This row of cottages in Lapworth was often referred to as the ‘Almshouses’ but was really more of a parish ‘poor house’ or what I like to call an ‘improper almshouse’.
The four cottages probably date from the 17th century and stood in Church Lane adjacent to the churchyard. They were built of brick with a tiled roof, leaded lights, gable windows and tall chimneys. At one time, part of the building (on the far right of the picture) was used as a schoolroom, and part housed parish officers. By 1861 the almshouses were referred to as very old, unhealthy and in poor condition. However, they were being used for elderly people, some of whom – for example labourer Edward Spragg – had formerly been housed in a parish poor house. By 1881 only three of the cottages were occupied and around 1890 Solihull Sanitary Authority condemned them and ordered that they be pulled down. Villagers protested and tried to save them but they were finally pulled down in 1892. 1
Although it was said to be intended for single people, there was one couple living there in 1881: sheep dealer Thomas Smith and his wife Maria. The other residents (two widows and one unmarried woman) were described as ‘paupers’, which probably means they were receiving parish relief. One of them, shoemaker’s widow Jane Briscoe, lived there for more than twenty years; and other individuals for at least ten years. The Lapworth Charity supported these almshouses alongside the other parish poor houses in the village. By 1891 the census recorded four ‘uninhabited old almshouses’ the year before they were demolished.
Almshouse or Poor House?
From the name, an almshouse could be regarded as any house for the poor (i.e. those who need or receive alms). However, a recent national project agreed that an almshouse consists of an endowed building, often purpose-built, for elderly people, who are usually given a pension.2 A parish poor house was none of these things: it did not have an endowment; it was often part of the local housing stock – sometimes a legacy ‘for the poor’; it could be used for poor people or families of all ages and the residents often lived rent-free, but they were not given a pension. In light of this, the building in Lapworth was clearly not an almshouse, but because it was for old people it came to be regarded as such. This was true in many other places: 19th-century censuses and early OS maps record a wide range of places as ‘almshouses’ on this basis.
New Almshouses in Lapworth
Eleven ‘proper’ almshouses were built in Pound Close (off Old Warwick Road) in the 1960s by the Lapworth Charity.
Have you got an ‘improper almshouse’ in your community?
1 Woodall, J. ‘Portrait of Lapworth in the 18th and 19th centuries’ (1986), Solihull.
2 Family & Community Historical Research Society project on almshouses; personal communication from the coordinator.