A History of the County of Shropshire: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1973.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
33. THE MERCERS' (OR ST. CHAD'S) ALMSHOUSES, SHREWSBURY
These almshouses were founded in the early 15th century by Benet Upton, who endowed them with rents arising from two tenements in High Street. (fn. 1) Perhaps under the provisions of an obit agreement at the foundress's death, the endowments were vested in Thomas Attingham, chantry priest in the Lady Chapel of St. Chad's. (fn. 2) They were increased by the mercer (fn. 3) Richard Attingham, presumably a kinsman of Thomas, who in 1457 directed that after his death a moiety of the rent of a house on the north side of St. Chad's churchyard should be applied to the almshouses, the remainder forming the endowment of a daily service in the Lady Chapel. (fn. 4) The process whereby the Mercers' Guild secured control of the almshouses was completed in the 1460s. In 1466 the chantry priest of the Lady Chapel empowered the guild to collect and disburse rents arising from the original endowment (fn. 5) and in the following year Richard Attingham's endowment was vested in the guild. (fn. 6) By 1467 the almshouse inmates were paid a weekly dole of 1d. apiece (fn. 7) and this scale remained unchanged until c. 1553 (fn. 8) In 1540 the Mercers' chantry priest was empowered to collect guild rents, pay allowances, and 'see to the ordering of the poor people'. (fn. 9) It is likely that this was the way in which the almshouses were normally administered at this period.
All the endowments of the Mercers' Guild, apart from the almshouses themselves, passed to the Crown when the guild chantry was abolished in 1547 (fn. 10) and they were granted in 1549 to Robert Wood. (fn. 11) Numerous lawsuits brought by the Mercers to recover possession of these endowments, which included their hall and adjacent properties in Steelyard Shut (later Golden Cross Passage) continued until the 1570s (fn. 12) but were unsuccessful. The only contribution subsequently made by the Mercers' Guild to the support of the almshouses was an annual payment of 2s., raised to 2s. 2d. after 1635, arising from a house in Belmont, opposite the almshouses. (fn. 13)
The almshouses owed their later endowment, meagre as it was, to the interest of the Ireland family, members of which were prominent in the affairs of the Mercers' Guild during most of the 16th century. (fn. 14) David Ireland had given £100 to the almshouses by will proved in 1530 (fn. 15) but the bequest was not put into effect immediately. His widow Catherine later added a further £80 and transferred the whole sum to her sons Thomas and Robert Ireland, (fn. 16) who in 1553 charged their respective moieties of an estate at Lythwood in Condover with two annual rent charges of £4 for the benefit of the almshouses. (fn. 17) Although this endowment came from the Irelands the arrangement seems to have been the result of negotiations between the Mercers' Guild and Robert Wood to provide an alternative to the lost medieval endowments. (fn. 18) Had he not died in the following year it is likely that Thomas Ireland would have substantially enlarged his parents' gift. (fn. 19)
Robert and Thomas Owen, who made further bequests to the almshouses in the early 17th century, were nephews of Robert and Thomas Ireland. (fn. 20) Thomas Owen (d. 1618) (fn. 21) settled £2 a year on the almshouses (fn. 22) and before 1640 Robert Owen had endowed them with an annual rent charge of £1 6s. arising from lands in Sutton Lane. (fn. 23) The latter sum was afterwards paid annually by the heirs of Robert's daughter Alice (fn. 24) but Thomas Owen's bequest appears to have been abortive. Similar shortlived or abortive endowments were provided by Alice Hosier, (fn. 25) Esther Ireland, (fn. 26) and Margaret Eyton. (fn. 27)
In 1591 responsibility for half-yearly distribution of the Lythwood rent charges was vested in trustees. (fn. 28) These were apparently nominated by the Mercers' Guild but when new trustees were appointed in 1616 the churchwardens of St. Chad's were directed to supervise payment to the inmates. (fn. 29) No later trust deeds survive and neither the Mercers' Guild nor the parish officers of St. Chad's subsequently concerned themselves directly with the administration of the almshouses. From the mid 17th century inmates were nominated by the successors of Robert and Thomas Ireland as owners of the Lythwood estate. (fn. 30) The Lythwood and Sutton Lane rent charges, with the small annual payment from the Mercers' Guild, produced £9 6s. 2d. a year in the early 19th century, providing each inmate with not more than 16s. annually. (fn. 31) By the later 18th century inmates who were parishioners of St. Chad's were receiving additional relief from other parish charities. (fn. 32) By will of 1848 the Revd. Richard Scott, who had taken an interest in the welfare of the inmates during his lifetime, bequeathed a sum later invested in £163 stock to provide them with coal. (fn. 33)
