Almshouses for poor widows

This week for their project students are planning how to spend £50 million on local community projects.

Almshouses on Newnham Road

Almshouses on Newnham Road

For centuries, the relief of social problems in England as elsewhere was a matter for the Church and the conscience of private individuals – to give alms is considered a Christian duty. And that the private individual in question might in fact be a king merely served to highlight the horizontal if not vertical weakness of social bonds in feudal society.

However, in Cambridge there is a long tradition of almshouses being run by the various colleges (themselves, of course, religious or quasi-religious institutions in origin). The university, in the form of the colleges, ran the town – were the town, in many ways – and took responsibility for the destitute of the town.

To take one example, in 1485 Queens’ College set up almshouses on Silver Street for the relief of three women, in accordance with the Will of the President of the College, Andrew Dockett. That number was increased to eight in the seventeenth century; then early in thenineteenth century the houses were moved to Queens’ Lane, and the last of them was only demolished in 1911, whereupon a fund was made available for the payment of pensions – always to eight women.

Queens' almshouses, 1911

Queens’ almshouses, 1911

Queens' almshouses being demolished, 1911

Queens’ almshouses being demolished, 1911

All of the older colleges and many of the newer have similar histories of almshouse-building and piecemeal charitable relief, in accordance with the general tradition of a parish looking after its own poor.

Following the extensive social reforms of the Labour Government of 1945-1951 (the Welfare State, the National Health Service), it was hoped that a more rational state of affairs had been instituted, whereby the government of the nation took wholesale responsibility for the welfare of all its citizens, universally and without prejudice.

It is therefore somewhat ironic that we continue to take such pride in our charitable works, in the telethons and charity runs, the comedy bears and red noses. Given our collective wealth, we should perhaps be troubled by our failure to ameliorate hardship systematically. We are, in a manner of speaking, still relying on Christian gentlemen to build almshouses for widows while we squabble over taxes. Good that they do, of course; but shameful that they should have to.

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