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almshouses, also known as bede-houses, are buildings, usually purpose-designed, to provide accommodation for aged or frail people. They were established at a time when there was no alternative welfare provision. Usually they were paid for by a benefactor, whose intentions were set out in a deed stipulating who might be given help.

The origin of almshouses lay in medieval monasteries, which built houses from which alms and hospitality were dispensed. The religious links remained: often almshouses were intended to contain small communities who had to attend regular services to pray for the souls of the benefactor and such other persons as might be specified. The houses frequently included a chapel and generally the priest who took the services supervised the residents. The range of care for the bedesmen or bedeswomen varied. Generous benefactors established funds to pay for fuel, clothing (sometimes a uniform), and even some food and drink. Some almshouses had the character of a 20th-cent. hospice and cared for the terminally ill. Nursing was sometimes a duty for those who were well enough to care for their less fortunate fellow-residents.

Benefactors usually specified that residents should come from a particular locality and be persons who had led respectable lives. Many permitted the admission of husbands and wives.

By the early 14th cent. the endowment of almshouses had become a favoured form of charitable bequest. Medieval examples still surviving include the Hospital of St Cross at Winchester (Hants). After the Reformation, almshouses continued to be established in many towns and villages, and are often architecturally agreeable or even distinguished. Benefactors often specified that only members of the Church of England were eligible. But when Thomas Cook of travel agency fame founded an almshouse in his native town of Melbourne (Derbys.), he did not insist on membership of any religious denomination, though he was himself a committed Baptist; he did, however, restrict admission to people living in the town. Trollope's novels The Warden (1855) and Barchester Towers (1857) turned on the wardenship of Hiram's Hospital at Barchester.

Ian John Ernest Keil

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