Norfolk Workhouses: Almshouses and Parish Almshouses


Early poor houses were known as ‘hospitals’. In 1250 Walter de Suffield, Bishop of Norwich, founded St Giles’ ‘Hospital’. Four chaplains were to celebrate a daily mass for his soul, support any poor infirm chaplains of the diocese and lodge thirteen poor persons giving them one meal a day. After Henry VIII closed the monastery, the hospital was re-founded by Edward VI as an almshouse for the aged poor, later known as The Great Hospital, Bishopgate (NHER 624). Alterations increased accommodation from 98 in 1800 to 181 in 1843, when the 93 men and 88 women, in dark blue uniform, were allowed 6d a week pocket money. Cottages for elderly couples were added in 1936-7 and it is still in use today (White’s Directory 1845 p.101, 134-5 and Chinery, Colin ‘Down Memory Lane’, Eastern Daily Press November 12 1999).

Parish almshouses

Some benefactors founded an almshouse for elderly couples or single persons, which might be endowed with the rents from land to maintain it and provide clothing or a weekly allowance for the occupants. The most famous one in West Norfolk is Trinity ‘Hospital’, Castle Rising (NHER 3311), founded in 1615/16 by the Earl of Northampton, who endowed it to support thirteen widows and spinsters over fifty years old, chosen by the estate owner. They had a weekly allowance and each year on Founder’s Day received 8d, an allowance of coal and a brown woolsey gown. Each seventh year they had a high-crowned black beaver hat with a livery gown of blue cloth lined with baize which had the founder’s badge on the front.

Photograph of Trinity Hospital, Castle Rising.

Trinity Hospital, Castle Rising (NHER 3311), founded by Henry, Earl of Northampton in 1615/16 for thirteen poor spinsters or widows aged 50 or over, one of whom was their governess. They received a weekly allowance, a chaldron (c.25½ cwt) of coals, a brown Woolsey gown each year and every seventh year a high crowned beaver hat, with a livery gown of fine blue cloth lined with baize, with the founder’s badge (White’s Directory 1845, p.590 and Mee, Arthur The King’s England: Norfolk p.57), over which they wore a red cloak.

View of the almshouses in East Bilney, built in 1839.

East Bilney Almshouses, founded by William Pearse in 1838, for three old people.

Almshouses were run by elected trustees and were quite distinct from the town-houses, poor-houses and workhouses provided by the parish ratepayers. At Holkham almshouses (NHER 39804) built and furnished for £2,300 in 1755 and endowed from farm rents, were occupied by three men and three women chosen from estate parishes by the owner of Holkham House (White’s Directory 1845, p.675).

Almshouses in Muspole Street, Norwich (NHER 346), bequeathed by Alice Crome in 1516, were not endowed by the founder (White’s Directory 1845, p.136) consequently they fell into disrepair and were taken over by the parish officers. Almshouses at Briston (NHER 15227) bequeathed by Mr. Berridge and Mr Tooley in 1650 are said to have been subsequently used for a time as a workhouse (Briston Town Book NRO PD 179/48), marked on Faden’s map 1797, but in 1836 it was used as rent-free houses for the poor (White’s Directory 1836 p. 584).

We are most grateful to the Norfolk Record Office (NRO) for permission to include extracts from poor law documents.

Joy Lodey, 3 August 2007.

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