Centuries of care
The Almshouse of St Johns in Sherborne has an uninterrupted history of care dating back to the 15th century, as Colin Trueman discovered
Published in January ’12
The housingcare.org website describes St Johns’ Almshouse as ‘built in 1437, renovated in 2000’, which leaves just a little bit out of the history and splendour of a building and indeed organisation that has been doing good for quite a while. There are few institutions that can claim to be 575 years old; there are even fewer which can claim to be doing essentially what they did from their founding. Sherborne’s St Johns’ Almshouse is the exception to the rule, though. It was on 11 July 1437 that Henry VI granted a licence for a home to care for ‘Twelve pore feeble and ympotent old men and four old women’ to be looked after by a housewife to ‘feeche in and dyght to the victaill wash wrying make beddys and al other things do’ – six months and a day after the home was founded on 10 January 1437. The original building was finally completed in 1448, a chapel at the almshouse was dedicated in 1442 by the then Bishop of Salisbury.
The plural possessive apostrophe in St Johns’ Almshouse is there to show the dual dedication to both St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist, whose symbols – a lamb and flag for St John the Baptist and an eagle for St John the Evangelist, are marked on the building. Despite this seemingly strong association with the Catholic church, the almshouses were largely spared the vicissitudes of the reformation as their governance was not by the church, but rather by a lay corporation. It has not been wholly as successful in protecting all its assets – at one point, the ‘Master and Brethren’ of the Almshouse owned around an eighth of all the houses in Sherborne –
but it does still possess a house dating from the original endowment.
The house is not without rules, but the main one – which can best be summarised these days as ‘being able to rub along with the other residents’ – is not insignificant. Gone are the uniforms and rather extraordinarily strict rules of yesteryear. However, the essence of the notion of ‘brethren’ is still very much there and indeed the modern St Johns’ House and the buildings in which it is located are still governed by the brethren and a ‘master‘ elected by the brethren.
The rules of 1862 have a somewhat unfortunate mission statement: ‘…to promote the welfare of its inmates and particularly their due preparation for the hour of Death, and for the day of Judgement, according to the pious intent of the founder…,’ and also require the ‘poor men’, ‘poor women’, ‘Housewife’ and ‘feeble inmates of either sex’ to attend ‘Divine Service in the Chapel… in the morning at 7 o’clock and in the evening at 9 o’clock from Lady-day to Michaelmas, and in the morning at 8 o’clock and in the evening at 7 o’clock from Michaelmas to Lady-day….’ In addition, the ‘poor men and women shall continue to attend the Public Worship of Almighty GOD as heretofore, going and returning two and two in good order, according to the custom of this house…’. A rest home this was not.
Nicolas Pevsner described the Almshouse as ‘remaining in an unusually complete state of preservation,’ and describing the peculiar nature of the St Johns’ in that its dormitory part is two-storeyed, owing to the mixed sex of the occupants; the men slept below, the women above. Four years before the issuing of the above rules under the authority of the then master, J Hoddinott, a large expansion of the Almshouse to the North, abandoned the dormitory system and gave rooms to the individual ‘inmates’, while the dormitories became dining hall and board room. The building was designed by Slater and included an oriel and an Early English arcaded cloister. The chapel’s south window – showing the Virgin flanked by the two St Johns – is described by Pevsner as ‘tenderly drawn and inevitably coarsened by restoration’. He also makes reference to one of the Almshouse’s other treasures, which he describes as ‘an exceptionally fine, late 15th-century triptych (with the rather unacademic footnote of: ‘or can it be from Cologne?’). The triptych, which depicts five of the miracles of Christ in vivid detail and colour is thought to date from around 1480, it is possibly a copy of a lost picture by Van der Weyden; another expert has attributed it to northern France.
Outside the building are some remarkably lovely gardens, for the use of the residents. Elsewhere in the almshouse, which is open for visiting in the summer months, there are examples of the old uniforms which the residents used to wear, a copy of the foundation deed, a splendid wooden chest which needs five separate keys to open it, a collection of 18th-century pewter plates and a letter of 1594 from Sir Walter Raleigh to Mr Knoyll, the then master of the Almshouse. The letter starts: ‘This poor woman Elliner Dyer hath been divers times with me and Sir Raff Horsye to complain against the Allmshows off Sherborne of the retaininge off a tennament from her at such time as she was a very chilld when she had no ffrend to help her; and, for as much as the wrong she receveth semeth to be aparaint, and as my selff and Sir Raff Horsy are enformed and I think you cannot denye, I pray you be a meane to the rest of thare company that this poor soull may now be restored to her ryght and not dryven farther to complain againste them in a matter so unjustly begon and persecuted by them that ar and shold be protecters and not opressers off poor pepill: where off I hope you and the resdt will have due consederacyon with owt geveng presedent off so great an ill.’ He signs his letter: ‘From my Castell this 28th off May, Your loving W. Ralegh.’
Aside from its treasures of historical interest inside, the almshouse is one of few buildings whose railings are even a listed monument. The Victorian iron posts and rails line the kerb and, in a prescient view of how life would be in 21st-century communal housing, it was out here that the almsmen would come to smoke a pipe. Five of the original seven finials of the railings still remain and are representations of a bishop’s mitre, which is the badge of the Almshouse.
It is possible that the specific location had another use prior to being an almshouse, one it shares with the almshouses in Wimborne – that of a leper hospital. According to the National Monuments Record, it was an Augustinian and Benedictine hospital prior to 1404. In 1546 it is referred to as a leper house by 16th-century historian John Leland, who recounts that it was founded ‘by devotion of the good people of Sherborne in the fourth year of Henry VI, and the king is taken for founder of it’. Henry VI granted a licence to Robert Neville, bishop of Salisbury, Humphrey Stafford, knt., Margaret Gogh, John Fauntleroy, and John Baret, to incorporate and establish a certain house of perpetual charity in Sherborne to the honour of God and St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist for the reception of twenty brethren, with a chaplain who should pray for the good estate of the king and of the brethren of the house and their benefactors while they lived, and for their souls and those of all the faithful departed ‘when they shall have withdrawn from this light.’
The brethren were to elect a master from among themselves, and empowered to fill up any vacancy that should occur in their number, to ‘remove or expel the master from his office or any of the poor men or women from the house; all the inmates should live under the rule and government ordained by the said bishop, Sir Humphrey Stafford, Margaret Gogh,
John Fauntleroy, John Baret, or any four, three, or two of them.’
When Edward VI conducted a wholesale confiscation of colleges and chantries, the almshouse was entered in the records as ‘the hospital or house of leprosy of St. John the Evangelist in Sherborne’, possibly saving it from greater confiscation of endowments.
These days, elderly people in need who have a local connection of some sort may apply to join the group when there is a vacancy. The common dining room – a beautifully panelled refectory – is used each day to serve home-cooked meals for the residents. One of the nineteen rooms is used for respite care or as a guest room for visitors to the residents when not required for respite care.
Despite the turmoil throughout the last six centuries of history, the Almshouse of St Johns’ has been a constant presence in the town of Sherborne and a source of succour for those most in need in the town; 575 years of care is a pretty impressive record for any institution.
Picture 2 Liz Burt