review by David Hitchcock (Christ Church University)
book written by Angela Nicholls
‘Almshouses in early modern England: charitable housing in the mixed economy of welfare 1550-1725’ is published by Boydell and Brewer. SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher – offer ends on the 7th May 2019. See below for details.
Almshouses were ‘curious institutions’, ‘built by the rich to be lived in by the poor’ (p. 1). In the first monograph to focus exclusively on the role of early modern almshouses in welfare provision, Angela Nicholls traces not only the development of almshouse foundations and the motivations of their founders, but also crucially the lived experience and material benefits of an alms place as a respectable or ancient pauper in early modern English parishes. Until recently a ‘known unknown’ (p. 3) in early modern welfare history, charitable housing of any kind was of course far more than simply the provision of a roof and walls, it was also a guarantee of place, of belonging and of social meaning within the context of parish and community. Nicholls examines the almshouse from many angles; first set within an overview of early modern housing policy, and subsequently in chapters dedicated to donors and founders, to residents and their experiences, and finally to a detailed case study of the parish of Leamington Hastings. Nicholls argues that early modern almshouses were distinct from their medieval predecessors and eighteenth-century descendants for a number of reasons, not least their prominent and sustained place in the mixed economy of parish welfare between monastic dissolution and Knatchbull’s Workhouse Test Act of 1723. The study focuses broadly on evidence from three dispersed counties; Durham, Warwickshire, and Kent, and importantly uses a generous definition of what constitutes an ‘almshouse’ in the first place, thus excavating many more humble institutions than previous historiography accounts for.
Chapter one on housing policy opens with a strong statement about the quintessential purpose of Tudor and Stuart poor relief, and particularly of welfare legislation: the prevention of vagrancy and of idleness. Nicholls’ reading of the roles housing provision played within the poor laws chimes generally with the historiographical consensus, though she makes some important new suggestions. For instance, the 1547 act actually enjoined parishes to provide ‘cotages’ to vagrants once they had been forcibly returned to their places of origin (p. 22), and Nicholls makes a strong case that the language of ‘Abiding Places’ in the ’47 and indeed 1572 laws might well refer to the English equivalent of hôpital général places for former vagrants and not strictly to their commitment to houses of correction. The effective result of these sorts of injunctions was the accumulation of a robust stock of pauper housing in parishes across the kingdom, housing which remained reserved to the poor well into the eighteenth century, until attitudes towards personal subsistence and idleness hardened still further. Chapter two charts the surge in almshouse provision and endowment across the period and visualizes this provision brilliantly across several figures and maps (Figure 2.2, p. 45, graphing almshouse foundations by decade is particularly revealing). Nicholls concludes here that endowing an almshouse was often a response to generalised, national anxieties or prompts rather than just to local concerns, in effect demonstrating another way that the ‘integration’ thesis of Keith Wrightson was borne out by the bequests of local propertied elites.
The second set of chapters focus on founders and inhabitants. Nicholls unpacks the manifold motivations of almshouse founders such as Rev. Nicholas Chamberlaine with dexterity, going well beyond the traditional ‘purchase of prayer’ model (p. 62). She disagrees with W.K. Jordan’s account of a secular shift in the rationales behind charitable giving, and outlines a suite of additional motives which prominently included local memorialisation and social status and the buttressing of confessional Protestant identities. I found it interesting that Nicholls actually explores ‘order and good governance’ (pp. 86-88) of the parish in subsequent chapters as a desired outcome of endowment, and broadly from the historical perspective of almshouse inhabitants, rather than in the same chapter as other founder motivations. In the section on inhabitants and the material benefits of alms places Nicholls questions how ‘fastidious’ early modern almshouse foundations actually were with respect to inhabitants (p. 90). Some criteria such as geographical proximity were consistent across most almshouses; others such as old age, gender, infirmity, or fraternal or confessional membership were endowment specific. Nicholls also notes that the historiographical interest in ‘rules of behaviour’ for almshouses is out of proportion with the actual number of houses (very few) which actually had rules at all (p. 126). She also debunks the contention that the material benefits of an alms place created a ‘pauper elite’ (p. 184) and demonstrates wide variation across hundreds of endowed places.
The final chapter brings together the rich records of county Warwickshire to produce a parish history of a ‘seventeenth-century Welfare Republic’ in Leamington Hastings (p. 188). Nicholls traces the origins of the Hastings house to Humphrey Davis and his will of 1607, which subsequently falls into ‘legal limbo’ (p. 195) until revival under Thomas Trevor as lord of Hasting manor estate in the 1630s. Nicholls situates the almshouse within the private charitable economy of Leamington Hastings which also included the ‘Poors Plot’ charity subsidising access to land and schemes for parish stock and further cottage housing (p. 221). Nicholls concludes that we cannot view almshouses—however privately endowed and idiosyncratically managed—as hermetically sealed off from state welfare provision as it was, after all, often the same people managing both. Almshouses in early modern England is a definitive monograph, cogently assembled and clearly written, with the histories of alms-people and charity at its heart. It is also filled with evidence of the care and nuance with which Nicholls approaches her subject, visible not least in the author’s photography, detailed online appendices and databases, and encyclopaedic knowledge of the associated archives. If you want to learn about the history of early modern charitable housing, you should read this book.
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