A Brief Introduction to Hertfordshire's Almshouses
The scope of this survey, started in March 2016, is to list, locate (and hopefully photograph) the almshouses (or sites thereof) in Hertfordshire, both past and present. This entails some research to discover even the location. Information found will be added, but this information must not be regarded as comprehensive.
A Summary List of the almshouses has been attached to this article.
Styles and Appearance
Almshouses have been in existence for many centuries, and are still in use today. There is a common assumption of what an almshouse looks like, but this is far from the truth. Essentially the need is for a place for people to live. The styles have changed over time in the same way as other dwellings. They vary from the traditional row of single storey dwellings to a single flat in a block, from large structures to very small, old buildings to modern buildings, distinctive to anonymous.
In many cases they are difficult to locate. Part of this could be due to not advertising the whereabouts of vulnerable people; part could be because they were dwellings for the poor hence of little consequence. To highlight this, a lifelong resident of one village did not know of the almshouse (by then a private residence) which was only 600 yards along the lane; a postmistress knew of one almshouse in the village but not the other, even though it had a dedication stone.
There is no precise definition of an almshouse apart from the underlying idea that they were for the benefit of the poor. The popular idea is that they were provided for the aged poor rather than the unwell. However, some were provided for much younger poor people, and a few for young people. Most almshouses had rules as to who would be eligible. It was often stipulated that they should be of good character and not be in need because of indolence. Eligibility may involve religious affiliation, age, gender, marital status, residence or links with a trade body. A legal case following the 1980 ‘Right to Buy’ legislation highlighted one important distinction. Almspeople do not have the right to buy as they are deemed to be beneficiaries, not tenants; they do not pay rent but a contribution towards the costs.
To confuse the issue still further, terminology varies. Sometimes the words ‘hospice’ ‘spital’ or ‘spittle’ were used, as early institutions cared for the poor as well as the sick. If a property was bequeathed ‘for the use of the poor’, it usually meant that the rent obtained was distributed among the poor. But in at least one case the wording was ‘for the use of the poor that they may live there rent free’, implying an almshouse. ‘Poor house’ and ‘Town House’ sometimes refer to an almshouse, sometimes to the workhouse. A fine distinction could also be made between dwellings built as almshouses, or those used as almshouses (e.g. rented or leased).
So far just over 200 almshouses have been identified in Hertfordshire. As a number were identified from a single reference found almost by chance, it is likely there are more. Categorisation will affect the numbers. Do we count a rebuild (maybe by a new benefactor) as one or two almshouses, and what about amalgamations or later additions?
Over time, Hertfordshire’s boundaries have changed. Buildings once in Hertfordshire but now part of another county have been included, as have those which have transferred from another county to Hertfordshire, along with a couple on the border where it is not obvious which county they belong to. There are buildings which have been referred to as almshouses which in fact do not seem to have been used as such. These have been mentioned to correct this. It may, of course, be that future information may change this opinion.
Categorisation and Names
It is very complicated trying to categorise all these in any consistent manner. Institutions were relocated by the same benefactor, or demolished but replaced elsewhere by another benefactor. Some were rebuilt on the same site by a new benefactor. Some were amalgamated, maybe more than once. Some had later additions which may or may not be formally linked with the original institution. One result of this is that the same building may have different names, and the same building may be referred to by different names for other reasons.
For the purpose of this survey, buildings replaced by a new benefactor on the same site or a different site, and additions by a new benefactor have been classed as different almshouses. Almshouses rebuilt or added to by the same benefactor or the charity set up to maintain the almshouse, whether on the same site or a new site, will be regarded as the same almshouse. Almshouses with a change of name, or alternative names, will be regarded as the same. In all cases an attempt will be made to cross-reference, but it is likely that not all establishments or groupings will fall neatly in this categorisation
Various published histories. The main ones are those by Cluutterbuck, Cussans, Salmon and the Victoria County History.
