At Norton Folgate Almshouses
Before Christmas, Spitalfields architect Chris Dyson took me to the Norton Folgate Almhouses in Puma Court, where he is one of the trustees, to show me the renovations. And yesterday I went back to meet Alfons Jedrzejewski – widely known as Alec – who is the most senior resident and also the first to return after the works.
For many years I have passed the railings of the almshouses as I walked through Puma Court, leaving the clamor of Commercial St behind me and entering the peaceful streets of eighteenth century houses beyond. So I was intrigued to enter through the old iron gates at last and visit this appealing backwater in the midst of the city. Established at first in Blossom St - West of here – in 1728, this site for the Norton Folgate almshouses was purchased in 1851, when the widening of Commercial St to permit the increasing traffic from the London Docks required the demolition of the former premises.
“The site was bought by the trustees for the sum of 1,500 pounds and 52 pounds 16 shillings for interest, the said commissioners of works conveyed to Henry Soper and nine others, being the survivors of the trustees appointed by order of court of the 10th May 1851, a piece of ground described as situate on the East side of Commercial St and the North side of Red Lion Court (as Puma Court was then known) in the parish of Christ Church, Spitalfields, which said piece of ground was delineated in the plan drawn and therein coloured pink, upon the trust’s indenture of the 4th December 1746.”
This pair of modest yet elegantly proportioned brick structures, each containing eight rooms on two storeys, was built by architect T. E. Knightley in 1860. Every resident received two shillings and sixpence a month, a ticket for a quartern loaf of bread per week, six hundredweight of coal on 21st December and materials for dinner on Christmas Day. There were fifteen single people and one married couple living here in 1897, they each had a one room and the average age was sixty-four. It was a humane endeavour, offering a secure haven for those who could no longer earn a living and existing in sharp contrast to the poverty which dominated the neighbourhood at that time.
During the last century, those sixteen rooms were combined into eight one-bedroom flats and the recent renovation involving the construction of extensions by architects Manalo & White to the rear, replacing former washhouses with four additional rooms, makes four two-bedroom flats, permitting the possibility that families could live here in future. These extensions have been sensitively conceived to complement the existing almshouses, following the lines of the original structures and clad in oak weatherboarding that will quickly weather to a sympathetic patina. For residents, these modern rooms created in the gaps between the old buildings offer characterful living spaces with high pitched ceilings on the upper floors and clever use of skylights and windows in corners to bring in daylight from several directions at once.
After a ten month sojourn in Shepherds Bush, Alec is relieved to be back in the place where he has lived for the last forty-two years. “I prefer to be here,” he confided to me, rolling his eyes to communicate the alien nature of life in West London, “I feel more happy here.” Hale and healthy at eighty-six, Alec was born in 1926 in Tors in Poland. He served in the Polish army during World War II and came to London in May 1946 to start a new life after he discovered that all his relatives in Poland had been killed by Stalin. Just a few snaps and photobooth portraits in a frame upon the wall of Alec’s living room in Norton Folgate Almhouses attest to the existence of his family now, and his flat also contains the memory of the last twenty-three years of his marriage to his wife Halina who died nineteen years ago.
When he first came to London, Alec worked as a house painter until – following Halina’s prudent advice – he took a job on the railway that would give him a pension, working for twenty-one years in the parcels office at Liverpool St station. “A friend of mine, who worked at Kings Cross and lived at 8 Wilkes St, told me about these flats,” explained Alec, emphasising the importance he places upon mobility, “you have good transport links here, underground, buses and British Rail.” Significant because the highlight of Alec’s week now is his trip to Leytonstone to visit his girlfriend Maria and take her the fresh fish that she loves so much which he buys for her at Asda.
Over one hundred and fifty years, this discreet pair of buildings in Puma Court has offered a safe harbour for life – as Alec will attest – and now these thoughtfully-conceived renovations carry the Norton Folgate Almshouses forward into another century, as the need for good quality housing at an affordable price in Spitalfields becomes ever more pressing.
Almshouses of 1860 by T.E.Knightley with new extension to the rear by Manalo & White, 2011.
Eighty-six year old Alfons Jedrzejewski – widely known as Alec – has lived in the Norton Folgate Almshouses for forty-two years.
After ten months in Shepherd’s Bush, Alec is glad to be back -”I prefer it it here, I feel more happy here.”
The current trustees are James Talbot (Chairman), Rachel N. Blake, Chris Dyson RIBA FRSA, Emma King, Reverend Andy Rider, Hannah Spiring and Chris Weavers.
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