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
OS map Hertfordshire XXXIII.5 1925 showing Sayer's almshouse
Courtesy of Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies

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 / 3) and John Finch (1861). Nugent’s indenture included a comment that the existing almshouse funds were insufficient.  A legacy to support the Sunday School would also pass to the almshouses should the Sunday School fail. Elizabeth Nugent noted she had paid £200 as per her brother’s will but wished to increment that sum by £200. She added that her wish was that £1 per every 4 weeks should be distributed among the widows, especially as there was the case that Mr Sayer’s Benefaction was not payable to new residents till the Lady Day after admission.

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 vol 33 No 227 Mar 1978 pp 25/7

Documents stored at HALS

Berkhamsted Parochial Charity Trustees (1866 – 1918)
Election of almsperson to John Sayers almshouses. This is a poster, dates not filled in, to advertise a vacancy. D T Thorne was the clerk to the trustees.
Date: nd [20th century]

Papers, volumes and views concerning the history of Berkhamsted, collected by Mr Percy Birtchnell, 1813-1985
This is a negative of a photograph of the almshouse
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.
Has single page of drawings showing windows and bricks, dated Aug 1965
Date: c1955 – 1978

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

Newspapers can be accessed on-line on the British Newspaper Archive website

Hertford Mercury 30 July 1842 page 4 col 1
… among the poor not receiving aid or deemed parochial poor of the Parish, and not maintained or kept in any workhouse or almshouse belonging to the Parish, but who had actually resided in the Town for the space of three years, and paid the Church and …

Hemel Hempstead Gazette 02 November 1872 page 5 col 4
[Bread Fund & King James I Charity] There were two ways in which the money might be devoted – one was to education, and the other was to the erection of Alms-houses. Dole charities were not in accordance with the spirit of the time. It was decided by the indenture that the consent of the vestry was requisite in the matter.

Herts Advertiser 11 April 1874 page 7 col 3
The chairman then introduced the subject of Sayer’s almshouses, and the vestry was asked to consider a suggestion for the appropriation of certain money now in the hands the Board of Guardians towards the enlargement and improvement of the almshouses.

Hemel Hempstead Gazette 18 April 1874 page5 col 5
The Chairman then introduced the subject Sayers’ Almshouses, and the vestry was asked to consider a suggestion for the appropriation of certain money now in the hands of the Board of Guardians, towards the enlargement and improvement of the Almshouses. [Letter from London Government Board to say not allowed]

Herts Advertiser 26 December 1874 page 6 col 6
[re allocation of churchwardens overseers]… Nash, 77, Maria Boarder, 75, J. Wright,’ 75, Joseph Weeden, 75. Elizabeth BrockwelL 72, William Ashby, 72, all 3s. 6d. Six almshouse poor also have a small amount each.

Hertford Mercury 11 December 1886 page 6 col 5
[The new Wesleyan chapel] has been re-erected on a site off the High Street, at the rear the Almshouses, built upwards of 200 years ago by Mr. John Sayer, cook to Charles II; the site being in Steele’s meadow, lately sold for  building purposes, and is one of the best positions in the town.

Herts Advertiser 20 April 1889 page 2 col 4
Here is almshouse, built Mr. John Sayer and his wife, who endowed it with £1,300 for the maintenance of six poor widows.

Herts Advertiser 23 August 1890 page 2 col 4
… in the church are the monuments of some of its lesser.persons of distinction… died 1609), who were occupiers of Berkhampstead Place, among them ….. John Sayer, the famous cook of King Charles 11, and founder of the almshouses in the town (in 1681.

Herts Advertiser 08 July 1893 page 8 col 4
[Wedding Celebrations for wedding of Duke of York and Princess May]. … advantage of for further decorations, the most effective being numerous lines of flags spanning the fine High Street. At the Almshouses, where six old ladies reside with one attendant, on the oldest, 85 years of age, was a fine display “Health and Happiness to the Bride and Bridegroom” in big letters, being placed on the front and plants in pots &c, being supplied by Messrs lane and Mr Sills for the front doors. Messrs T Timson John Margrave and Mr and Mrs Edineades suggested, and with ready assistance from neighbours, provided a good dinner for the inmates, a tea and other accessories, including a ride out to see the decorations. Mr Margrave gave vegetables, and Mr Timson gave valuable aid. Subscriptions were readily given, chiefly small, by ….. The dinner and tea was served in the house of Mrs Brandon, and the old people were delighted.

Herts Advertiser 23 December 1893 page 2 col 2
The name of Axtell, Axtill or Axtoll is of very frequent occurrence in the Berkhampstead Parish Registers a later date, the last which is the following:- 1734, May 26th, Anne Axtel, almshouse woman was buried.

Watford Observer 01 October 1904 page 10 col 3
[four hampers to be delivered to]… mission work, which considerable interest is taken in town, and the other for local initiatives such the Workhouse and the Almshouses.

Watford Observer 26 November 1904 page 9
[Previous Berkhamstead resident’s reminiscences]. I remember the picturesque High Street well. The John Sayer Almshouses, Lane’s old hostelry (King’s Arms), the pretty old “Manor House,” I think was called, with its diamond-paned bow-windows … I wonder if the old Royal Oak next to the almshouses still stands.

Herts Advertiser 24 February 1906 page 2 col 4
THE CHARITIES. Schemes are proposed to the Charity Commissioners for the amalgamation of the various ecclesiastical and the non-ecclesiastical charities of Berkhamstead, with a view to the provision of a number of annuities or pensions of 5s per week to approved objects – people not In the receipt of parochial relief. The ecclesiastical ecclesiastical charities include Sayers’  (Almshouses, etc).

Watford Observer 11 January 1908 page 7 col 1
Talk about old age pensions. .. revision of our methods of administering poor law relief, and amongst others things he advocated the establishment of cottage almshouses (or the friendless aged poor. The impossibility of freeing history of applicants over number years, …

Watford Observer 03 October 1908 page 8 col 1
At a meeting of the Charity Trustees, in the Committee Room, Town Hall, on Monday evening. Mrs. Cheney, of Cross Oak Road, was elected the vacant almshouse. The Rev. H. C. Curtis presided.

.Watford Observer 18 September 1909 page 8 col 2
Its almshouses were built in 1684. Cowper was born here.

This page was added on 25/10/2020.

Add your comment about this page

Your email address will not be published.

Start the ball rolling by posting a comment on this page!