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Explore England's Past


The Great or Warwick Almshouses founded 1455-6 in Burford, Oxfordshire

The medieval Church imposed a duty of almsgiving on both religious houses and parish clergy. How far the latter fulfilled the obligation is generally difficult to know, although periodic doles of food and clothing to the poor were certainly made from gates of the wealthier religious houses, and sometimes from those of great private houses as well, particularly at times like Christmas and Easter.

Medieval hospitals, found on the fringes of many larger towns and sometimes in rural areas as well, provided limited care and lodging for the sick and destitute. Many were religious institutions run by the order of Hospitallers, which was originally set up to provide lodging for pilgrims and crusaders journeying to the Holy Land. Others, particularly in larger towns and cities, were established by guilds or livery companies and sometimes by philanthropic individuals. St Leonard's Hospital at York housed 229 inmates in 1280, and part of the infirmary hall, with its vaulted undercroft and first-floor chapel, still survives. Browne's Hospital at Stamford was founded by a wealthy 15th-century merchant, and medieval almshouses such the Warwick Almshouses at Burford were similarly set up and endowed by philanthropic lords or townspeople. At Henley-on-Thames, the town guild helped run an almshouse in the late 15th century.

With the Reformation, the charitable network based on religious houses was swept away, along with most hospitals and some almshouses. The Elizabethan Poor Law (initiated by Acts of 1597 and 1601) was in part a recognition that a new system was needed to cope with vagrancy and destitution, and introduced the system whereby parish overseers raised rates to deal with poor relief within their own parish. With modifications, that remained the basis of most local poor relief until 1834, when the New Poor Law introduced poor-law Unions and Union workhouses.

Alongside this, however, private charitable giving for the poor continued, particularly at parish level. Endowed charities, whereby a donor gave or bequeathed property to the parish authorities in order to provide a fixed annual income, were common by the later Middle Ages, and during the 16th and 17th centuries they became universal, whether in towns or villages. Most were established by the donor's will, which usually specified the use to which the money was to be put. Doles of bread or clothing were particularly popular, but gifts of money, fuel, or other types of food were also common. Some bequests targeted particular recipients, such as widows, the infirm, or representatives of a particular trade or craft.

The earliest bequests were usually to the churchwardens or rector, but by the 17th century charitable property was also vested in overseers, and sometimes in other town or village officers. Numerous similar bequests established educational charities, the income used in support of a parish school or schoolmaster. By the 18th century some parishes had large numbers of such charities, which were commonly listed on painted boards in the church.

The amount raised could be quite substantial, and the administration of such charities placed a major burden on the churchwardens or other officers. Even so, by the late 18th century the costs of poor relief were rising sharply, and increasingly parish charities contributed only a small and shrinking proportion, the rest coming primarily from poor rates. Perhaps partly for that reason the number of new endowed charities tended to fall off from the 18th century, although new bequests continued to be made into the 19th and sometimes into the 20th, often in support of coal or clothing charities.

During the early 19th century there were several government enquiries into parish charities, which from 1853 were ever more closely regulated by the newly formed Charity Commission. From the late 19th century charities were regularly reorganised through Charity Commission Schemes, which overhauled their administration and often modified the uses to which they were to be put, bringing them more in line with modern needs. Nonetheless the majority of the charities established since the 16th and 17th centuries remain under parish control, and in their current guise can be found on the Charity Commission's website.

Theme Items

In 1696 the Bristol Society of Merchant Venturers built their almshouses here for sick and elderly sailors, and the building still survives.

Almshouses were built to cater for the "respectable poor" from early in the 1700s. For the desperate, there was the workhouse.

The Hook family came to Snodland in 1854 as the new owners of the paper mill.

The Great or Warwick Almshouses, founded 1455-6. (Photo by Mike Hesketh-Roberts, English Heritage)

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