Good King Wenceslas looked out...

Written by Pam Preedy.

“Good King Wenceslas looked out” starts the traditional Christmas carol which tells the story of Saint Wenceslaus 1, the Duke of Bohemia (907-953).  The Holy Emperor Otto (962-973) posthumously conferred on him the royal title, King.  Later a preacher from the 12th century wrote that Wenceslaus “rose from his noble bed with bare feet and only one chamberlain (and) went around to God’s churches giving generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.”  He was the epitome of piety.

In England the oldest almshouse foundation still in existence is thought to be the Hospital of St Oswald in Worcester founded circa 990.  Throughout the Middle Ages and beyond almshouses were built to provide long-term shelter for the disabled and aged infirm.

They were founded and supported with donations from kings, church dignitaries, nobles and merchants.  Whether these men provided the alms houses out of piety or their ulterior motive was to ease their passage to heaven with good works is not known in every case.

Almshouses can still be found in and around Bromley, dating from as early as the 1660s.  During the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell (1653058), John Warner, Bishop of Rochester, was kicked out of the Bromley’s Palace.  When he was able to return, he wanted to build homes for ‘twenty poore widowes of othodoxe and loyal clergymen.’

He looked for land, but nothing was suitable.  To aid him, Parliament passed the Bishop of Rochester’s Charities Act (1670) to enable the college (in the sense of a place to gather or to collect together) to be built anywhere within the diocese.

Supported by other contributors, Bromley College was built on a piece of land, now on London Road behind a wall and trees opposite the Magistrates Court to the north of Bromley. 

The first almshouses, founded in the will of John Warner, were built in 1660-72 around a quadrangle.  A second quadrangle was founded by Zachary Pearce and completed in 1821.  Finally land was purchased and improvements made to the grounds.

Bromley College from the air (c.2021)
Rawlins Almshouse, Beckenham (c. 2021)

In 1840 Mrs Sophia Shepherd, a wealthy clerical widow, funded the building of a separate block of seven cottages, Shepherd’s College, for the daughters who became homeless after caring for their widowed parents.  Today the Colleges contain 47 self-contained dwellings

In Beckenham, besides St George’s Church is a terrace of three small cottages, built by a city merchant.  An inscription reads, “Anthony Rawlins Esq. built these Houses for ye poor of this Parish of Beckenham Anno. Dom. 1694“.  Rawlins was a wealthy City merchant.

Updated in 1881 and extended and altered in the twentieth century, they provided a small living room, kitchen and shower room downstairs and a single bedroom plus WC on the first floor up a narrow staircase.  There is a small communal garden to the read with three storage sheds.

In Penge (1840-41), founded bt the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the City of London, the Royal Watermen’s Almshouses were built for retired company freemen and their widows.  The watermen ferried people and their luggage across the Thames and the lightermen transferred goods from one ship to another or to shore. 

Rules were strict for the almsmen with a relentless regime of prayer and devotion, but the diet was generally good with pleasant surroundings.  For those members who could no longer manage life in their own homes, such places offered escape from poverty and danger outside.

In 1973 the alms people were moved to a new site in Hastings and the original buildings were converted into private homes.

A trawl through the internet will show other almshouse trusts founded in Bromley and Beckenham area from time to time during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  

Penge Watermen's and Lightermen's Almshouses

Originally published in Life in Bromley magazine (Issue 22, December 2023)

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