England Almshouses (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Poor Law and Parish Chest Records  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


The church had always emphasized charitable giving to the poor and from early times wealthier citizens and trade guilds had set up foundations for building and maintaining almshouses for caring for the poor, especially the elderly and widowed. Alternative names for these buildings during the Middle Ages were spital houses, hospitals, bedehouses and maisons dieu (houses of God), and they were supervised by a warden or master, often under the direction of a body of trustees or feoffees.

Many of these old buildings still exist, or have been rebuilt or renovated with modern conveniences. They typically consist of shared dining and social areas, a chapel, an infirmary and small private apartments, often around a courtyard or in a long row. At the Reformation many were dissolved, but many were re-established by the Elizabethans and new ones were founded, usually by individual local worthies in their wills.

Wills often stated the number of places and type of inhabitant, for example Eight poor widows, Twenty elderly parishioners of good character, Ten men and ten women, or 12 old and infirm shoemakers or their widows. Some provided specific coats or other clothes of a particular colour or design that the almspeople had to wear.

There was usually a memorial plaque, bust or coat of arms on the building to commemorate the donor, and special services may have been held in the chapel on the anniversary of his or her death, for which the endowment paid a chaplain to conduct. Almshouses continued to be founded through the 19th century and into the 20th.

Almshouse Records

Records of almshouses can often be found amongst the parish chest records, trade guild company records, or may be in family papers deposited at archives or in private hands. Some of these almshouses were strictly for parishioners, but others took people from anywhere in Britain. Examples on film include:

  • Honourable East India Company almshouses at Poplar, Middlesex receipts and disbursements 1709-1810 on FHL film 0569202.
  • Trinity House Almshouses for Mariners applications (including christening and marriage certificates) 1780-1880 on FHL film 0950869.
  • Inmates of Congregational Almshouse, Stepney, Middlesex 1879-1902 on FHL film 1785884.
  • Accounts and correspondence for Egham, Surrey almshouse 1767-1813 on FHL film 1472082.
  • St. Clement Danes, Westminster, Middlesex almshouse notice book 1816-1844 on FHL film 1520061.
  • Various records for St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Westminster, Middlesex almshouses 1739-1884 for example on FHL film 1751708.

Check the FamilySearch Catalog under your parish and county listings, and if not yet filmed then contact the appropriate county archive for details of what survives and how it can be accessed. Several general histories of individual almshouses and their general social history are also available on film through a keyword search for ALMSHOUSE + ENGLAND.

Glebe Terriers

Anciently the glebe, or glebe land, was that farmed or leased out by a parish priest, having been bequeathed to him bit by bit by local worthies. In some parishes this amounted to a substantial holding, enough to create a Glebe Farm.

A Terrier has nothing to do with breeds of dogs, but is a written description of a landed property by acreages and boundaries. A Glebe Terrier is thus a description of the lands held by the parish incumbent, but has come to include all of the church’s possession’s outside of the church buildings. This might comprise land, buildings, stocks, implements, tithes and how they were to be paid, and fees due, and might be described more prosaically on a record as Survey of Land and Buildings, as it is in Tonbridge, Kent in 1809.

Names of church land tenants may be noted, as well as neighbouring landowners. A glebe terrier was usually made at the time of an ecclesiastical visitation (Hey) and many are found in parish records from 1571 until about 1836. Many provide great detail about the parsonages especially when rebuilding was done or additions made.

Glebe Terrier of Speldhurst, Kent Pre-1700 FHL film 1866582

A Terrier of the Glebe Landsand other Possessions belonging to the Church of Speldhurst in the County of Kent and Diocese of Rochester.
A Parsonage House, Brewhouse, Barn, Stable, orchard and Garden, Church-yard. Three pieces or parcels of Land call’d the Went, containing about Eight Acres, one Little Close call’d Pite’let containing about one quarter of an Acre. Two Pieces or Parcels of Land called Ye Birchett Containing about Six Acres; with a Coppice adjoyning containing about one Acre and one half the Glebe Lands containing about 57 Acres.

This Account, above written, was transcribed out of an old Parchment Register Book Ending about ye Year 1700; by me.
.... 6th 1723          John Cornwall Rector
                           1726 obiit [in another hand]


Tithes were the annual one-tenth of each parishioner’s income required for the support of the church and its officers. Originally tendered in goods, but gradually commuted to cash, tithes had become a legal requirement by the 8th century in England. Tithing is a very complex subject, dealt with at length by Tate. The collection and division of these monies caused endless friction in many parishes. The huge tithe barns still in use collectively for several farms now, or as museums, date back to this time; the famous thatched one at Abbotsbury, Dorset is 272 feet long and stands as mute testimony to the wealth of the former Abbey.

History of Tithes

Church tithes were referred to as the Great Tithes on corn (wheat) and hay, and the Small Tithes of livestock, wool and non-cereal crops. Generally, and there is much local variation, a rector appointed to the benefice of a parish receives both great and small tithes for his upkeep, and that of the chancel of the church, and he organized and delivered church worship. A vicar, (Latin vicarius = substitute), on the other hand, only receives the small tithes for the same job. The historical reason for this is that before the reformation many parishes were appropriated to a monastery or college, who kept the great tithes and spent the small tithes on hiring a vicar to serve in their place. After Henry VIIIs dissolution of the monasteries the rights of rectors were purchased by lay people, known as lay impropriators, whose descendants thus retain the advowson, or right to appoint a vicar or curate to a benefice. Rectors and vicars often had curates to assist them or indeed to completely manage the parish church, particularly if they themselves held more than one benefice, known as plurality.

