At the Geffrye Almhouses
Visiting the Mariners’ almhouses at Trinity Green in Whitechapel last week filled me with curiousity to discover more of the former life of these places, and so I sought out the Geffrye almhouses in Shoreditch which are now the Geffrye Museum, where a couple of dwellings have been restored as they were once inhabited. After three centuries, the bewigged statue of Sir Robert Geffrye – the enterprising Cornishman who came to London at the age of sixteen, enjoyed a prosperous career as an ironmonger and was declared Lord Mayor of London in 1685 – still presides with a satisfied smile upon this fine terrace built in 1714 at his bequest by the Ironmongers’ Company to provide homes for “poor people of good character over the age of fifty-six.”
At that time, much of the land North of Old St was given over to nurseries and market gardens, punctuated by clay pits and kilns for tile making. Quieter and healthier than the City of London, it was the ideal location for almshouses, with the Drapers Company and the Frameknitters company also building to the North and South of the Geffrye site. Built by carpenter Robert Burford, the fourteen Geffrye almhouses were constructed of good quality materials, “of oake or good yellow firr,” and “good plain tyles with heart of oak lathes,” while windows were glazed with “the best Castle (Newcastle) glass,” and each door had “a stoute lock, key and bolt and latch and good hinges.” The buildings were lacking in ostentation, with minimal ornamentation upon the interior where each dwelling consisted of a single unfurnished room of thirteen by fifteen feet.
And for two hundred years, the Geffrye almhouses served their noble purpose until the rowdy city began to impinge upon the delicate sensibility of the elderly residents and, in 1908, the almshouse matron, Annie Young, complained that “All kinds of objectionable rubbish were thrown over the wall…rows between men and women were constantly to be seen…and the children who ran about the yards seemed scarcely to be human.” In 1912, the Ironmongers Company transferred their worthy pensioners to the more isolated and peaceful location of Mottingham in Kent and sold the almshouses to the London County Council who converted them into a museum of furniture, reflecting the location of Shoreditch as the centre of the furniture industry then.
Yet one dwelling remained unaltered with its staircase and internal woodwork intact, in use as the museum warden’s house until 1996, and this has now been restored with one room as it might have been in 1780 and another as it might have been in 1880. Stepping in through the double doors from the yard shaded by great trees, you find yourself in a staircase that once led to four residences on two storeys. On the ground floor you enter the austere eighteenth century room, bare boards, lead-grey painted walls, a few unframed prints, a small dining table, a stick-back chair set by the brick range and a stump bed in the corner. Although this single room – with a tiny closet for preparing food – might have been occupied by a couple, it does not seem cramped and is comparable to, or even larger than, rooms I have visited in care homes for old people today.
A list of residents from the seventeen eighties reveals that most were small tradesmen from London who enjoyed modest success in their working lives, and many were able to continue some form of piecework to supplement their small pensions. They were obligated to keep their rooms clean, to be in before the gates locked at night, to refrain from blasphemy or keeping poultry on the front lawn, and adultery and lewdness were both punishable by expulsion, yet the evidence of the records shows that the apparent strict regulations appear to have been followed leniently. No-one was expelled.
One flight of stairs above, you enter a room of the eighteen eighties and the immediate difference is that there are more things, more furniture and more trinkets. The brick range is replaced by a cast iron grate while a brass bedstead gleams in the corner - and two brackets above the fireplace carry the innovation of gaslight. In 1898, Henry Barrett the gatekeeper recorded an incident with matron’s new gas oven, “I met with an Axedon today. There Exploded in the matron’s House the Gas. I Filled the Gas oven in the stove & I opened the Door & it exploded in my face, Burned my Face & Hair & Whiskers & Burned off my Eye Lashes. It was God’s Good Providence my Eyes was not Hurt.” Looking from the window out into the tiny courtyard where once fifty people resided in these almshouse, I could only wonder at the drama occasioned by the exploding oven in such an isolated community – where few people left except feet first and some were simply transferred direct to the ironmongers’ cemetery conveniently placed within the grounds at the end of the terrace.
But in spite of the exploding ovens and rowdy neighbours, census records reveal that the Geffrye pensioners lived far beyond average life expectancy at the time – in this shangri la on the Kinsgland Rd – as Henry Barrett recorded in his journal,“Miss Daniel Died after seven years Bedrid, I think near a hundred years old.” Even today, with the steady flow of visitors and school parties to the Geffrye Museum, there is an enduring air of peace in this place that is instantly restored once the crowds have passed through the yard, and inside the almhouses you feel it pervasively, in these quiet rooms where people have sat out time.
The ironmongers’ graveyard in a quiet corner of the grounds.
The courtyard in 1948, photograph by L. Taylor
Schoolchildren visit the museum in 1961.
A room furnished as it might have been in 1780.
A room furnished as it might have been in 1880.
The crockery cupboard of 1880.
Geffrye pensioners enjoy the sun in 1903 – amused by their pet monkey on a stand.
Archive images copyright © Geffrye Museum