The almshouses, which originally consisted of 13 one-room dwellings, were timber-framed with a footing of red sandstone. (fn. 34) The single-story range flanked the south-east wall of St. Chad's churchyard and seems to have been of approximately the same dimensions as the Drapers' almshouses. (fn. 35) One of the chambers fell down in 1790 and another had gone by 1808, when the remainder were described as 'wretched hovels'. Several of the dwellings still consisted of a single room in the early 19th century but others had loft-bedrooms reached by ladders. Six chimney stacks which then ranged along the north-east wall had probably been added, like those of the Drapers' almshouses, in the 17th century.
Plans to rebuild the almshouses on three possible sites were debated by the St. Chad's vestry in 1807-8 but ultimately abandoned, (fn. 36) and a scheme for the erection of new almshouses in Scott's memory was mooted in 1848 but foundered for lack of support. (fn. 37) To the chagrin of the Mercers' Guild (fn. 38) no serious attempt was made to find an alternative site when the almshouses were purchased by the corporation and demolished in 1858. (fn. 39) Under a Scheme of 1868 their endowments were vested in the vicar of St. Chad's and two other trustees and were thereafter distributed to the poor of the parish generally. (fn. 40)
There is no evidence that the almshouses ever had a warden or a common seal.
34. THE DRAPERS' (OR ST. MARY'S) ALMSHOUSES, SHREWSBURY
These almshouses, which have been administered since the later 15th century by the Shrewsbury Drapers' Company, seem to have originated in a private benefaction by the astute Shrewsbury draper Degory Watur. In 1444 the dean of St. Mary's granted licence to the churchwardens and parishioners to build an almshouse for 13 poor on the west side of St. Mary's churchyard. Inmates were to be chosen chiefly from St. Mary's parish but selection was to be made with the advice of Degory Watur, (fn. 41) and by another deed of the same date the dean and canons conveyed the site of the almshouses to Watur, giving him licence to admit inmates. (fn. 42) Watur obtained a confirmation of this conveyance from the parishioners in 1451 (fn. 43) and in 1457, when the almshouses had been built, he enfeoffed Edward, Earl of March, with them and with the remainder of the estates. (fn. 44) This device was presumably adopted to counter the legal difficulties in which both Watur and the Drapers' Company were at this time becoming involved. (fn. 45) It was also employed by Katherine Bonel, who made Edward IV her feoffee when in 1461 she bequeathed rent charges totalling £4 7s. 10d. to Watur and the inmates for the support of the almshouses and to endow a chantry priest. (fn. 46)
By will of 1477 Watur devised his residuary estate to the Drapers' Company to find a priest and to sustain the poor in the almshouses. (fn. 47) Katherine Bonel described Watur as warden of the almshouses in her will (fn. 48) and a respectable tradition records that he lived in the hall of the almshouse and that he regularly attended services with the inmates in the Lady Chapel of St. Mary's. (fn. 49) In 1468-9 he spent 53s. 9½d. on various articles of clothing for the inmates; one Lawrence and 'Catherine a foolish wench', who were then living in the hall, were presumably in his personal care. (fn. 50)
The almshouses provided quarters for 14 persons and for a master, who lived in the hall and who was normally a married man after the Reformation. (fn. 51) During the later 15th and early 16th centuries common inmates received stipends of 1d. a week. Doles of clothing did not continue after Watur's death but each inmate received a bushel of corn a month and a load of wood annually. There is some evidence that a tradition of communal feeding, doubtless instituted by Watur, persisted until the early 16th century. Between 1497 and 1503, therefore, twelve loads of wood were delivered annually to the hall and in 1653 the hall's furniture still included a long bench against one of the walls. (fn. 52) The master's wood allowance had been reduced to a mere two loads by 1546, when he also received a double stipend of 2d. weekly, (fn. 53) perhaps implying that he was a married man at that time. Early masters were not necessarily aged or poor: Thomas Harrison, clerk, aged 68 when he gave evidence on the religious observances of the almspeople in 1579, had been master at the latest in the reign of Mary. (fn. 54)
