The Almshouses which are helping residents live their lives in Peterborough

Helen Buxton and Rosemarie Holmes at  Stephenson Court Almshouses
Helen Buxton and Rosemarie Holmes at Stephenson Court Almshouses
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New philanthropic ideas such as community banks and time banking are only slowly gathering recognition, but there are other similarly-minded ventures and schemes which have been around for centuries.

Still used and still valuable, charities such as Dr Barnado’s and the Salvation Army, and church-led foodbank initiatives, are relevant and vital in 2014.

Vivian Jackson at her home in Stephenson Court  Almshouses

Vivian Jackson at her home in Stephenson Court Almshouses

And at Stephenson Court in Peterborough a set of little bungalows under the auspices of the Peterborough Almshouse Trust are the 21st Century representation of another church initiative - one of 3,000 across the UK.

Almshouses have existed in the city in one form or another for more than 400 years, thanks to generous landowners and businessmen who wanted to maintain the welfare of fellow citizens in desperate straits. The buildings carry their names; Brocksopp, Pear, and others.

The current site was established in the 1960s and therefore lacks the traditional look of other almshouses. But aesthetic quality is of little concern to the 55 residents, who mainly live alone in their cosy one-bedroom bungalows. It is unsurprising, as most of them will need an almshouse because they had little support.

Each resident pays a weekly maintenance contribution, council tax, utility bills and telephone costs. The Trust pays water rates, building insurance, and lifeline charges.

A view of the Miss Pears buildings at the corner with Cumber Gate

A view of the Miss Pears buildings at the corner with Cumber Gate

Secretary and communications officer Helen Buxton said: “Some residents have no family at all, and they come here and we get them sorted. If they don’t have enough money to paythey can apply for housing benefits. This is a safe, gated haven for them.

“They stay here until they really can’t cope on their own.

“They have to be able to look after themselves because we don’t offer nursing facilities.

“We had a chap who was 100 who left us at Christmas because he was getting very frail, but he had been here years.

A miss pears building 1978

A miss pears building 1978

“We’ve got three properties vacant at the moment but three people who are interested. To live here, because we are a charity you have to qualify – you have to be over 60, you have to be in need or hardship or or in some cases about to lose your home.

“We have seen some people who were sad when they arrived, but they have come here and flourished because of the environment.”

That environment includes gardening areas, community lounges, kitchen and laundry areas, and blocks of flats for guests/friends who want to stay over.

Welfare officer Rosemary Holmes is responsible for looking after the residents’ needs, which often involves putting them in touch with agencies such as CAB, social services and AGE UK, while the finances are handled by Pauline Parker.

One of those helped by the service is Vivian Jackson, who was content in her little village of Spaldwick.

But surroundings were changing, utilities and facilities disappearing, and living proving more difficult.

Speaking from the warm and cosy bungalow which she shares with her budgie Billy, Vivian, who was born in Bamber Street in Peterborough in 1922, said: “I had family in Peterborough who I was visiting. I was attending St John’s Church, but I was very happy in Spaldwick,

“Then the buses became less frequent. Then we lost the shop, and the post office, and there was no doctor’s surgery.

“Someone visited me and asked if I would ever like to move, and I said I didn’t have the opportunity, but I was told that there was space here.

“So I came to take a look, and as soon as I opened the door I thought I would love it. I had an interview and I hoodwinked people into believing I would be an asset here! Everyone made me very welcome.”

Having spent four years at Stephenson Court, Vivian is chairperson of the entertainments committee and has become accustomed to making people welcome herself.

A summer holiday – in the rest room – and a belly dancing night are among the attractions which are organised by the committee, alongside regular bingo and welcome clubs. A residents’ forum exists for any issues to be raised, but Vivian says that no-one really grumbles – perhaps because they are thankful for what they have.

“Life has changed such a lot, even in the villages. There are many young people who work in London, and they don’t want a beetle drive or dominoes,” she said.

“I could have shopped online but that isn’t what I want. I like to go out for a coffee and see people, because when you don’t see people you get old.

“I can’t think what it would be like if I had remained in Spaldwick. I would have been very sad.”

Vivian’s story is not a rare one, and extends to all communities - Rosemary said that there are Chinese, Slovakian and Italian residents at Stephenson Court.

Helen added: “I do feel that people don’t know we’re here. When I tell people where I work people say ‘what’s that?’ People go past it on their way to the swimming pool but don’t know what it is.

“It’s a gentler way of living. A lot of people call it an oasis – you don’t feel like it’s part of Peterborough when you walk in.”

For more information on the almshouses call 01773 561065 or visit Peterborough Almshouse Trust

Timeline - Almshouses in Peterborough

1601: Elizabethan Poor Law – parishes now responsible for feeding/housing poor and needy

1611: Town Feoffment or Town Estates Charity Formed. Feoffees/trustees in role of local authority

1635: Will of Edward Mountsteven – funded almshouse for 6 in Paston. Also financed a priest for Paston. Vicar of Paston still an ex-officio trustee

1718: Thos Deacon’s Will – funded schools and care of poor

1722: Feoffees built first P’boro workhouse in Cumbergate and petitioned MP for a second in Westgate

1724: Report on P’boro workhouse, showing ‘able’ people knitting or spinning for their keep. Those unable to work are transferred to almshouses.

1744: Peterborough MP Edward Wortley financed a workhouse which later became Wortley Almshouse, thought to have been a model for the workhouse in Oliver Twist.

His wife Lady Mary Wortley Montague brought system of inoculation against smallpox back from Turkey, which leads to Jenner’s idea of vaccination.

1837: Cumbergate and Westgate workhouses converted to almshouses when larger workhouse built, possibly near Thorpe Hall.

1841: Will of Samuel Brocksopp – estate divided between Town Estates Charity and St John’s Church which funded its own almshouses, as did cathedral.

1903: Will of Frances Pears enabled trustees to create courtyard housing between Westgate and Cumbergate almshouses.

1907: Town Estates Charity regulated by CC Scheme. Mary Ireland became a trustee. Trustee responsibilities for local government reduced. City councillors elected representatives to trustee body.

1948: Legal end of workhouses

1960s: New bungalows and flats built in Granby Street to house almshouse residents

1970s: Part of former Westgate almshouses demolished to make room for the construction of Queensgate in city centre

1974: Name changed to Peterborough Almshouse and Relief in Need Charity. City Council still nominated some trustees.

1982: Wortley Almshouse became a publication

2001: New scheme – Peterborough Almshouse Trust, city council lost right to elect and trustees