfordshire but now in Greater London. This may affect where information is located.
The nature of the records means the amount and the quality of information will vary considerably. At the risk of stating the obvious, just because something is in print doesn’t mean it’s correct despite the best efforts of the authors. A few cases have been unearthed where respected sources appear have incorrect information – and I am under no illusion that there are likely to be unintentional errors in this survey.
Obviously this is the most reliable source of information. They will be of the time. HALS has a good store. How much is kept or available at various libraries and museums is variable.
A list of documents held at HALS has been appended to this article, but note it only covers a search for ‘Almshouses’ so will not be exhaustive.
Official Documents. Land transfers, indentures, censuses, parish records and Guardians of the Poor records are examples of this. The Guardians of the Poor records deal more with parish relief and many almshouses are not included as they are regarded as private institutions rather than parish matters. One aspect where the two combine is whether or not parish relief can be provided for almshouse residents. The Gibbs almshouses at Elstree are an example.
Minutes books. Availability is very variable. Some have been deposited in museums and archives. Many are in trustees’ or private custody hence not accessible. They can open a fascinating window on daily minutiae such as washbasins needing repair as well as larger issues.
Guilds and Charities. A number of the London guilds made almshouse provision for their members. Their archives are a useful source of information. Similarly estates and charities have their archives.
Wills. These are not always easy to read due to the script and the quality of reproduction. More recent wills are not available; earlier wills may be lost. Sites such as Ancestry and Find my Past can give easy access, and of course others are available in archives. A search through Hertfordshire Names on-Line will facilitate this search.
Drawings, postcards and other illustrations. Buckler produced drawings in around 1830. A. Whitford Anderson took photos round about 1900. Postcards have been produced. Not all list them as almshouses – often they are labelled something like ‘old cottages’ hence found almost by accident while looking for other information. Northchurch and Glad’s Cottage are examples. They are specially useful in showing how buildings have changed. Drawings and paintings have their uses but do depend on the skill and observation of the artists.
Churches and graves. Epitaphs sometimes include details of charitable works. Some churches have benefactions boards which list gifts. The Monson and Rich almshouses at Broxbourne and Hoddesdon are examples.
Ordnance Survey maps do not always note almshouses. Some buildings are instantly recognisable as almshouses (such as Flamstead Saunders) while others are quite anonymous. Some have datestones; others do not. Hence without unwarranted research it would not be possible for the surveyors to include them all and it is doubtful if the information would be useful for the original purpose of the maps. In a perverse way you could say maps are useful in pinpointing or confirming an almshouse location rather than looking through maps to find almshouses.
Tithe maps are very variable in what they show. Some are little more than sketches, while others are quite detailed. The associated lists also vary in the information they contain. They list residents or owners but may or may not indicate their status.
Other maps vary from quick sketches to stylised images and accurate representations.
The National Library of Scotland website has two very useful features over and above the ease with which maps can be accessed. Moving the mouse over certain maps will reveal the grid references and the georeferences. There is also a side-by-side facility which compares an older map with the more modern one. If an almshouse has been demolished it is useful to see its modern location – which may be under a block of flats or a road improvement. Hertford Pettytt and Watford Countess Essex are good examples.
THE ACTUAL BUILDINGS
While respecting residents’ privacy, visiting a building can reveal its condition and what alterations may have been made. Many have datestones, which may not always be accurate (See Barkway Stallibrass). They may also pose further questions – the H on the Stallibrass almshouse and E on Sawbridgworth Mann are cases in point.
Where newspapers come into their own is with the day-to-day aspects of life. There are planning applications, disputes about drains, items about court cases, unseemly behaviour, death notices, doorstep frauds, fires and the bravery shown by some who helped. The information is far more personal and local than the more official records held at archives.
The British Newspaper Archive is the main source to search newspapers for this survey. A list of relevant articles is appended to this document. As it has been produced from a search for ‘almshouses’ it cannot be regarded as exhaustive but it does provide a large amount of information. The thought of reading through all the relevant newspapers would give anyone apoplexy. The restriction is the date range available, going to about 1939 at the latest. The big advantage is the use of Optical Character Recognition so the text is searchable. which means that obscure references come to light. Even if a text is not accurately copied it will usually provide enough information to see if the text is likely to be relevant or useful, thus saving considerable time and effort. References can then be looked at more carefully using the scanned images. Opening the page reveals the column number, again saving a great deal of time a short reference in the middle of column 6 could otherwise take a long time to locate.
It is also necessary to use the relevant search terms. Simply because of time, I have searched for ‘almshouse’. This would omit some institutions such as Mr Gosling’s Homes or Louisa Cottages, but they could be searched for separately as and when further information comes to light.
Having noted some disadvantages, the archive is an enormous benefit. At least two institutions have only been found due to the newspapers. St Michael’s was but an incidental reference in a wedding report, but there was enough information to locate it to within half a mile or so. If reading the papers it’s unlikely it would have been found at all.
The Illustrated London News will report on more prestigious establishments, such as Clockmakers or Salters.
Chauncy, Cussans, Clutterbuck, & Victoria County History are the standard works. These publications tend to list institutions with specific legacies, not parish or publicly-established.), and rely on the information they can glean. This would use some of the primary sources noted above, but HALS has a letter from Robert Clutterbuck to the rector of St Ippollytts asking for information about his parish. Can only reference up to the date of investigation (which may well be some years before the date of publication.
General books about towns areas or other topics will take far too long to read even if they contain any information (which would often be a couple of lines or a picture). It is necessary to rely on the index if any.
Specific books and pamphlets
These are likely to be locally produced and often not widely circulated. Local museums and libraries could be the best source. There is a booklet about the Pemberton almshouse, J A Vyse produced a survey of Victorian almshouses (held at HALS), and there is a book about Barnet’s Almshouses. In this section we could include pamphlets and articles produced by local history groups as well as articles in magazines such as Hertfordshire Countryside. Finding the articles tends to rely on finding a reference to it elsewhere. Even searching the contents pages would take a very long time.
The content varies. Some such as Cheshunt Turners Hill have complete accounts with lists of properties. Others have the bare minimum of information, and often there is almost nothing about amalgamated or removed charities. The contact details can be useful for obtaining information or permission to use information.
The Almshouse Association
A list kindly supplied a list of Hertfordshire’s almshouses records the institutions currently active. However that cannot be regarded as an exhaustive as some institutions are privately funded. The addresses provided were for the main contact, not the almshouse location.
The main interest for this organisation would be on the building per se, not the history. However, a couple of establishments have been referenced only from the site, leading to further inquiry.
This can be a massive source of information but has to be assessed carefully. Nowadays its use can hardly be over-rated and there is access to on-line catalogues, articles and historical records such as wills.
From the above notes it will be realised that the simple aspect of dating means that information for much of the twentieth century will be sparse. Added to the publication dates would be the factors of copyright and personal references as many people and close relatives would still be alive or within living memory.
Luck plays a big part in this. On at least three occasions an ‘authority’ did not know of an almshouse across the road. However, on a few occasions chance meetings with residents or other people produced some interesting information, not all of which could be published for reasons of privacy. Again, for security reasons, making prior contact with residents was not allowed.