Thursday, July 06, 2006

Miniature magnificence

click photo to enlarge
Almshouses (also called poorhouses in the United States and elsewhere) have a long history in Britain. The first was established by King Athelstan in tenth century York, and the oldest surviving almshouse - the Hospital of St Oswald in Worcester- is of this period. They are charitable housing, often built by a trust or benefactor, and designed to meet the needs of the poor and elderly of an area. Most were designed as a single building, divided up into independent living accommodation, often with areas, e.g. gardens, to be shared by all the residents. Almshouses continued to be built until the twentieth century, and in Britain about 2,600 of them still provide a home for about 36,000 people.

These almshouses at Stydd, near Ribchester, Lancashire, were built in 1728. They came about as a result of the will of John Shireburne of Stoneyhurst. This stipulated that, on his death, he wanted to found and build "a good almshouse on his estate at Stydd for 5 poor persons to live separately therein." Roman Catholic widows and spinsters were particularly to be favoured as potential residents. The building is now managed by a housing association, though until recently the terms of the original will were closely followed. So, why were John Shireburn's wishes translated into such an imposing, albeit on a small scale, building? Was it to reflect the status of the giver? Or perhaps the taste of the executors is what we see? Was it to add to the beautification of the location or the donor's estate? Perhaps it was guilt - the givers wanted to offer the poor something that they had enjoyed in life! Whatever the reason, these particular almshouses, and such buildings elsewhere, are often quite decorative. Which is odd, since plainer architecture would presumably release money for additional dwellings. The architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner described the building as "very curious and very engaging", and it is an odd mix of the grand and the prosaic in such a small building. However, these qualities combined with its rural location must have made it a pleasant place to live for the successive inhabitants of the last 278 years.

I'm very interested in the history of architecture, and so I like photographing buildings. This early morning shot of the building is designed to show the almshouse in all its miniature magnificence, so I took it from the front to emphasise the classically-inspired symmetry, the splendid pediment, arches, columns and stairs, and the contrast of the stone and brick. I included a little of the surrounding greenery, and didn't mind the trees' shadows since they hint at its rural setting.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen