Almshouses are buildings which provide residential accommodation for elderly or frail people. They were established at a time when there was no alternative welfare provision. The earliest almshouses were built by medieval monasteries as buildings from which alms and hospitality could be dispensed. At this time they were also known as hospitals or maison dieu (house of God). The first recorded almshouses were founded in York by King Athelstan in the 10th century.
By the early 14th century the endowment of almshouses had become a popular form of charitable bequest by rich benefactors, for example kings and queens, aristocrats, bishops and merchants. Many of the benefactors were women. They set out their wishes in a deed, which detailed the eligibility criteria for their almshouses. Entry requirements often stipulated that residents should have lived in a specified place and be of a particular gender, marital status, occupational background, religious denomination or minimum age at admission.
The almhouses, which were sometimes known as bede-houses (bede was the Middle English word for prayer), sometimes included a chapel and the residents were often required to attend regular services to pray for the soul of the benefactor. The residents had to abide by rules and were supervised by a master, chaplain, lecturer, reader, matron or mother. Some almshouses catered for the terminally ill. Sometimes nursing care was provided by fellow residents if they were well enough to do so.
Many almshouses are comprised of a range of houses around a courtyard. This arrangement provided residents with a sense of safety and security. The more generous benefactors established funds to pay for fuel for heating, lighting and cooking; clothing (sometimes a uniform) and food and drink.
Many of the monastic almshouses disappeared at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII (1536-40). However after the Reformation, almshouses continued to be established in many towns and villages. Many almshouses still survive from the 17th and 18th centuries and many more were established in the 19th century. There are currently about 1,700 almshouse charities in the UK, which together provide homes for around 35,000 people. Over 30% occupy listed buildings, many of which are architecturally distinctive.
The historic county of Somerset contains a large number of surviving almshouses. However they are thinner on the ground in North Somerset. There are almshouses in Long Ashton, Churchill, Langford and Yatton.
These almshouses were constructed in 1887 at the expense of Sidney Hill of Langford House.
These almshouses were also paid for by Sidney Hill of Langford House. They were built in 1907 in the Arts and Crafts vernacular style. The plan is a U-shape.
Lady Smyth’s Almhouses, Long Ashton Road, Long Ashton
This row of 8 almshouses was built in 1902 at the expense of Lady Emily Smyth, who lived at Ashton Court.
Lady Florence Stalling, who died in 1621, left money for these almshouses
Almshouses: Anna Hallett. Shire, 2004
Almshouses: Brian Bailey. Robert Hale, 1988