Almshouses – the future of elderly care?

By - Wednesday 16th October, 2013

Rajdeep Sandhu uncovers what might be the future of care for the aged, hidden behind a local landmark…

On the corner of a busy high street sits an old unassuming building. It has stood there for the past 400 years, watching as the streets around it have changed beyond recognition. Its neighbours have turned into shiny banks, hairdressers or restaurants all parted by a rattling tram. It sits in the centre of Croydon but there are few people who know what lies beyond those encompassing walls. I have always thought it was a nunnery, imagining bare wooden rooms from the set of Sister Act. From George Street, if the doors have been left open, passers-by can see splashes of green and pink stretch through the centre of the garden. But that’s only if you are paying attention of course – blink and you’ll probably miss it on the way to get your train.

I was invited to a garden party there on the last sunny Saturday in August. In the middle of the building I was finally able to stand in that well kept and spectacular garden courtyard. Overlooking it are the residences for fifteen people. You see, this building is an almshouse. You might ask what that is – I had to google it. Almshouses have been going since the mediaeval ages, offering free or heavily subsidised accommodation for elderly residents.

Almshouses were first set up in the 10th century to provide care for elderly people who could no longer work to support themselves. Generally they were funded by rich patrons who were feeling philanthropic. This particular Almshouse was set up by John Whitgift, and is run by the Whitgift Foundation. They still use the same criteria that John Whitgift set in place when it first began: residents have to be over the age of sixty, members of the Church of England, and come from parishes in Lambeth, Croydon, or the county of Kent. The idea of free living for the elderly in today’s climate is astounding. It is not a care home, nor is it a place where care can be offered: residents have to be able to take look after themselves and can come and go as they please.

So my childhood idea that it was a nunnery was completely incorrect. It is actually a vibrant and lively old people’s home. I made my way to the annual summer party somewhat full of excitement but also with a notion that I might be able to witness something today that few people who were strolling past the building would even know was happening. The afternoon was full of all the charity classics; bric-a-brac sales, homemade jams, cakes and knitwear on sale, a great band and of course the most anticipated moment; the raffle. Raising over £1,000 over the day, the money would be used for the almshouse but it was also being donated to Small Steps for Sophie, a charity which is raising money to help Sophie who suffers from cerebral palsy.

Unbelievably little has changed in some of the rooms since it was first built. Panelled with beams of deep mahogany and still in constant use today, one room was an office and another a meeting room. On the walls were relics of history: a letter from Queen Elizabeth I, for example, complete with its seal of approval which was about the size of a saucer.  On the opposite wall is the letter that John Whitgift wrote to her with its own smaller seal.

As I sat on the bench taking pictures and failing to capture the idyllic quality of the day, Dennis Gruw struck up conversation with me. Dennis is a lifelong Croydon resident with an undying passion for music, playing the flute while his wife teaches the piano. Whilst not a resident at the Almshouse, he comes to the chapel every week. The chapel inside faces the tram, so as the masses get off at George Street to get on with relaxed Saturday many are oblivious to the fact that on the other side of the window is a modest chapel for the residents.

It crosses my mind more than once, while I am watching friends and family of residents, as everything looks picture perfect – shouldn’t this be a larger model to care for our elderly?  As well as a very old building being looked after, there is a community of people in the very centre of Croydon with easy access around town, privacy and, surprisingly, a lot of peace and quiet. Apart from the odd tram rattle it was hard to remember that we were in the middle of a bustling centre just down the road from bars and clubs.

But it isn’t all smooth sailing. During my research I stumbled across The Almshouse Residents Action Group which is rather voracious in its opposition to all almshouses. The group’s issue is that residents occupy the properties under licence and have no rights under housing law to them, and so can be evicted by the trustees.

When I spoke to the organisation they said that they set up their website because of their experiences “of untrammelled intimidation and calumniation on the part of the trustees”. However, they agreed that there were certain positives to living in an almshouse including “location, amenity, support and economy, when they are run by dutiful and empathetic trustees pursuing the aims of the historical benefactors.”

Their demand for “secure tenancies so as to bring residents within the protection of the court” seems fair enough when you see the legal grey area that residents are in. But these disputes seem to be the exception rather than the rule. No one I met at the Whitgift Almshouse had any qualms, they seemed quite content and I can see the appeal. They are free to go as they please until the time comes to move on to homes with more substantial care. It all seems rather ideal.


Rajdeep Sandhu has been a lifelong resident in New Addington, apart from when she studied journalism in central London. Now she works in book publishing and when she isn't working, can be found reading, writing or tweeting. Most of all she is excited about how New Addington will benefit from the changes in Croydon.

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  • Christian Wilcox

    There’s a lot to be said for protected communities.

    The mixed model of social housing means noisy and sometimes agro kids being put in with fragile nervous people. It does not work all the time.

    Also with elderly care ( especially with dementia ) the modern age is blocked out more and more to keep people happy. If you’re mentally frail the last thing you need is complex tech or the local kids etc etc.

  • Anne Giles

    Great article. This would not suit anyone with dementia, as they would need carers, but for elderly people who could manage looking after themselves, it would have been ideal.

  • Jamie

    The opposition group’s point is a good one but if almshouses were more widespread, perhaps some amendments could be introduced to protect residents’ rights. Improving almshouses, not opposing them altogether, would be a better way surely. It’s the kind of institution society needs more of, not less.

    In this day and age though, criteria such as having to be a member of the CofE seems anachronistic and somewhat un-Christian to be honest.