Hitchin. John and Ralph Skynner
The histories of the two separate foundations by brothers John and Ralph Skynner are so interlinked that they have been combined for this article. Unmistakeably almshouses in the traditional style, they form a single storey terrace at the northern end of Bancroft.
For many 1666 will evoke the plague and the great Fire of London. But it was not that long after the Civil War, the Protectorate and the restoration of the monarchy (in 1658) with all the social and political upheaval. Land enclosure was ongoing. All this led to an increase in poverty as people lost their land holdings and sought other work in the towns.
1666 was also the year in which John Skynner bequeathed funds to build an almshouse for 8 people. The site was originally to be an orchard next to the churchyard (presumably St Mary’s). That would have put Skinner’s, The Biggin, Warner’s and later Simpson’s almshouses close together – not far short of an almshouse enclave. But in 1670 his son-in-law, Sir Thomas Byde, provided a better site in Benns Mead to the north of the town, and used the profits from the orchard to support the almshouses. Hence they would have been built by around 1670-1. John’s brother, Ralph, gave £82 to pay for more land in Benns Mead in 1675.
Ralph wrote his will in 1696. He left money to buy land for the benefit of the ministers as well as establishing his own almshouses next to his brother’s. His will provides that ‘I give eight hundred pounds for the building of eight almshouses for poor or impotent people of Hitchin aforesaid to be built near the almshouses of my brother Skinner’s gift my executors paying to the full for the ground whereupon they shall be built and I give four hundred pounds more for the purchasing of lands (not houses) for a revenue for my said almshouses and I devise and appoint that all the said lands so to be purchased for the several purposes aforesaid shall be settled upon Sir Ralph Radcliffe Knight Edward Radcliffe Esq Ralph Skynner [..] Byde Esq and John his son John Papworth Gent and Thomas his son Edward Draper and John his son George Draper Gent and John his son Edward Draper and John his son and Joseph King authorising upon trust and confidence that they and the survivors and survivor and the heirs of the survivor of them shall distribute the rents and profits of the lands and tenements so to be purchased as aforesaid to the minister and ministers for the time being and to the poor of Hitchin aforesaid respectively for ever according to the meaning of this my will and providing always that this shall be bought done and settled within two years next after my decease or else I give the one thousand pounds aforesaid to the said Ralph Skinner alias Byde’ [for apprentices and charities]. Note the stipulation that the almshouses were to be built within 2 years. Ralph died in 1697; the almshouses were built the following year. Note the interesting detail that land, not houses, were to be purchased. Maybe that was because land purchase allowed for more choice of future use.
The two entrances to the almshouses still bear details of their foundation, though the one for John’s, to the south, is hard to read. The almshouses are separated by an arch.
Ralph’s almshouses were endowed with 39 acres of land in Kelshall producing £27 15s. a year. In 1794 John Pierson bequeathed £100. In 1795 Joseph Margetts Pierson by deed gave £100 consols, the dividends to be applied in repairs. The official trustees also held £50 consols.
The benefits listed below were applied to both almshouses.
1743 Sarah Skynner Byde by deed conveyed to trustees 6 a. 2 r. in Hill Grove Field. The land was let to provide income.
1755 John Whitehurst by deed gave land at Hexton, the rents to be divided between the inmates of J. and R. Skynner’s Almshouses and the Girls’ Charity School. The land was later sold and the proceeds invested, of which half belongs to the Girls’ Charity School.
1768 Richard Tristram by deed gave land in Ippollitts. The land was sold in 1904 and the proceeds invested.
1788 Hannah Wilson by will bequeathed £100, applied for the benefit of the almshouses of J. and R. Skynner.
1794 John Davis bequeathed £300 for the augmentation of the almshouses.
1802 Dame Penelope Farnaby Radcliffe bequeathed £200 for poor widows.
1824 Elizabeth Whittingstall by will bequeathed £1,000 stock, to be equally divided between John Skynner’s, Ralph Skynner’s, and Daniel Warner’s almshouses.
Most or all of the above bequests have been converted to consolidated stocks as a source of income.
Each almshouse group had 8 dwellings, each consisting of a room plus an outbuilding. At 2017 there was a wide paved area between the front wall and the dwellings. To the rear was a grassed area, with the outbuildings beyond. The exterior shows where doors have been filled in to combine dwellings. That means the almshouses have been substantially altered, as noted in the Historic England citation. The Charity’s annual accounts add the information that they can only be used as almshouses because of their listing status. A further point of interest is that the listing is for the entrance court wall and the gateways, though the almshouses are mentioned. Books about Hitchin say little about the almshouses. Indeed, there are more references to the bridewell (lockup) built next door, using the almshouses more as a reference point for location.