In about one third of parish tithes were thus paid to lay people, not to support the local parson, and in addition some clergymen and ecclesiastical institutions leased the collection of tithes to laymen. This deviation from the scriptural basis for tithing particularly annoyed Quakers and Anabaptists in the mid-17th century, who refused to pay tithes to any owner. The growth of nonconformity by the early 19th century further increased opposition to the payment of tithes to the Established Church. Much wrangling in ecclesiastical and civil courts ensued with some tithe owners agreeing to a one-time payment to end the practice. In 60% of parliamentary enclosures taking place between 1757 and 1835 the opportunity was taken to allot tithe owners a piece of land in lieu of all future tithe payments, and so ensure future harmony in the parish.

Both the Whigs and Tories saw the need for reform by the 1830s and the Church of England, seeing the writing on the wall and fearful of losing status, acquiesced to the Tithe Commutation Act of 1836. All tithes were then commuted to cash rental payments based on the prevailing price of grain and the land holdings ascertained by the Commissioners and Surveyors who produced the Tithe Maps and Tithe Apportionment Awards during the 1830s and 1840s. There were further Tithe Acts in 1891, 1925 and 1936 and because of the institution of 60 years of redemption payments it wasn’t until 1977 that it was finally abolished (Twinch). This was a lot later than in Scotland (at the Reformation mid-16th century) and Ireland (1869).

Incumbents were also allowed to collect personal tithes calculated on wages or trade profits. These were paid at Easter along with the Easter Dues and a few records survive. The term mainport is sometimes encountered, being the due payable as loaves of bread by poorer householders who were excused certain tithes. Smoke-penny was another type of due once payable at Easter to the incumbent by the occupier of a house with a fireplace.

Tithe Records

Amongst the actual records of accounts can be found memoranda that clarify what customary practice had been in the parish regarding division of tithe revenues, as in this one:

Memorandum Regarding Division of Small Tithes at Stopham
Sussex 1753

                                                1753         Stopham, Sussex
Mem[orandum]:When the Tythes of Stopham and Fittleworth were taken in kind it was usual for the small Tythes of Lee to be divided in the following manner viz: two Thirds to the vicar of Fittleworth and one Third to the Rector of Stopham and the mode of Tything had been the same for time immemorial.
W. Byass                                     [Rector of Stopham 1765-1795]

A separate record book was kept for collecting tithe money. Since all householders were expected to pay, these lists form an annual head-of-household census for each parish.

Tithes Collection in Whippingham, Isle of Wight, Hampshire 1883
By 1883 the parishioners of Whippingham paid tithes semi-annually and in April 1883 the highest amount paid was £92-8-61/2 by Queen Victoria for Osborne House. Others paid from a few shillings up to £39. The books are very wide with columns for the owner, occupier, and name of the property as well as various calculations.

Occupier Landowner Situation of Property
The Queen The Queen Osborne
Auldys, H. H. Auldys East Cowes
Bedford, D. of D. of Bedford Norris Castle
Beckingsale, N.J. J. Batten South Fairlee
Barton, C. C. Barton Mornhill
Bullock, W.H. Mrs. Cooke Bucklebury
Barton, C.L. C.L. Barton "
Barton, J. J. Barton "
Bush, Mrs. Mrs. Bush Arboretum E. Cowes
Cooke, N.M. N.M. Cooke Bellecroft

Mew               Ho.

J. Batten South Fairlee
Check, James G. Rollestone Great Parr
Cox, Mrs. Mrs. Cox East Cowes
Dredge, Wm The Queen Kingstone
Dyer, Mrs. Mrs. Dyer Fairlee

Tithe Awards

Tithe Awards, including the Apportionment Books and Maps needs to be mentioned here as they are found in the parish chest. The Tithe Surveyors compiled extremely detailed large-scale maps and schedules in triplicate—one for the parish, one for the bishop of the diocese, and one for the national tithe office. The former two are now in county archives, the latter at the Public Record Office at Kew. The maps show houses, boundaries, acreages, land use and field names. Each field and other portion of land was numbered on the map and these numbers correspond to descriptions on the schedule which show the owner (alphabetically), occupier and current use of the land.

About 79% of England is covered by these tithe awards. Although the survival rate is excellent, very few tithe maps seem to have been filmed yet by the GSU, however the number of schedules (apportionment books) is greater. Thus, there are six films of Gloucester apportionment books but only that for Frampton Cotterell 1842 mentions a map (FHL film 2093081); and the 1926 revised map for Acol, Kent has been fiched on FHL fiche 6341736(5). Researchers should contact the county archive for copies of the portions of the maps that they require; Essex, for example, has photograph copies of the maps and a slip index to all names in the tithe awards 1838-1859 in their search room. The chart below shows an example from a tithe apportionment book.

Tithe Apportionment Book Hadlow, Kent
Undated but about 1840—FHL film 1701919

[The five columns give the Number (which cross-references to the map), Field name, Agricultural use, Cleared Area and Total Area (both in acres, rods and perches)]

# Name Type Clear Total
Lowlands Farm                  Thos Martin Esq Proprietor and Occupier
218 Hodswell Orchard Orchard  - - -  - -32
222 Turnpike field Arable 2-3-24 2-3-33
223 Homestead  - -  - - -  -1-34
224 Great Lowlands Arable 23-1-29 23-2-14
227 Gilbert's Green Do 4-0-30 4-1-16



Grand total


 - 1-33


Parker's Green           Mrs May Propr      Elizth Cheeseman Occupr
225 Homestead  - -  - - -  -2-23
226 Hop Garden Hops 6-2-11 6-2-34
276 Shoulder of Mutton Arable 1-1-13 1-1-31
907 Barn field Pasture 3-0-12 3-0-32
908 Barn and Yard  - -  - - -  - -14


Grand total



Public Record Leaflet D 41 has a lucid explanation of tithes and tithe commutation.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Poor Law and Parish Chest Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.