Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1994.
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The East India Company's Almshouses
The East India Company's almshouses were Poplar's principal private charitable foundation from 1628 to 1866. The first almshouse stood on the site now occupied by the former District Board of Works Offices and No. 115 Poplar High Street. The latter was the East India Company chaplain's house and is the only surviving part of the almshouse complex as rebuilt in 1801–2. The almshouses were demolished and the grounds became Poplar Recreation Ground in 1866–7 (see page 160).
Purchase and Development
The almshouse was founded to provide for disabled East India Company seamen. The initiative came when the East India Company found itself bound to honour the intentions of the will of Hugh Greete, a jeweller and disgraced company factor. In buying diamonds Greete allegedly kept the best for himself, and otherwise defrauded the company of huge sums. In 1618 he was sent home from India a prisoner. By 1619 he was dead and the company had seized his diamonds and other goods, worth between £700 and £900, to make up for the fraud. However, Greete's will directed that his estate was to be used to found a school or hospital. The company paid out £300 for Greete's debts and affirmed that it would use the rest of the estate and 'some other remaynders of ould accompts', later put at £222, to build an almshouse for the company's disabled seamen, their widows and orphans. The company held that the money was rightfully theirs, and so this was to be done in their name rather than Greete's. Sir Thomas Roe (c1581– 1644), who had recently returned a wealthy man from his embassy to the Court of the Mogul Emperor Jehangir, promised £400 towards the almshouse and directions were given for the raising of further funds in India. Roe and others were sent to view 'a great brick house at Blackwall', cheaply available, for use as the almshouse. Blackwall Yard, formed in 1614–18, made this a suitable location. Following a suggestion from Sir William Russell (d.1654), a 'Committee', Treasurer of the Navy, and one of Greete's executors, the company decided to follow the example of the Navy at Chatham and impose a rate of 4d a month on the wages of all employees, for the benefit of those disabled in service. (fn. 4)
This proved to be a false start. The levy on wages was not successfully imposed, the status of Greete's estate remained unsettled, and so Roe's offer was apparently not taken up. The project was deferred, despite a plea from the inhabitants of Ratcliff, Limehouse, Mile End and Poplar in 1623 for relief towards the costs of maintaining the widows and orphans of Indian voyages. (fn. 5) The company failed to persuade seamen to make voluntary contributions to their own relief fund, but in 1625 succeeded in imposing a rate of 2d in the pound on the wages of all but its poorest men, generating £60 for the almshouse by 1626. The company could find no legal grounds for claiming the whole of Greete's estate and there was concern that questions would be asked later if a sum given for building an almshouse was withheld. (fn. 6)
In April 1627 Captain Thomas Styles reminded the company that it held money for an almshouse and that 'a large and convenient brick house' with three acres of ground in 'Blackwall' was available. The house, in fact in Poplar High Street, was purchased from Edward Dalton of Ratcliff for £360 and a satin suit. It was, perhaps, the same house that had been available in 1619 and may have been standing empty or little used since then. (fn. 7) The single known representation of the house suggests a complex building, perhaps largely Elizabethan (Plate 13a). It was basically quadrangular and largely brick, with a timber-framed east range. (fn. 8)
Demolition and rebuilding of the house as a conventional cloistered hospital was deemed too expensive, so the company decided to make repairs, additions or alterations, 'as by some skilfull Survaior shalbe thought meete'. William Burrell, whose house in Deptford was shortly to be altered by a Mr Carter, offered to help in this regard. A 'Committee for the Almshouse' was formed consisting of four 'Committees' – Styles, Thomas Mun, Robert Bell and Anthony Abdy – and 'Mr. Carter, the Surveyor' (Edward Carter) was consulted. (fn. 9) (fn. 1)
After much debate it was agreed that the remainder of Greete's estate, set at £446 10s 1d, would be used for the remodelling of the almshouse. The company was determined that the building was to be regarded as its work, but William Russell stipulated that unless Greete was remembered as a benefactor, he would not give a formal release of the estate. The company resolved to go ahead without the release and in the event the fact that Greete's estate was, after all, used towards the almshouse was not minuted. Styles procured another £134 for the building through the rate on wages. (fn. 10)
Carter had prepared plans for remodelling the house to accommodate 20 almsmen at an estimate of £350, but the company decided to 'perfect the front of the house' first, and to proceed thereafter only as far as designated funds would allow, so as to avoid any charge on the company's current revenue. (fn. 11) The Almshouse Committee met Carter at Blackwall on 11 August 1627 to arrange the rebuilding of the front range. John Tanner, bricklayer, John Jackson, carpenter, and James Goodall, plasterer, were given specifications of the work required. This included removal of a canted bay from the west side of the front and an entrance porch from the east side so that it could be rebuilt as a symmetrical façade around a new central entrance with a Portland stone surround. Robert Fotherby, the company's Clerk at Blackwall Yard, was directed to order 30,000 bricks forthwith, because they were cheaper in the summer than in the spring. (fn. 12) These instructions make it clear that the street façade in the 1798 view of the almshouse is as remodelled by Carter (plate 13a). It is notable as an early example of the astylar domestic style developed principally by Inigo Jones in the 1630s.
The first two pensioners, John Ferne and Tristram Hughson, were admitted to the almshouse on 5 March 1628. (fn. 13) (fn. 2) Disorder in the house in 1635 led to the introduction of regulations and the reading of prayers by one of the pensioners in the chapel that was part of the building. (fn. 14) In 1647 a schoolmaster was brought in to teach children and seamen 'the marriners' art, etc.' in the great hall, with a library in an adjoining closet, and other rooms for himself. (fn. 15) (fn. 3)
The East India Company's involvement in Poplar became less commercial and more pastoral in the late 1650s, following the sale of Blackwall Yard and the assumption of a patron's role at the Poplar Chapel. The chapel and the almshouse remained Poplar's main centres of worship, education and charity for many years. The chapel within the almshouse became the school in 1657 when the first 'chaplain' was appointed. He was given six rooms, the schoolmaster two, and the great hall was reserved for 'the entertainment of any of the Company, when any occasion should require their repaire to Poplar'. Alterations were made by John Tanner and Isaac Jackson. (fn. 16) The almshouse was maintained by the rate on East India Company employees' wages, which, with additional bequests, built into a substantial fund, known from the eighteenth century as the Poplar Fund. In 1732 the school and schoolmaster's apartments, evidently abandoned at an earlier date, were converted into rooms for eight more pensioners, making a total of 22, and from then on widows were admitted. (fn. 17)
Extension, Rebuilding and Closure
The Poplar Fund burgeoned and came to be used for pensions for the East India Company's better-paid employees. (fn. 18) It was suggested in 1796 that new almshouses be built for retired Commanders and Officers, or their widows, the old building to remain for boatswains, gunners, carpenters and caulkers, or their widows, 'but none inferior'. In 1798–9, 12 two-storey houses were built, to plans presumably prepared by Richard Jupp, Company Surveyor. (fn. 19) These were a plain east-west brick terrace with a central pediment, near the north end of the company's land and facing south to the chapel. Their backs and gardens soon came to look over the East India Dock Road. They were known as the Upper Buildings. (fn. 20)
The courtyard almshouse held a very limited number of those eligible for pensions and was unsuited to expansion. The building of the West India Docks from 1800 began to make Poplar less of a quiet backwater and more a commercial centre. The old almshouse had become an unfashionable face for such and august body as the East India Company to show in London, and in 1801–2 the company had it demolished. New houses for greater numbers were built on the same site, extending further west. (fn. 21) They were presumably paid for through the Poplar Fund, and Henry Holland (1745–1806), Company Surveyor from 1799 to 1806, would have had charge of the work. These almshouses, the Lower Buildings, were arranged symmetrically around a chaplain's house (see below) (fig. 25). There were 26 houses, originally neatly disposed in two 'handed' groups of four, five and four around three sides of small yards. Along the fourth side were tree-lined paths flanking the chaplain's house and linking the High Street to the chapel. These were simple two-storey ranges, a single bay to each house, with ground-floor verandas and segmental heads over doors with side lights. (fn. 22)
