Chipping Barnet. Leathersellers
The various livery companies have a long tradition of supporting charities, and the Leathersellers Company is no exception. The 15th in order of precedence, hence one of the most important, it gained its charter in 1444. Some almshouses were built in about 1535 near St Helen’s, Bishopsgate in London. They were closed in 1866 and the residents moved to Barnet. Links with this are the gates and a boundary stone which were transferred to the new site.
Richard Thornton (1776 – 1865) made his money in the Baltic trade in the days of Napoleon. He left 2.8 million pounds – the largest estate recorded before 1870. In this he rivalled the better known Rothschilds. He personally funded the building of these almshouses. The cost was £3,724 (with a further £500). The land used had belonged to the Leathersellers since 1603 when it cost £100. There is a bust at Leathersellers Close.
A contemporary (1837) Hertfordshire Mercury article described it as ‘a very neat specimen of what is commonly called the Gothic Style, though accompanied as usual with a few of those incongruities which usually distinguish buildings erected in imitation of the ancient English architecture. The facade consists of a facade and two wings, battlemented and surmounted by a stone cross. The entrances are under pointed arched doorways, that in the centre being the largest. The windows have flat arches and are divided by mullions and the design altogether has a resemblance to a monastic edifice. The interior of the building is admirably adapted to the comfort of its future inhabitants’. Cussans describes the buildings in these words. ‘The houses are built in the Tudor style, and are lofty and spacious. ….. The materials employed are white bricks, with quoins, mullions and dressings of Bath stone. The extensive grounds in front are tastefully laid out with lawns, terraces, flower beds and evergreens’. A drawing dating from 1850 is held at London Metropolitan Archives, and another at Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies. It may also be of interest to compare this building with others built at around the same time, such as the Clock and Watchmakers, Salters Company and Guild House, Stevenage
Richard was the master of the The Leathersellers Company in when the foundation stone was laid in 1836-7, when the foundation stone for these almshouses was laid. The master held office for 1 year, hence Victoria County History is correct with its statement about the ‘former master’ in 1838, when they were opened. At first there were six almshouses, with more added in 1849 and 1866 (the latter for those transferred from London). A chapel was added in 1931, given by Frederick Dove. The east and west blocks were rebuilt in 1966, being renamed Leathersellers Close. The site forms three sides of a quadrangle around a garden. The gardens have often been noted as delightful, with imposing displays.
The original provision was for 6 aged freemen and six widows of freemen. By Cussans’ time there were 20 occupants, each of whom received 10s a week, and two tons of coal a year. A 1901 Barnet Press article noted that a house, coals, doctor, gardener, sweep and £3 per month were provided for the inmates. They furnished their own homes and looked after themselves. The doctor only attended the inmates when sent for, a situation the coroner disapproved of.
Accommodation now is twenty two flats, five of which can accommodate couples. They are in pleasant grounds for the benefit of men and women over sixty years of age. A service charge includes maintenance and heating. The community is a sociable one with events arranged. The flats are still primarily for people connected with the Company or the leather trade, although applications from other individuals will be considered if there is availability. The property is now managed by Harrison Housing.
The Trustees are appointed by the Court of Assistants, the controlling body of The Leathersellers’ Company. The Leathersellers’ Barnet Charity is registered with the Charity Commission ref 247986.
But we must never forget that almshouses are for the benefit of people even though most information is about the history and buildings. This is where the newspapers come into their own as they report the day-to-day events which do not merit the history books. Unfortunately information is scant, mostly to do with misdemeanours and death notices.
In 1857 Lucy Purcell, an almswoman, had an argument with Ann Taylor (a local) about getting water from the pump. There seem to have been previous issues between them, but on this occasion Ann hit Lucy on the head with a stone, maybe because Lucy had kicked her bucket over. An 1884 incident involved a drunk person knocking on the doors of the almshouses.
Mr Harboard died in 1899 at the age of 94. He had been an inmate of the Almshouses for upwards of 20 years, and married his second wife only a year ago. There is a further reference to a Mrs Harboard who died 2 years earlier. Her funeral cortege was led by the Brunswick House band. Of interest is a letter from a 73 year old woman who had married a 91 year old man. They had been renting the groom’s old quarters in the almshouses, but she no longer needed the Company’s kind help. She in turn had been in receipt of parish relief for some years. 1899 saw the funeral of Mr Hazard’s funeral took place in 1899. A well-known bell-ringer, he had been a resident for 23 years. George Deadman, a retired portmanteau maker, died in 1901 aged 76. He had been an inmate of almshouses for 14 or 15 years. He had a son living with him, who suffered from epilepsy, who died a week before him, age 27.
Almshouses are no strangers to fires. This was the case for Mrs Johnston in December 1906, who lived at No 8. She was feeble and crippled. It seems the cause was an oil lamp. Some neighbours in Thornton Road heard her screams, scaled the walls and help douse the flames. The fire brigade arrived later. Unfortunately she died the following week.
More recently, in the 1970s, Dr Walton Rex Read was the oldest Pastmaster of the Company till his death in 1975, at the age of 98. He had lived at Leathersellers Close for the past 6 years. 93 year old former school cook Beatrice Wight then became the oldest. Henry Boxall spent 42 years as the under-butler, then butler, at the Company’s headquarters; his late wife had been the cook for 25 years. At the age of 74 he still helped provide tea at the local hospital. 85 year old John Houghton had been the head porter at the City of London School. He had also been the toastmaster to the City of London Corporation for 30 years.
Who said almspeople were poor decrepit old things eking out their days, with humdrum former lives?
Leathersellers Close (corner of Union St, The Avenue and Thornton Rd)
Georef: 524148 196530
Grid Ref: 51o 39′ 14″N 0o 12′ 25″W
OS 25” map Hertfordshire XLV.3 1898
History of Hertfordshire, by J E Cussans
Originally published Stephen Austin & Sons 1870-81
Republished E P Publishing in collaboration with Hertfordshire County Library 1972
The Victoria County History of the County of Middlesex
This publication been digitised by British History Online (BHO) and is available online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol5/pp271-282
Barnet & Hadley Almshouses, by W H Gelder
Barnet Press Group 1979
Documents held at HALS
DE/X1021/90 nd [19th century]
‘Almshouses at Barnet’ (nd [19th century])
Lithograph showing the Leathersellers’ Company almshouses at Barnet. Captioned “On the estate of the worshipful company of Leathersellers erected at the expense of Richard Thornton Esq, master, and endowed by the Company A D 1837”
Artist C H Hill, published Waterlow and Morland, London
Page 33, plate 1
Websites accessed Aug 2022
https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/quick-search?q=leathersellers%20almshouse&WINID=1529346191221 Drawing of almshouses c1850 record 3118
There are quite a few newspaper references. Please refer to Chipping barnet section of the list Almshouse Documents held at HALS