Alms and the manor

Friday 28 February 2014

 Almshouses have been established from the 10th century to the present day. They have enabled people (typically elderly folk who can no longer work to earn enough to pay rent) to live in a particular community free of charge, or at minimal costs. They are often targeted at the poor of a locality, at those from certain forms of previous employment, or their widows, and are generally maintained by a church, charity or the trustees of a bequest.

Most were established before the age of local authority housing, and operate on a fairly small scale. Increasingly, the trusts that were established to administer them have passed their running over to larger social landlords, such as housing associations.

Forest Gate is unusual in that it at one time it hosted three, very separate, but small Almshouse developments, offering between them accommodation for no more than a couple of dozen people.

 Of the three, one - the Pawnbrokers almshouses, of which we have already written (here) - was established by a trade association, and no longer exists. The two other sets were established by religious philanthropists, who created trusts and charities to manage them. These bodies have subsequently passed the functions on to local housing associations.

Forest Gate Retreat, Odessa Road

Jabez Legg lived in Stratford and was an undertaker and Congregational minister in the early 19th century.

The old Congregational church, Sebert
Road, which replaced Legg's church.  He
also established the Forest Gate retreat
In the 1820's Wanstead House was in its prime and received a steady flow of visitors, many of whom travelled along what is now Woodgrange Road for their visits.  Among the attractions, en route, were the tea gardens in the Eagle and Child Public House, on Woodford Road.

Legg decided to build a small Chapel near to this garden, at a cost of £220, offering weekly services and day school facilities, for visitors to Wanstead, and the growing local population.  He chose a site at the junction of Forest Lane and Woodgrange Road. The building was completed in 1830.
Within a quarter of a century, the rapid growth of Forest Gate, brought about by the development of the railways, meant that the small Chapel was no longer large enough to cater for local demand.  

With the help of local Quakers, including Samuel Gurney, he was able to construct a much grander Congregational Church, in Forest Lane - at a cost of a little over £1,500.  This opened in 1856. This, itself, was superseded by the large Congregational Church (now the Ark Church, and Renewal Programme headquarters) on Sebert Road a further quarter of a century later.

Legg built the first three of six cottages, known as Forest Gate Retreat, near to the second chapel - as homes for his retired family female servants - two years later.  Three more cottages were added in 1863.  They are still situated on Forest Lane at the junction of Odessa Road, facing the railway line.

Forest Gate retreat - Legg's almshouses,
Odessa Road and Forest Lane
After Legg's death, aged 81, in 1867, his family administered the alms houses. They broadened its base or target population and offered accommodation to needy, usually local, women.  Feeling the need for some support and taking advantage of the economies of scale, the Legg Charitable Trust merged in 1939 with a similar organisation, in Wimbledon, to become the Legg-Whittuck trust.  

This subsequently joined Pathways - a not-for-profit organisation dealing mainly with sheltered housing projects, in 2012.

The six, one-bed roomed,  houses are available for single female tenants, who meet Pathway's selection criteria, and can come from anywhere in the country.  Most of the residents, however, have a local connection.

Meggs Almshouses - Upton Lane

These 12 self-contained, sheltered,  one-bed roomed flats on Upton Lane were built in 1893, to replace an earlier development on Whitechapel Road. The original ones were constructed in 1658, by City benefactor and draper, William Meggs, to provide accommodation for the elderly, industrious poor. He had already assisted with the development of churches in Stepney.

The Whitechapel Road development was demolished in 1883 to make way for railway construction and the Rector and Churchwarden of Whitechapel, who were trustees of the charity that Meggs had established, chose a spot on Upton Lane for their replacement, a decade later.

Late 19th century image of
Megg's Almshouses, Upton Lane
The almshouses are currently listed and now managed by East Living, which is part of the East Thames Housing Group. The development includes a communal lounge and garden and laundry. Would-be tenants must be either Newham or Tower Hamlets residents.

The Pawnbrokers Almshouse , Woodgrange Road

The Pawnbrokers' alms-houses, Woodgrange Road were built in 1849 - about the time the railway arrived in Forest Gate -by the Pawnbrokers Charitable institution. They accommodated 8 residents, not necessarily from West Ham, who had qualified because they had a connection with the pawn broking trade.

The buildings formed an impressive group in 'Elizabethan' style. We provided a detailed account of these fine house here, in July this year.  That account included some contemporaneous reporting of the lives and times of the residents.

The old Pawnbrokers almshouses of
Woodgrange Road, demolished 1897
The houses were knocked down in 1897 to make way for further commercial development along Woodgrange Road. This included the local public hall, which in turn developed into range of cinemas (see here), a skating rink, the Uppercut club etc and is now a ventilation shaft for the channel tunnel rail link, as well as the Woodgrange Road shops themselves, which of course, survive.

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