Both sets of almshouses were subsequently enlarged on newly purchased land to the west, with six more Upper Buildings and twelve more Lower Buildings apparently erected in 1805–6. The Upper Buildings were extended at both ends and returned to the south to close the corners of the company's grounds. The Lower Buildings were extended to the west with eight houses along the High Street and four behind the westernmost to form another semi-enclosed yard. To the west of these, an arched and gated entrance was formed to a carriageway from the High Street to the grounds. There were thus 38 Lower Buildings and 18 Upper Buildings at either end of a large enclosed rectangular plot. (fn. 23)
In 1808 and 1819 the company bought more land to the west and the north, up to present-day Hale Street and the East India Dock Road. (fn. 24) (fn. c1) After the demise of the East India Company in 1858 the Government kept the buildings going as the Poplar Marine Hospital until 1866, when the former East India Company land, excluding the chapel, burial ground and chaplain's house, was sold to the Poplar District Board of Works. The almshouses had been demolished by early 1867. (fn. 25)
No. 115 Poplar High Street
The house called Meridian House at No. 115 Poplar High Street was built in 1801–2 by the East India Company, through its Poplar Fund, to accommodate the chaplain serving the company's newly rebuilt almshouses and the chapel (later the Church of St Matthias). (fn. 26) Henry Holland, East India Company Surveyor, presumably had responsibility for the building project, if not the detailed design. The house is of stock brick, with Portland stone dressings that include a pediment carrying the arms of the East India Company, a slate roof and tall end stacks (plate 15c). Originally two rooms deep it has been extended to the rear (fig. 29). The proportions of the sparsely fenestrated façade may reflect the house's original position, set back as the centrepiece of a long composition (fig. 25). Part of the west wall, at least, is raised on the foundations of the courtyard almshouse. Simple dado panelling on the ground floor and what is evidently the original staircase survive. (fn. 27) The ground-floor fireplaces, originally probably timber like those still on the first floor, were replaced in marble, in part in 1848. (fn. 28) The garden was probably laid out to its present dimensions and dimensionsand enclosed by walls in 1801–2.
A long brick entrance porch was added in 1826, to plans by William Wilkins, East India Company Surveyor (plate 15c). (fn. 29) It was removed in 1964 for road widening and replaced by a hood and columns designed by CecilBrown (1902–83), architect, and erected by R.W. Bowman Limited. (fn. 30)
The house was conveyed to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in January 1867, to be the vicarage to the Church of St Matthias. John Fenwick Kitto, the first incumbent, had a rear extension built in 1868, for an estimated £194, with Henry James Tollit, of Oxford, as architect and John C. Riddall as builder. (fn. 31) The rear elevation has some prominence as it faces the churchyard. The addition was a three-storey 'tower', densely fenestrated and aggressively Gothic with finely gauged yellow-brick pointed arches.
Proposals for further large additions to the house were submitted by Kitto's successor, Charles Neil, in 1875. They were condemned as too extravagant by Ewan Christian, for the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, and made more modest. (fn. 32) Works were carried out in 1878, with Riddall again the builder. They included the front bay window and rear additions flanking the 1868 block, that to the north-east extending a shallowprojection, that to the north-west linking to a preexisting single-storey pantry and w.c. outbuilding. (fn. 33) The north-west addition has a first-floor triple-hung sash window where the upper part of an earlier window was re-used over a conventional sash. With the closure of the Church of St Matthias in 1976 the house was sold to become a private residence.