A few lists of Hertfordshire’s almshouses have been produced or can be compiled. Most have limitations. ‘Historical Atlas of Hertfordshire’ lists those where the name or date of foundation is known. W O Wittering compiled a list of 80 groups for ‘Hertfordshire Countryside’. The Almshouse Association (2016) supplied a list of 58, which only includes current almshouses (2016). J A Vyse wrote a thesis detailing Victorian almshouses in Hertfordshire. Historic England records listed buildings. Clutterbuck, Cussans and Victoria County History only include those up to a certain date (of publication).
Further sources of information have been monographs published by local history societies. Browsing the index pages of various books has provided various leads, as has browsing the internet. And of course there are the records held at various libraries and archives. Some institutions are well documented; others are known by no more than a passing reference.
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies has many documents, images and maps which can be consulted.
Local museums and libraries may have relevant items in their collections.
Historic maps have been of some value, but do not show all the almshouses. This could be because not all almshouses are in the ‘traditional’ style. It is not always obvious as to the exact location of the building as compared with the label.
Newspapers and magazines carry various articles which refer to almshouses. By their very nature newspapers tend to look at the more dramatic incidents and include death notices and some court reports. Magazines are more likely to include more informative articles.
The internet has been a great benefit in this survey. How previous researchers managed to discover as much as they did is a credit to them.
Various archivists, librarians, local history researchers and charities have helped with this survey. While they may have been ‘doing their job’, they have often put themselves out far more than their jobs would require, and I am most grateful for their help.
Main Book Sources
The Historical Antiquities of Hertfordshire, by Sir Henry Chauncy.
2 volumes. Ist edition London 1700, 2nd edition Bishops Stortford 1826; this edition Dorking 1975 pub Kohler & Coombes (reproduced from original in possession of Hertfordshire County Record Office)
ISBN 0 903967 01 4
The History & Antiquities of the County of Hertford, by Robert Clutterbuck.
3 volumes London 1827
Printed by and for John Bowyer Nichols, 25 Parliament Street, London
History of Hertfordshire, by John Edwin Cussans 3 volumes
Originally pub Stephen Austin & Sons 1870-81
Republished 1972 by EP Publishing Ltd in collaboration with Hertfordshire County Library
Vol 1 1870 -3 covers Braughing (pub1870), Edwinstree (pub 1872) and Odsey (pub 1873) ISBN 0 85409 833 X
Vol 2 1874-8 covers Hitchin (pub 1874), Hertford (pub 1876) and Broadwater (pub 1878) ISBN 0 85409 834 8
Vol 3 1879-81 covers Dacorum (pub 1879) and Cashio (pub 1881) ISBN 0 85409 835 6
Note the volume planned for St Albans was never published.
The Victoria County History of the County of Hertford. Ed William Page
Issued by Archibald Constable & Co. Reprint by Dawsons of Pall Mall 1971
Vol 1 1902 (Dawsons ISBN 0 7129 0475 1)
Vol 2 1908 (Dawsons ISBN 0 7129 0476 X)
Vol 3 1912 (Dawsons ISBN 0 7129 0477 8)
Vol 4 1914 (Dawsons ISBN 0 7129 0478 6)
This publication has been digitised by British History Online (BHO) and is available online
An Historical Atlas of Hertfordshire, ed David Short
Hertfordshire Publications 2011 ISBN 978-9-9542189-6-6
Victorian Almshouses in Hertfordshire, by J A Vyse.
A Building Conservation thesis, held at HALS
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies has a large collection of books, documents and images.
Historic England historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/
The Almshouse Association See https://www.almshouses.org/ (site accessed Oct 2019)
The Almshouses of Hertfordshire by W O Wittering
Article in Hertfordshire Countryside 29 (187) Nov 1974
A number of issues of Barnet Press, Herts Advertiser, Hertfordshire Guardian, Hertford Mercury, Herts and Cambs Reporter & Royston Crow and Watford Observer can be accessed on-line at British Newspaper Archive. See https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/ (as at October 2019)