Four hundred years ago this month, Henry Biggs became the first resident to move into the Dulwich Almshouse. Centuries on, the Almshouse is still providing homes and supportive community for its residents. To celebrate its anniversary, local historian Brian Green researched and wrote The History of the Dulwich Almshouse 1616 – 2016, which was published at the beginning of September, writes Alex Yeates…
As the Bible taught the Church to help the poor, it was commonplace for religion to be the first stop for alleviating poverty. But as time passed, a small number of benefactors started to tackle the problem of the “aged poor” by providing almshouses. These provided basic accommodation, where the poor were able to live out their remaining years.
In the fifteenth century the decline of the monasteries took hold, weakening the Church’s ability to provide relief. This led to the role being taken up by wealthy laypeople who believed doing so would help them get into heaven.
Edward Alleyn, a distinguished figure in Elizabethan theatre and founder of Dulwich College, was one of many who decided to try to relieve the plight of the “indigent elderly”. Having come from a humble beginning and after he had built his Fortune Theatre in Finsbury, he lived with his wife, Joan, near Southwark Cathedral.
When he bought the Manor of Dulwich in 1605 it seemed unlikely that he would set up a charitable foundation of a school and alsmhouses to aid the poor, as he had just retired from a successful stage career and had a reputation as an established property investor. But perhaps through a “reflection on life’s inconsistencies”, he took the dramatic step in 1613 to put a Foundation into action.
Alleyn contracted John Benson of Westminster to build a College which was completed by 1616. He then assembled a staff of four fellows, a Preacher, a Schoolmaster, an Usher and an Organist. Alleyn managed the College himself, assisted by his cousins Thomas and Matthias Alleyn, for ten years. Before his death in 1626 he made instructions on how the enterprise would work without him. In his will he expressed the wish to “spread his benevolence as far as possible” and left instructions that ten almshouses were to be built in the parishes of St Botolph’s and St Saviour’s.
More than a century later the Alleyn estate in Dulwich experienced an increase in income that benefited the Foundation. Better transport links around the area meant travelling distance with the City improved.
The outbreak of the Second World War saw the Dulwich almspeople evacuated to a nursing home run by an order of Anglican nuns in Findon, Sussex. They returned to Dulwich just as the Blitz started but miraculously remained largely unscathed until 1944, when a V1 bomb caused “massive damage to the Picture Gallery, Old College and Chapel”.
After the war, the expectation of living standards soared, leading to each almshouse committee to try to find ways to improve, but with a lack of funds. Rising costs meant buildings could only be patched up rather than rebuilt. In the 1970s fire hazards became obvious. This led to a new scheme to allow funds for a more “comprehensive overhaul” and the renaming to the Edward Alleyn House.
In 1995 there was a further major reorganisation of the Foundation’s structure to allow the Dulwich schools greater access to income of the Foundation from the Dulwich Estate. At that time it also divided three parts of the Foundation to become individual charities: the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Christ’s Chapel and the Dulwich Almshouse Charity.
In 2016 as the 400th anniversary of its foundation is celebrated the trustees still grapple with the problem their counterparts faced before them; how best to care for their elderly residents. The historic almshouses, now, sadly, fail to meet modern expectations of housing, however well the building itself is maintained. The trustees have therefore embarked upon a new chapter in its history, by drawing up plans for a new building designed for maximum comfort and security and providing homes for an increased number of needy older people.
To read more about the Almshouse and Brian Green’s history book, visit http://dulwichalmshousecharity.org.uk/about/400th-anniversary