Almshouses count among the oldest charities in England and Wales, with some reputed to have been founded over 1,000 years ago and still operating today.
Also known as “bede houses” or “hospitals”, early examples would have been established by church authorities to provide shelter and food for the poor and for pilgrims and other travellers. After the Reformation, guilds and livery companies, wealthy merchants and other benefactors were the typical founders, although bishops and other clergy continued to endow almshouses.
The history of almshouses is closely linked with charity law: the long-running scandal and legal battles surrounding St Cross Hospital in Winchester were to become not only an inspiration for Trollope’s novel The Warden but also a catalyst for the reform of the regulation of charities and for the creation of the Charity Commissioners for England and Wales in 1853.
Today’s almshouses may still occupy buildings of great beauty and historical interest, but their management has moved forward into the 21st Century and they now provide much-needed accommodation to some 35,000 residents who might otherwise struggle to find somewhere to live. Some have expanded their operations to include extra care and residential care, and many of the older foundations also provide grants for the relief of poverty.
As charities, almshouses are subject to charity law and most are regulated by the Charity Commission; many are also registered providers of social housing and therefore come within the scope of the Regulator of Social Housing which oversees the use of public funds invested in providers and the management of housing for the benefit of residents.
The team at Hunters has extensive experience of advising almshouse trustees on a range of legal and regulatory matters, including:
- the rights of residents
- governance and the duties of trustees
- permanent endowment and restricted funds
- restructuring, incorporation and mergers
- modernisations and construction projects
- property transactions and the disposal of designated land
We have developed a governance toolkit for almshouse trustees that is based on our experience of advising clients and that supports robust decision-making in a variety of situations. For more information, contact Paul Ridout.