Housing ‘Poor Men’ in Greenwich

Trinity Hospital claims to be the oldest building in Greenwich; built in 1613, it pre-dates Inigo Jones Queen’s House by three years.  The benefactor was Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton and the Hospital, which is an almshouse, was built to provide shelter for 20 ‘Poor Men’ plus a warden.

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The Hospital has a slightly monastic feel with a small cloistered courtyard, the original rooms were little more than cells but the 21 rooms were converted into one bedroom flats following a refurbishment in 2008.

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The building itself had a makeover in 1812 with changes to the clock tower and the front stuccoed and capped with a castellated parapet.  Apparently the original south facing elevation was retained – this wasn’t accessible when I visited, although the pleasant garden which it looks out onto was – it is crossed by the meridian.

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The building is somewhat dwarfed by the adjacent Greenwich Power station, although a little less so than when the latter was built in the early 1900s, as following objections from the Observatory the chimneys were lowered by around 20 metres.

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Of the original 20 ‘Poor Men’ (plus a warden) 8 came from Shotesham in Norfolk, where the Earl of Northampton was born, and 12 from Greenwich.

The hospital was not open to everyone, there were strict guidelines about the suitability of ‘Poor Men’ to live there, including being at least 56 years old, not being a beggar, drunkard or ‘whore hunter’ and an ability to recite the Lord’s Prayer unaided.

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While the environment is now a little more relaxed, the original ‘Poor Men’ lived a very regimented lifestyle,

6 am (8 am in winter): rise, dress and say prayers.

9 am: service in the chapel (or St Alfege Church, presumably the medieval one rather than that designed by Hawksmoor, on Wednesday and Friday).

Until 11 am: Free time (although they were expected to do gardening and housework)

11 am: Lunch in the hall

3 pm: Church or chapel service, followed by ‘free time’ (‘weekly correction’ on Saturday).

6 pm: Supper in the hall.

9 pm: Retire to bed

There were also a series of ‘orders’ about acceptable behaviour issued by the Warden many of which were displayed in the cloisters when I visited – ranging in subject from forbidding the ‘Poor Men’ from going to ale houses and the like, wiping feet and when gates should be closed.

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Interestingly, the ‘Poor Men’ had a voice in key changes at the Hospital – 10 of them (along with two Senior Wardens from the Mercers Company) needed to agree to any decision involving use of the seal in relation to ‘any lease, grant or other writing whatsoever concerning the estate of the hospital.’

Trinity Hospital is only open once a year, as part of London Open House, and for the last few years just on the Saturday, it is well worth a visit though.

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9 thoughts on “Housing ‘Poor Men’ in Greenwich

  1. Caroline

    I’ve walked past this place a few times and have always wondered about its history – I especially love the signs with rules written on them, it’s quite amusing to imagine the situations that might have led to the rules being made!

    Reply
    1. runner500 Post author

      I suppose the rules are a bit like social housing allocations policies and tenancy agreements now – but with a much greater focus on alcohol. It is well worth a visit via Open House (or making friends with a ‘Poor Man’) I combined with a few other places in the area.

      Reply
  2. Eccentric Parabola (@eccentricparab)

    My brother-in-law’s family have two connections to the hospital that I know of: one distant forbear being the Rev. Nicholas Tindal (1687-1774), who was Chaplain of Greenwich Hospital, and another being John Pocock “of Greenwich Hospital” – all I know about John Pocock is that his daughter, Sarah or ‘Sally’, married the Rev Nicholas Tindal’s grandson, Robert Tindal – and they were parents to Sir Nicholas Conyngham Tindal (1776-1846), who was Lord Chief Justice – and there’s a bronze statue of him in Chelmsford.

    I live a little upriver from the Greenwich Hospital. It’s a lovely little building, as your photos show. Wonderful it has survived so long, especially given all the many changes along that stretch of the river even in just my own lifetime. Will have to see if I can pay it a proper visit during next year’s Open House.

    Reply
    1. John

      Ah, you need to be careful of getting Greenwich Hospital and Trinity Hospital mixed up! Greenwich Hospital was what is now the Old Royal Naval College, a much larger and later establishment for retired navy seamen.

      Reply
      1. Waymarks (@waymarksblog)

        Thanks, John. Good point! … Must admit I’d not looked into it too closely as the family tree was a bit of an aside from the main area of what I was researching. It’s all too easy to make assumptions and so jump to wrong conclusions.

        (formerly @eccentricparab)

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