Although particulars of the almshouses were recorded in the Drapers' chantry certificate of 1546, (fn. 55) that of 1548 avoided mention of anything other than the £4 said to be paid annually to their chantry priest (fn. 56) and it was probably for this reason that their endowments escaped confiscation under the Chantries Acts. In the course of abortive proceedings brought against the Drapers in 1575-9 under a commission for concealed lands deponents alleged that the almspeople had regularly prayed for their founders and benefactors twice a week in St. Mary's church and once in the 'poor folks' hall'. (fn. 57)
Rules for the government of the almshouses drawn up in 1587 (fn. 58) directed that married couples should be removed from all houses except the hall. The latter was to be occupied by a couple, part of whose duties was to nurse the sick. Candidates for admission were to be not less than 50 years of age and were required to bring with them a winding sheet with 4d. tied up in one corner to pay for their burial. No specific residence qualifications were laid down but the churchwardens of St. Mary's were given an option to nominate four candidates at each vacancy, one of whom was to be chosen by the master and wardens of the Drapers' Company. The last provision had ceased to be observed by 1638, when St. Mary's went to law to establish their rights, but an amicable settlement was reached in 1640, when the Drapers undertook to follow the procedure of 1587 and to restrict admissions to suitably qualified residents of St. Mary's if any could be found. (fn. 59) More than ordinary care seems to have been taken over the condition of the almshouses during the Interregnum. A general purge of the inmates was carried out in 1647 (fn. 60) and the prohibition of married couples was reiterated in 1652. (fn. 61) Improvements in the standard of accommodation were being made at this time (fn. 62) and in 1658 a standing committee was appointed, one of the functions of which was to draw up 'good and wholesome laws' for the almshouses, taking advice if necessary from similar institutions elsewhere. (fn. 63) This committee, however, failed to take any action and is not recorded after 1663, when it was urged to 'take work in hand'. (fn. 64)
Allowances of corn to the inmates had ceased by the 1540s (fn. 65) and in 1577 each of them received about 2d. a week. (fn. 66) An additional shilling a quarter was paid them from 1595, (fn. 67) probably representing the income from two houses given to the Drapers by George Wood. (fn. 68) The rate of quarterly payment remained unchanged until the early 18th century but during the 1640s they occasionally received small sums in years in which the Drapers' Easter feast was not held (fn. 69) and this became formalized as a regular annual payment of 16s. after the Restora tion. (fn. 70) By will of 1612 Edward Owen bequeathed a rent charge of 30s. a year for the use of the almshouses. (fn. 71) This was apparently being paid to the company in the 1650s (fn. 72) but there is no later evidence for its payment. (fn. 73) The provision of coats or cloaks for the inmates, first recorded in 1670, (fn. 74) became a regular feature after 1677, when a bequest of £200 from Timothy Tourneur was set aside for this purpose. (fn. 75) Until the 1690s distribution of coats took place annually and thereafter in alternate years. (fn. 76) A reversionary interest in a rent charge of £10 a year, arising from the manor of Middleton Scriven, was granted to the almshouses by Edward Briggs by deed of 1669 (fn. 77) but no income was apparently received from this source until 1721, when the total annual allowance to the inmates was raised from £9 4s. to £16. (fn. 78) A further and more substantial increase was made in 1746, when the total annual allowance was raised to £37 10s., thus providing each inmate with about £2 6s. 10d. a year. (fn. 79) An additional 10s. 6d. a quarter was paid them after 1809. (fn. 80)