An 1867 newspaper entry shows that married couples were accommodated as well as single people. Nowadays the provision is for fewer residents who have more space.There are a few references in newspapers, of a similar nature to other almshouses. They are listed in the references below.
Nowadays the Skinners’ almshouses are under the auspices of Hitchin United Charities. They function under a scheme dating for 1963. Residents pay an occupation charge. The Hitchin United Charity is affiliated with the Almshouse Association. The listing reference for Historic England is 1173005.
John Skinner 63-83 (odd nos) Bancroft, Hitchin SG5 1NJ
Georef: 518570 229558
Grid ref: 51o 57′ 07″N 0o 16′ 34″W
Ralph Skinner 68-88 (even nos) Bancroft, Hitchin SG5 1NJ
Georef: 518584 229602
Grid ref: 51o 57′ 09″N 00 16 33″W
OS 25” map Hertfordshire XII.1 1923
The History & Antiquities of the County of Hertford, by R Clutterbuck
Vol 3 p 50 – 52
London 1827 Printed by and for John Bowyer Nichols, 25 Parliament Street, London
History of Hertfordshire, by J E Cussans
pp 83 – 84
Originally published Stephen Austin & Sons 1870-81
Republished E P Publishing in collaboration with Hertfordshire County Library 1972
The History of Hitchin by R L Hine
Vol 1 pp 247 and 257
1927 rep 1972 ISBN 0 9502391 0 0
The Victoria County History of the County of Hertford, ed William Page
Vol 3 p19
Issued Archibald Constable & Co. 1912. Reprint by Dawsons of Pall Mall 1971 ISBN 0 7129 0477 8
This publication is available online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/herts/vol3/pp12-21
Documents held at HALS
7HR243 copy will for Ralph Skinner
DE/Bg/3/58 is Buckler’s drawing of the almshouses, dated 1831
DE/Gr/46/1/13 (nd [1895 – 1915])
The William Blyth Gerish Collection
Hitchin Charities; (lists of various Charities including Ralph Skynner’s Almshouses
A copy of the Charity Commission Draft 1906 for Hitchin
DE/Gr/47/1/20 nd [1895 – 1915]
Hitchin Prints, including various pictures also the almshouses
DE/Ha/B2055 1 May 1796
Hawkins Family: title deeds of property in the Hitchin area
John Skynner’s almshouses, a close called Benns Mead and adjoining garden, and Ralph Skynner’s almshouses, all in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, c31a of land in Kelshall, Hertfordshire, and c2a of land in Ippollitts, Hertfordshire, by the trustees of Joseph Kemp’s, John Skynner’s and Ralph Skynner’s Charities to John Dimsdale of Hitchin, Hertfordshire, surgeon
DE/Ha/B2058 Jul 1852
Hawkins Family: title deeds of property in the Hitchin and Royston area
Draft conveyances from old to new trustees of the estates belonging to various charities in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. The estates were those of the Biggin, Skinner’s Almshouses, the Girls’ School, Whitehurst’s Charity, Warner’s Almshouse, Chamber’s Charity, and Turner’s Charity
Websites accessed Dec 2022
Newspapers can be viewed on-line on the British Newspaper Archive website
Hertford Mercury 28 February1852 page 2 col 3 Eight Almshouses, founded by the will of John Skynner, bearing date 1666, and vested in 22 trustees, all inhabitants of the town, with an endowment of £72 2s 1d which is directed to be distributed yearly by the churchwardens and overseers of the poor, with some of the trustees aforesaid.
Hertfordshire Express 04 May 1867 page 3 col 4 Ralph Skynner’s Almshouses. Warboys and his wife were elected to the almshouse and benefits vacant by the death of widow Goldthorpe.
Hertford Mercury 24 April 1886 page c6 col 6. An old lady named Mary Willey, seventy years of age, the occupant of one of the Skinners Almshouses, has been burnt to death through the upsetting of a spirit lamp.
Herts Advertiser 29 October 1892 page 2 col 7An old . man named Street formerly in the employment of the Local Board and now living in one the Bancroft Almshouses, met with serious mishap Thursday evening. He was moving about with lighted candle when the handkerchief about his neck caught fire, and though a passer-by, seeing what happened, ran in and put out the flames, Street was considerably burnt on the neck and chest. He was afterwards removed to the Workhouse infirmary.
Herts & Cambs Reporter 04 May 1900 page 5 col 4. William Spicer, an inmate of Skynner’s almshouses, who was about 80 years of age, was found dead in his bed on Tuesday morning. As he had been in feeble health for some time an inquest was not considered necessary.