Christ's Hospital Ruthin
Before the creation of the Welfare State in the twentieth century the care of sick and impoverished individuals depended principally on relatives and friends, except where the mediaeval Catholic Church and its lay associations had established ‘hospitals’ or ’bede houses’ ‘to minister to the sick, bury the dead, relieve the poor and give shelter to travellers. Some 800 such almshouses existed at the time of the Dissolution of the monasteries and kindred charitable institutions in 1540, when their properties and wealth were seized by Henry VIII to enrich the Crown and its principal supporters. Those not seized fell into disuse.
The Christian duty to aid the poor was officially recognised under Elizabeth I’s ‘Poor Law’ of 1601, whereby individual parishes were instructed to charge a ‘poor rate’, imposed on better-off parishioners, to be spent on ‘poor relief’. This took the form of ‘outdoor relief’, small weekly payments given to the needy in their own homes. These were supplemented by gifts of fuel and food at Christmas-time.
Individual parishes might also own a few properties, either to rent out, to support parish relief, or to house the very poor. Both were called 'poor hoses'. though some of the latter might be called 'almshouses', as in Cyffylliog and Llandyrnog.
At the same time, a number of wealthy local landowners (often enriched from the sale of monastic lands) and senior churchmen began to establish their own ‘hospitals’ or ‘almshouses’ for the poor of their locality. Hence the title of the presentation – “Houses of Noble Poverty” (borrowed from the title of Brian Howson’s book, which provides a history of almshouses in England).
Control of the almshouses, initially, remained with the benefactors or their close relatives, but subsequently boards of trustees, drawn from respectable members of the local communities, took over the management on an honorary basis. Some trusts paid for male or female wardens to keep an eye on the residents.
It was customarily to provide an ear-marked annual endowment to cover the costs of the upkeep of residents and the buildings, usually tithes or rents on properties. However, over time these proved inadequate in several instances.
DENBIGHSHIRE ALMSHOUSES AND YEAR FOUNDED
I have identified some 25 of these in North Wales, with 13 located in Denbighshire. These are listed below, together with the names of their benefactors and the years of their foundation. Three of these (in adjacent parishes) were in Ruthin.
RUTHIN (1590) Dr. Gabriel Goodman, Dean of Westminster Abbey
LLANRWST (1610) John Wynn of Gwydir
ST. ASAPH (1680) Isaac Barrow, Bishop of St. Asaph
LLANFWROG, RUTHIN (1690/1704) Lady Jane Bagot (nee Salesbury), Pool Park and Blithfield, Staffordshire
CERRIG-Y-DRUDION (1717) Baron Robert Prys/Price, Giler
GRESFORD (1725) Built through public subscriptions. Dr. Robert Wynne, Rector of Gresford and Chancellor of St. Asaph Diocese responsible for the work.
LLANRHAEADR (1729) Jane Jones, widow, of Llanrhaeadr Hall (daughter of Lady Jane Bagot)
CORWEN Coleg y Groes (1750) William Eyton Esq., Plas Warren, Shropshire
HENLLAN (1814) Vaughan family
LLANFAIR D.C. (1831?) Ann and Elizabeth Owen, Fachlwyd Hall, Cyffylliog
LLANRHYDD, RUTHIN (1832) Joseph Ablett, Llanbedr Hall
YSBYTTY IFAN (1189/18th Century) Knights Hospitalers of St. John, Sian Vaughan
ABERGELE (1922/1960s) Winifred Bamford Hesketh, Gwrych Castle, Countess Dundonald
Most of these were established from the late 17th century to the 19th century. At least six of the benefactors were women and three were senior Anglican clerics. All were devout members of the Church of England. Christian piety undoubtedly featured highly among their motivations, but some might also have been motivated by more than Christian compassion for the poor. Other reasons may have been the enhancement of their reputation in their communities (suggested by commemorative stone tablets, some with family coats of arms, over the doorways of several almshouses) or even the improving of their prospects in the after-life through their good works in this life.
WHAT WERE ALMSHOUSES LIKE?
Almshouses were constructed mainly in stone, with slate roofs, in the form of single-storied terraces, save for those in Llanfair D.C., with from three to twelve individual homes. Approximately 140 persons lived in the 13 almshouses trusts. Often they were near to local parish churches and their graveyards; the latter an unwelcome reminder to the old and frail inhabitants! Space was restricted, two rooms – living room-kitchen and a bedroom; no different from the less-satisfactory dwellings where they would previously have lived. Like most houses in this period, water came from wells and toilets were located at the bottom of the gardens. Residents were encouraged to grow fruit and vegetables and keep chickens or even pigs, for their own consumption, in their gardens. The majority of the houses were attractive in appearance, but prone to dampness and deterioration over time.