Early-19th-century descriptions of the almshouses imply that they were an integrated structure, consisting of a range of single story apartments and a two-story central hall, (fn. 81) but a careful drawing of 1823 (fn. 82) snows a more complex set of buildings. To the north-west stood 13 single-story apartments, most of which had tall chimney stacks on the street front. Adjoining these was a close-studded timberframed building of 4 or 5 bays. A porch projected on the street near its north-western end and, while most of this building was then of two stories, the bay between the porch and the almshouse apartments had been raised to three-story height. A brickfronted house, demolished by 1823, had adjoined the south-eastern gable of the two-story house (fn. 83) and may well have been part of the same building. Most of the difficulties of interpretation are resolved if the two-story range is regarded as having been originally Degory Watur's own house. The projecting porch presumably marks the position of the screens passage with a chamber over at the lower (north-west) end of the hall. The service bay would then be represented by the section with a raised roof adjoining the almshouse apartments and the demolished structure at the south-east end of the hall may have been the solar. Some such arrangement was clearly intended in 1444. While the churchwardens of St. Mary's were given licence to build on a site 106½ feet long by 12½ feet wide, (fn. 84) Degory Watur was granted a considerably longer site of 63 by 4 ells (approximately 189 by 12 feet). (fn. 85) The latter corresponds with the total length of the almshouse site, (fn. 86) approximately represented by the present southwest wall of St. Mary's churchyard, while the churchwardens' site would roughly match the area occupied by the single-story apartments, each of which measured internally 8 feet by 11 feet. (fn. 87) The porch was decorated with a painting of Degory Watur and his wife, an effigy of Edward IV, the arms of the Drapers' Company, and a lengthy verse inscription. (fn. 88) These were refurbished in 1659, (fn. 89) 1695, (fn. 90) and 1721 (fn. 91) but the inscription had long been defaced by 1808. (fn. 92) A chamber over the 'poor folks' hall' is recorded in 1579, when it was being used as a muniment room. (fn. 93) This was presumably not a full first floor but a small room over the porch and passage, access to which was still by means of a ladder in the mid 17th century. (fn. 94) A 'lower chimney', recorded in 1653, (fn. 95) was probably that shown in 1823 by the side of the porch. The hall, however, had no fewer than 12 window shutters in 1653, (fn. 96) suggesting that it may already have been divided into smaller apartments. The incongruous tall chimney stacks on the almshouse apartments were inserted c. 1647, when their 'chambers' were said to have been built higher. (fn. 97)
The almshouses were said to be wretched, filthy, and dangerously unwholesome in 1808. (fn. 98) They were demolished, c. 1824, when the site was acquired for street widening, and new almshouses were erected on the opposite side of the street to designs by John Carline the younger. (fn. 99) These were brick-built in the Tudor style and comprised 18 two-story apartments set around a central quadrangle. Above the gateway in the centre of the street front was a tower-like lodge for the porter. The inmates received stipends of £1 2s. 3d. a year in the 1830s (fn. 100) and the scale of allowances was steadily increased later in the 19th century. (fn. 101) It was set at £3 a quarter in 1880 (fn. 102) and since 1901 has been not less than 5s. a week. (fn. 103) Allowances of clothing under the Tourneur bequest continued and coal was also given until 1949. The right of St. Mary's to nominate inmates had lapsed by the 19th century and, as membership of the Drapers' Company dwindled, it had become customary by the 1880s for members to nominate to vacancies in rotation. This practice ceased after 1930, when the almshouses were constituted part of the Shrewsbury Drapers' Company General Charities. The Scheme then adopted introduced no other significant changes in the administration of the almshouses. A scheme to sell the almshouses and to rebuild them on a new site was under discussion in the 1930s. This was postponed on the outbreak of war and was not carried into effect until 1964, when new almshouses were built at Fairford Place, Longden Coleham, and the old ones demolished.
Wardens were almost invariably paupers after the time of Degory Watur and the almshouses never made use of a distinct seal.