What are almshouses?

Coat of armsAlmshouses are charitable housing provided to enable people (typically elderly people who can no longer work to earn enough to pay rent) to live in a particular community. They are often targeted at the poor of a locality, at those from certain forms of previous employment, or their widows, and are generally maintained by a charity or the trustees of a bequest. They tend to be characterised by the aim of supporting the continued independence of their residents.

Many almshouses are Christian institutions though some are secular. They trace their history back to monastic times where the terms bedehouse, hospital, maison dieu, almshouse and others described the provision of accommodation for those in need. The first recorded Almshouse was founded by King Athelstan in York in the 10th Century, and the oldest still in existence is thought to be the Hospital of St. Oswald in Worcester that dates from circa 990. By the middle of 1500s, there were about 800 mediaeval hospitals spread across the country but following the dissolution of the monasteries, only a handful remained, and these were re-founded on secular lines, and rebuilt in the new domestic collegiate style. Thus, many almshouses are typified by the traditional three sided square that provide a sense of safety and security without isolating residents from the outside world.

Of the 1,700 groups of almshouse charities today, over 30% occupy listed buildings and many have celebrated anniversaries of over 400 years. Another feature of this rich heritage is that many almshouses lie in the heart of towns and villages, ensuring that they remain closely integrated in the local community, with the added benefit of ensuring residents are close to shops and services.

There is an important delineation between almshouses and other forms of sheltered housing in that almshouse residents are beneficiaries, rather than tenants, of the charity. As such, they reside in the accommodation under a licence to occupy.

The recognised definition of an almshouse is set out in the website of the Almshouse Association.

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