WHO LIVED IN THESE ALMSHOUSES?
The Christian compassion of the almshouses founders was tempered by stringent requirements on the part of the applicants for a place.
Almspersons had to be single or widowed. All had to live within the parish or at least in neighbouring ones. In many cases most had to be men, though some were mixed and some for women only. They had to be old, 50 years was normal, bearing in mind we are talking about past centuries when life expectancy was much shorter.
They usually had to be members of the Church of England and in regular attendance at Sunday worship. Elizabeth Owen (Llanfair DC almshouses) stipulated that residents had to be members of Llanfair DC church. Robert Price of Giler (Cerrig y Drudion almshouses), not only restricted residents to ex-employees of his estate, but obliged them to attend Sunday worship on pain of being docked their weekly allowance. The same religious restriction applied at the Abergele almshouses. Finally, they had to be not only demonstrably poor, but deserving poor. In all cases almshouse residents had to be clean-living – no heavy drinking, no record of idleness or crime and no swearing or other anti-social behaviour.
In return for meeting these stringent conditions, the residents not only had free housing, but were given a weekly allowance, which varied between almshouse trusts, and biennial supplies of clothing – normally a full-length coat and stockings for men and a dress, shawl and stockings for women and shoes for all. In some places free fuel was provided throughout the year; elsewhere it was restricted to Christmas-time. Equally important, they were spared a pauper’s funeral and grave.
ABERGELE Winifred Bamford Almshouses. Ten purpose-built one-bedroom houses in two terraces, together with a warden’s bungalow. Bamford Hesketh, Countess of Dundonald, was the owner of Gwrych Castle, among other properties. Deeply religious and a notable benefactress, her concern for local ‘poor people who were also members of the Anglican Church or the Church in Wales’ led her to providing for a plot of land and £5,000 in Abergele in her will (d1924), with the intention of building and maintaining six almshouses in Abergele. Lengthy procedures and rising cost of land delayed construction until early 1960s. The other four almshouses came from the bequest of Dr. Isaac Barrow. (see below)
CERRIG Y DRUDION Erected in 1717, by the will of Robert Price (Prys) of Giler (Geeler), the largest estate in the area. Graduated in law from Cambridge and subsequently served as Chief Baron of the Exchequer, High Court Judge and MP for a Herefordshire constituency, Foxley, where he settled for the rest of his life. Price never forgot his ancestral area, nor his mother tongue as it was unusual to inscribe the memorial panels on the front of the almshouses in Welsh. These comprised, initially two-room houses for six poor men (‘chwech Wyr tlodion’), in the customary terrace layout. The endowment of some 22 acres of land in Denbigh and Henllan parishes provided an income of £97.10.0 in 1849, which allowed for three additional almsmen. His wife and son were sole Trustees initially. Unusually, the Cerrig almsmen also had the right to vote for some years (as was the case with the male residents of the three Ruthin almshouses). The properties were extended and modernised in subsequent centuries and reduced to 3 houses.
Cerrig-y-Drudion Almshouses today
Cerrig-y-Drudion Almshouses residents c1875
Detail of restored memorial plaque
Close-up of coat Badges
"HOUSES OF NOBLE POVERTY” THE ALMSHOUSES OF DENBIGHSHIRE
Arnold Hughes October 2022
GRESFORD Almshouses. A plaque above the door stated 'Hospitium Invalidorium Parochianorum, 1725'. Unlike the other almshouses, these were erected following a public appeal by the Rector, Dr. Robert Wynne, which raised over £70 to erect a terrace of three houses. Wynne supervised their construction and church officers administered the trust. No endowments meant a further £75 had to be raised by public subscription to 'thoroughly' repair them in 1854. The houses are no longer almshouses. A 1952 photograph was captioned 'Church House'; most of the buildings are now used by the local church.
HENLLAN, near Denbigh. Located on Denbigh Street and known as ‘Bronllan Almshouses’. They were erected in 1814 by the Vaughan family, but the unspecified number of almshouses was administered by two trustees each from Bylchau and Trefnant parish councils and Denbigh Town Council. Nearly closed down in 1909 because of their dilapidated condition, five of the original houses were modernised in 1968, paid for with a loan from Denbigh Town Council. These and the Almshouses Trust that manages them remain today.
LLANFAIR DC ELIZABETH OWEN TERRACE. Endowed by Anna and then Elizabeth Owen of Fachlwyd Hall, Cyffylliog. Elizabeth Owen Terrace consisted of nine cottages and a bakery. Built probably around 1831. Ownership given to Llanfair DC Church in 1886, together with £300 to provide an annuity to meet running costs. Reduced to 8 houses subsequently. Facing financial problems, the Knights of Malta Housing Trust took it over in the early 1990s (commemorated by a plaque on the front wall, which states ‘The Order of Malta Home Trust Elizabeth Owen Terrace’ with Maltese crosses on either side), before in turn being run by the housing charity Grwp Cynefin (a merger of Tai Clwyd and Tai Eryri in 2014). When they too could not finance costly improvements the houses were vacated some two years ago and the local community council is still trying to decide on their future use in April 2022. Grade 2* listed.
