Skip to main content area
 
Left Navigation
Main Content Area

Almshouses

As we have seen, poor relief was the responsibility of the parishes and the appointed overseer of the poor. However, some people needed more care than this system could provide for. In the past, monks, nuns and friars often cared for those most in need. After the dissolution of the monasteries, however, it was necessary to find an alternative way of looking after the most needy members of the population.

Almshouses and "hospitals" were founded in an attempt to contain the problem of poverty. During this period a hospital was the name for an institution which cared for the poor and elderly, rather than ill people.

Rich people often left money in their wills for the construction and maintenance of almshouses. One town in particular, Ross-on-Wye, seems to have been generously supplied with almshouses. Does this mean that there were more destitute people here than in the other market towns of the county, or perhaps that people were more generous here than elsewhere? Was it merely considered fashionable to leave money for these purposes?

In the 17th century, for example, Philip Markye gave an almshouse in Edde Cross Street for the "use of the poor of Ross." This particular almshouse had become so dilapidated that it was taken down in 1961. However, the Tudor-fronted Rudhall almshouses in Church Street were renovated and are still inhabited. Sometimes even people who were not wealthy left money for the upkeep of almshouses. An Alice Spencer, servant at Rudhall, for example, left money to the Rudhall almshouses in 1677. Thomas Webb, a successful carpenter, endowed Ross with an almshouse in Copse Cross Street in 1612.

Twenty-three almshouses are listed on the Herefordshire Sites and Monuments Record database. Many of these attractive buildings can still be seen today and are often still used as accommodation. The Coningsby Hospital in Widemarsh Street, Hereford, was founded in 1614 by Sir Thomas Coningsby and is still in use today. Part of the site houses the St John Medieval Museum which has an interesting display explaining the history of these almshouses. The servitors (the men who lived here) wore special red coats and followed special rules. In fact, it is said that Nell Gwynne influenced the design of the Chelsea Pensioners' Hospital in London (built in 1682) after seeing the red-coated servitors in Hereford.

It must be kept in mind that almshouses, however useful, provided help for only a tiny number of those in need. The Coningsby Hospital, for example, housed only eleven men and a chaplain, and Webb's almshouses in Ross-on-Wye provided for only seven people.

Widespread poverty remained a problem in Herefordshire. What had started with the closing of the woollen mills by Henry VIII and had been compounded by the end of the pilgrimage trade due to the Reformation, was completed with the devastation brought about to the county by the Civil War. The poor condition of the roads as well as the lack of mineral resources held back the development in trade and manufacturing. As a result, Herefordshire became an economic back water and was unable to provide employment for the growing number of inhabitants.

[Original author: Toria Forsyth-Moser, 2003]