Waltham Forest Echo

Waltham Forest Echo

London's original social housing

Liz Abbott from the Walthamstow and Chingford Almshouse Charity on the borough's almshouses past to present

Hero for London's original social housing
The Monoux almshouse in Walthamstow Village (credit: WCAC)
12 December 2021

A recent Government survey showed more than two thirds of respondents had no idea what the word “almshouse” means. Yet, if you’ve ever stopped and admired a sociable arrangement of pretty cottages enclosing a colourful garden, it is very likely you’ve come across one. Almshouses were something like the council houses of yesteryear, built by generous benefactors for the local poor, and the first almshouse dates all the way back 990 AD, built by St Oswald in Worcester.

There are at least seven almshouses in our borough, with perhaps the most notable being Sir George Monoux’s in Walthamstow Village.

(credit: WCAC)

This Grade II listed building now serves as the office of the Walthamstow and Chingford Almshouse Charity, which has taken over running five almshouses in the borough and is itself one of the oldest charities anywhere in the country.

George Monoux, born and buried in Walthamstow, was a big fish in a big pond, who built up his wealth as a merchant venturer in Bristol in the 1480s, trading wool and cloth on the continent and returning with cargos of silks, spices and other exotic goods. After relocating back to London, his career only continued to flourish and he was elected as Lord Mayor of the city on two occasions, although on the second in 1523 he refused to serve and was fined £1,000 for contempt.

A blue plaque for Sir Monoux (credit: Spudgun67/Wikimedia)

Eager to put his wealth to good use, Sir Monoux purchased church land and set to work building 13 almshouses for eight poor men and five poor women of the parish, completed in 1527, plus a school. The Monoux School still exists today, albeit in a different location, as the Monoux College in Chingford Lane. The 500 year old almshouses, meanwhile, still provide homes for older people, surviving despite partial decimation by a WWII bomb in 1941.

But it wasn’t just men who made provision for those in need. Mrs Mary Squires’ almshouses, also in Walthamstow Village, were built in 1795 for widows of ‘Decayed Tradesmen’ and offered each woman a “bedstead, stove and large water tub” of her very own. About half a century later, Mrs Jane Sabina Collard created almshouses for ten men in Maynard Road, Walthamstow, stipulating that the inhabitants must not only be “poor and deserving” but also never previously “employed as a domestic servant” or given charity by their local parish church.

The creation of almshouses in Waltham Forest, however, is not confined to the south of the borough or even to days long past. In the 1950s, the sale of property owned by rich Chingford woman Nellie Ridgers was invested - as stipulated in her will - towards housing the poor. In 1958, this money enabled the Walthamstow and Chingford Almshouse Charity to buy enough land to build six new almshouses in Templeton Avenue, paying Chingford Borough Council what now seems a laughable sum of £850.

In September 2018, Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy unveiled a plaque to commemorate the official opening of Colby Lodge, the charity’s fifth and newest almshouse. The development, which has 20 flats, a hairdresser and a laundrette, is named for Thomas Colby, a former schoolmaster at Sir George Monoux School who died of the plague in 1609 and left 12 acres of land to the charity. This land was bought in the 1990s by the Secretary of State for Transport, enabling the widening of the North Circular Road.

Gill and Maurice (credit: WCAC)

Husband and wife Gill and Maurice were the first residents to move into Colby Lodge and are still there today. They told me they feel not only safe and protected but also “part of the community” and “valued” in a way they hadn’t in their previous home.

Gill said: “The building is so very beautiful and the flats are comfortable and well-designed especially for people who are, shall we say, a little less able to get around than they used to be!

“We feel privileged to be a part of this community and know that, because of the help and support given by the staff, we shall be able to continue with our happy lives for, hopefully, many years to come.”

In addition to providing homes for those in need, the Walthamstow and Chingford Almshouse Charity is also able to offer grants to people in the two areas to help out in times of crisis, like replacing a broken cooker or buying essential furniture. We’re also happy to help other charities or organisations supporting the poor, such as those that help people into work, provide debt advice or offer other vital services.

To apply for housing or a grant, get in touch via our website https://wcac.org.uk/ by calling 0208 520 0295 or email office@wcac.org.uk