Former Llanfair DC Almshouses
LLANFAIRTALHAEARN ALMSHOUSES No details available, save that the ‘Charity Houses’ were sold in 1898, according to a review of Denbighshire Charities by the County Council in 1971.
LLANFWROG HOSPITAL Founded in 1695 with a legacy from Lady Jane Bagot (nee Salesbury), of Pool Park and Blithfield Hall, Staffordshire, but it was only in 1708 that the houses were built. The almshouses were funded from the rents from three farms and a cottage. They were neglected over the next hundred years and a proper Board of Trustees, set up under Charity Commission supervision, established in 1852 (hence the date on the name board today).
The will made provision for 4 poor men and 6 poor women, all single or widowed, in 10 houses in the form of a single storey terrace. Each house consisted of two rooms – living room/bedroom and a tiny kitchen. Only residents of Llanfwrog and neighbouring parishes (Ruthin and Llanrhaeadr today) could apply and all had to be of good character; they could be removed at any time for immorality, drunkenness or quarrelsome behaviour. Neither could they not be away for more than one day without permission and could not let or permit strangers to occupy their homes. These rules were displayed on a board in one of the porches, which has been preserved in the current building.
Former Llanfwrog Almshouses
Llanfwrog Almshouses today
Llanfwrog Almshouses residents, 1947
The trustees paid each resident 12/- a month and every second year each man was given a coat, hat and a pair of shoes and stockings; and each woman a gown, hat and a pair of shoes and stockings. At Christmas each resident received coal worth £1.
A matron received not more than £4 a year. The weekly amount was increased by 1/- in 1889!
The houses became increasingly run-down; particularly regarding sanitation and damp, and electricity was only provided in 1950. The charity rules were changed in 1962 when rent of 10/- a week replaced the previous free accommodation.
Continuing deterioration of the houses led to their sale to a private owner and four modern flats erected in summer 1999 on the site of Hafod farm on Mwrog Street. Two more flats and a meeting room were subsequently added. Residents pay a maintenance charge in lieu of rent, which is lower than alternative public housing. Age and residence requirements remain and income is also considered.
LLANRHAEADR Erected in 1729 by Mrs. Jane Jones, widow of the owner of Llanrhaeadr Hall Estate, Maurice Jones. Daughter of Jane Bagot of Pool Park, who had earlier endowed Llanfwrog Almshouses. Provision for 8 widows. Each also had a garden and a weekly allowance of 2/- a week. A later source stated £20 per annum. Three commemorative plaques on the front gables record the original bequest; their restoration by her great-great-nephew, the second Lord Bagot in 1820 and the further upgrading of the houses with financial assistance from ‘a member of the Bagot family and the local authorities’. Grade 2* listed.
Llanrhaeadr Almshouses today
LLANRHYDD Twelve almshouses endowed by local landowner and philanthropist, Joseph Ablett of Llanbedr Hall. Erected in 1832. This occasion was recorded on a stone tablet above the central almshouse, stating ‘The gift of Mr. And Mrs. Joseph Ablett, Llanbedr Hall, for the poor equally of Llanbedr, Llanfair and Llanrhydd.’ Men or women could apply. The financial problems of the Jesse family (who inherited the estate) led to neglect of the properties and the eventual sale of the estate. Of the 12 almshouses only 2 were occupied by 1917, the others having been declared unfit for human occupation. Lengthy and fruitless discussions from 1880s to 1919 to sell the decrepit houses, either to Ruthin Town Council (for ex-servicemen) or the adjacent Ruthin Union Workhouse, led nowhere and when the Llanbedr Estate was sold in 1919 they were effectively abandoned. Post-war OS maps showed them as unoccupied, until that of 1970 showed a new building on the site, described as ‘County Offices’, possibly Social Services, which would also take over the neighbouring former Workhouse. Later the buildings became part of Rhos Street Primary School, but were demolished within the last twelve months as part of the development of the Schools’ site. All that remains is the ruined entrance gate on Llanrhydd Street.
Llanrhydd Almshouses residents, c1875
Ruins of Llanrhydd Almshouses entrance gate
LLANRWST The almshouses were established in 1610 by Sir John Wynn of Gwydir, the leading landowner in the Llanrwst area. But a Court judgement of 1678 attributed the endowment to a rich Court jeweller, John Williams, also from the Llanrwst area. They provided for 12 poor men, from each parish in the district. These wore cloaks bearing the Wynn family emblem. Sometime in the nineteenth century women were also eligible to live there. Closed in 1976, but restored with Heritage Lottery funding to serve as a local museum and community hub, but closed once more. Still a handsome range of cottages on the approach to St. Grwst Church. Grade II* listing.
