Berkhamsted. John Sayer

Colin Wilson

John Sayer's almshouse. 2016
Colin Wilson
J C Buckler's drawing of John Sayer's almshouse. 1830
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies ref DE/Bg/1/98
John Sayer's almshouse. The end on the corner of Cowper Road. The Heritage Trail sign can just be seen at the top right of the wall. 2016
Colin Wilson
The centre section of the almshouses, showing the location of the datestone and Sayer's badge. 2016
Colin Wilson
John Sayer's badge. 2016
Colin Wilson
The datestone on John Sayer's almshouse. 2016
Colin Wilson
The Heritage Trail sign on the end of the almshouse. 2016
Colin Wilson

One look at this building and you immediately recognise it as an almshouse. It’s a strange mixture of plain and decorated, but very attractive. It’s situated on the main road, not hidden away in a back street.

1660 saw the restoration of the monarchy with Charles II, meaning that John Sayer, who had been loyal to him, could also return. He became the King’s head cook. Samuel Pepys records enjoying some of the King’s food, a hearty breakfast, with him. By 1662 John had possession of Berkhampstead Place.

Soon before his death in 1682, aged 63, John set up a fund of £1000 for erecting some almshouses in Berkhamsted. He did not live long enough to finalise the details; his wife Mary dealt with implementing his wishes. The building cost £269, the balance being invested. She outlived John by 30 years.

The endowment consisted of a rent charge of some land in Chilton and income from an orchard behind the almshouse. Further endowments came from Martha Deere (1784), George and Elizabeth Nugent (1830) and John Finch (1861).

The beneficiaries were 6 poor widows, aged over 55 and constant frequenters of the Church of England. This was later modified to Christians, with a preference for the Church of England, and single women. They had to have lived in Berkhamsted for ten years and be at least 55 years of age. Residential requirements have been widened to links with Berkhamsted and the area. New residents could only be appointed at the Feast of the Annunciation.

Some rules laid on the residents have been recorded in an article in Hertfordshire Countryside. Each widow was given 8 shillings a month, and a cloth gown every three years. Only one widow could be absent at any one time, and not for longer than a month in any year. They had to attend church every Sunday, walking there in twos (rather like a class of schoolchildren nowadays). Failure to do so meant a threepence fine; regular failure could lead to permanent exclusion. The youngest widow had to look after the sick, and open and unlock.the gates at specific times. Failure would lead to a two shilling fine, with possible permanent exclusion after two admonishments.

Accommodation was 12 rooms. At a later date the provision for 6 widows was reduced to the current 4, though there are still 6 doors to the road. Cussans notes that the 6 widows each received 4s 4d a week from the endowments.

According to the Housing Care website, the current accommodation is a sitting room about 4m square, a bedroom alcove and kitchen each about 4m by 2m, and a bathroom about 2.5m by 2m. Heating is by radiators from a gas boiler. The buildings were renovated in 1965. The management staff are non-resident, but there is a Careline facility.

After over 300 years it still fills its original purpose. However there seem to be few references in historical documents or newspapers. It has just quietly and almost anonymously fulfilled its purpose. The John Sayer Almshouse Charity is still active (as at 2020), ref 208191 for the Charity Commission. A number of charities are linked with it, although only the John Sayer Almshouse Charity 208191-2 is specifically aimed at the almshouses. The almshouses are also affiliated to the Almshouse Association.

The buildings were listed by Historic England in 1950, grade II.


Georef:     498919 207936
Grid ref:   51o 45′ 41″N   0o 34′ 06″W
OS 25″ map Hertfordshire XXXIII.5 pub 1898



Berkhamsted Through Time, by Berkhamsted Local History and Museum Society, p56
Pub 2013 Amberley Publishing ISBN 978 1 4456 0901 0

Bygone Berkhamsted, by Percy Birtchnell
 Page 42 has a photo of Sayers almshouse c1900
Pub author by White Crescent Press 1975
ISBN 0 900804 14 9 (hardback) or ISBN 0 900804 13 0 (paperback)

History of Hertfordshire by John Edwin Cussans
vol 3 Dacorum Hundred p80
Originally published Stephen Austin & Sons 1870-81
Republished E P Publishing in collaboration with Hertfordshire County Library 1972

Berkhamsted, an Illustrated History, by Scott Hastie p92 has a photo dated c1905
Pub Alpine Press 1999 ISBN 0-9528631-1-1

Berkhamsted . A Gateway to the Chilterns, by Eric G Meadows 2001
Pub The Bookstack, Berkhamsted ISBN 1871372054

The Victoria County History of the County of Hertford ed William Page
Vol 2 p177
Issued Archibald Constable & Co 1908. Reprint by Dawsons of Pall Mall 1971 (ISBN 0 7129 0476 X)
Available online at

Rough Justice in the Berkhamsted Almshouses, by H E Pullen.
Article in Hertfordshire Countryside

Hertfordshire Countryside vol 30 No 227 Mar 1978

Documents stored at HALS

Note: At the time of writing (Oct 2020) it was not possible to access these documents due to the Covid restrictions.

Berkhamsted Parochial Charity Trustees (1866 – 1918)
Election of almsperson to John Sayers almshouses
Date: (nd)

Papers, volumes and views concerning the history of Berkhamsted, collected by Mr Percy Birtchnell, 1813-1985
Date: ([20th century])

Picture of Sayer’s almshouse from a collection of drawings by J C Buckler (1835-1840)  Date: (1830)

DZ/119/3/308A and CDZ119/1/3/3/2/31
Grangerised copy of Clutterbuck’s history, includes Buckler’s drawing of the almshouses.
Date: (nd [c1832])

George Nugent’s charity,
Bequest in 1822 of £300 for support of almshouses and Sunday school: trust deed.
From Berkhamsted, St Peter parish Records (1297 – 1991)
Date: (1830)

Document Reference: 17863
Gordon Moody papers. Includes Sayer Almshouses, Berkhamsted.
Date: c1955 – 1978

Other websites (accessed Oct 2020) includes details of Sayer’s memorial inscription. It is located in the Lady Chapel, on the north east corner of the church next to the Sanctuary.

Charity Commission
102251 removed 1992 as amalgamated
208191 is the current John Sayer Almshouse charity

This page was added on 25/10/2020.

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