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Almshouses - a model for future living?

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Anne Diamond | 13:34 UK time, Wednesday, 1 December 2010

castle rising women, old ladies with pointy hats

Just look at these wonderful ladies. They might look like a coven of witches, but they are in fact a little tea party of the Ladies of the Almshouses at Castle Rising, in Norfolk. At first, the whole concept might strike you as a nonsense anachronism, that there are still spinster women who live in so-called "poor houses" at all, but after hearing the history of the Almshouse movement today, I reckon it holds a lesson for us all.

For instance, these ladies are cared for because of the bequest of Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton in 1614. He saw a need - for the impoverished lady spinsters of the parish - and did something about it, by building Trinity Hospital, or Bede House as it is also known.

He specified that the deserving women should attend church regularly, be able to read, be unmarried, aged at least 56, "no scold, no harlot, no drunkard, no haunter of tavern, inn, or alehouse" and should wear a special uniform of a long cloak and a pointed hat. This, they still wear on special occasions!

And they are not the only ones to enjoy such long, ancient and well-meaning traditions. Throughout the UK, there are thousands of old and new almshouses, provided by charities whose sole purpose is to provide affordable housing to those who need it, and to make NO PROFIT from it.

I accentuate that, because, the no profit model is what seems to work. Using money often donated many centuries ago, good houses (and some beautiful examples at that) can be built, occupied, maintained and any excess ploughed back into the charity for future use.

Apparently many a Prime Minister, politician and housing minister has visited the Almshouse Association, which is based in Wokingham, and asked "why can't we do that?".

As I was told by Trevor Hargreaves, Deputy Director of the National Association of Almshouses, "it's a model that works, and has worked for centuries. But what works is the fact that the model is not constructed to make a profit, just to continue its work into the future."


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