Former Llanrwst Almshouses
Former Llanrwst Almshouses entrance arch today
RUTHIN CHRIST’S HOSPITAL, next to St. Peter’s Church, is probably the most familiar to local people. Part of Ruthin Charities, it was founded in 1590 by Dr. Gabriel Goodman, Dean of Westminster Abbey, who was born in Ruthin, though never returned there. The endowment provided for a warden and homes for poor people - ’10 brothers and 2 sisters’, unmarried and aged over 50. The almshouses were maintained from the tithes of Ruthin and Llanrhydd. Later, other local benefactors paid for a cottage and garden near the churchyard. A dairy provided a milk supply and the residents received a regular supply of fuel and grants for clothing. The two women were expected to do the laundry and look after the sick at the Hospital. Further endowments came from Goodman’s nephew, a Bishop of Gloucester - rental income from many houses erected in the slate-quarrying village of Llanberis. Restoration took place in 1865, while still maintaining the character of the original houses. At the same time a new management scheme was introduced to fix the stipend of the warden and to provide 6/- a week for the almspersons. Further restoration took place in 1999 and 12 further houses erected behind the original ones – Church Walks.
ST. ASAPH BARROW ALMSHOUSES. Named after Dr. Isaac Barrow, Bishop St. Asaph. who, on his death in1680, left £12 to provide almshouses ‘for poor women aged no less that 50 and resident in the Ancient Parish of St. Asaph.’ His successor, Bishop William Lloyd, had a terrace of four 2-room cottages erected at the lower end of today’s High Street. Successful for some 250 years, by the mid-20th century the Trust was facing financial difficulties and finding it hard to find suitable applicants. The sole remaining almswoman left in December 1961. Too costly to demolish and having listed status the houses were sold in 1964 and later converted into a public house, then a craft shop and finally a bar restaurant. The money from the sale was used to provide four additional almshouses at the Abergele almshouses site and to provide financial assistance to poor women in St. Asaph and almshouses in general for poor women. The original commemorative plaque above the front door remains, together with a more recent one.
CORWEN COLEG Y GROES Established by the will of William Eyton of Plas Warren, Shropshire, 1750: a stone tablet over the central arch recorded this. Solely for 'six elderly widows of Anglican clergymen from Merionethshire', comprising six houses with two stories. The property was bought by the Rector of Corwen Church and Trustees in 1899. It was reduced to two houses in 1938 and is now a religious retreat and a holiday let. Grade II* listed.
YSBYTTY IFAN (Hospital of St. John) Original ‘hospital’ built by Knights of St. John (Knights Hospitalers) in 1189 to care for pilgrims in a remote part of North Wales astride routes from Bangor is y Coed to Bardsey and St. David’s, as well as care of aged and infirm persons. The Priory and attached hospital were destroyed in 1540, following the Dissolution of monastic orders and the present church built on the site. The new almshouses were erected with funds provided in the will of Sian Vaughan of Pant Glas and re-built in 1881 by Edward Gordon, Baron Penrhyn. Lord Penrhyn owned much of the land around Ysbyty Ifan. There were 8 residents in 1875 – 5 women and 3 men. The position of the three remaining almshouses remains unclear. One of them is now advertised as a holiday let.
Ysbytty Ifan Almshouses Residents c1875
Ysbytty Ifan Almshouses today
WHAT HAPPENED TO THESE ALMSHOUSES?
The decline of almshouses is very evident, with only 6 of the original 13 in Denbighshire still functioning today – Abergele, Cerrig y Drudion, Henllan, Llanfwrog, Llanrhaeadr and Christ’s Hospital, Ruthin. All had to make costly upgrades to their old housing stock to meet contemporary requirements; the others could not afford to. The second factor in the decline of almshouses has been their displacement by the provisions of the Welfare State after 1945. National and local government, aided more recently by public-funded housing associations, have vastly increased the availability of modern homes for the elderly as well as providing housing benefits for them, wherever they live. Consequently, almshouses are no longer free and charge their tenants rents, possibly lower than other providers.
Yet, despite these necessary and valuable changes, the Almshouses Association, representing the individual almshouses trusts, claims there are still over 30,000 almshouse homes in Britain, with some 35,000 residents. There would appear still to be a demand for living in almshouses despite their rather archaic name. Many of these are of such historical and aesthetic significant value that they cannot easily be demolished; thus creating serious problems for local communities responsible for them.