Posts Tagged ‘Geffrye Almsohouses’

Inquiring readers: Earlier this week, Tony Grant wrote about the history of Robert Geffrye and the Almshouses in Shoreditch. This post discusses his experience as a guide in an 18th century room. This post links to online images to that room. Enjoy!

Almshouse, number 14, has been set up to show what a pensioner’s rooms would have been like in the 1780s and also a hundred years later in the 1880s. The almshouses were used as charitable houses for the poor for 200 years.

Plan of houses

One of the things I do as a volunteer at the museum is to take visitors around these historic rooms and discuss the history of the building and the lifestyle of the pensioners who lived there. 

The ground floor consists of the 1850s rooms. Jane Austen lived from 1775 to 1817, and these almshouses existed and were in use throughout her lifetime. The world she portrays in her novels is often of the rich landowning gentry and the village community. This other world of poor, mostly  illiterate people lived at the same time as she, and I think we should be aware of them.

When I bring a group into the almshouses, we enter the front door and assemble in the downstairs room with display boards, and a few chairs and a table to show some handling artefacts. By this point, as we walk from the reception area on the opposite side of the almshouses, I have already given the group some background information about Robert Geffrye and the building, and the purpose of the almshouses. 

Once inside the building, I give a quick health safety talk about moving around the almshouses and point out low door lintels. It is important that visitors touch nothing. All are original artefacts from the 18th century.  I tell them about the meeting point if the fire alarms are set off. The room we are in is located in the first ground floor rooms. Another room of the same size and shape is located on the opposite side  of the entrance door on the ground floor and there are two more rooms on the first floor at the top of the flight of stairs. Each almshouse was built  for four pensioners, hence the four room layout.

I then take the group into the room opposite.

Let’s return to the year 1780 in Shoreditch, just north of the City of London at The Geffrye Almshouses on The Kingsland Road. This ground floor room is set out as it would have been during the 1780s, the first century the almshouses existed.

Map of The Museum of The home (2)

The room appears sparsely furnished. The windows show some light entering the room. The giant London Plane Trees that replaced the original lime trees over 100 hundred years ago cast a shadow in the room, especially in the summer when the trees have their full leaf canopy. The windows today are the Victorian sash windows that replaced the original shuttered windows, but apart from that, everything is as it would have been in 1780. 

A gnarled oak table is positioned under the window, with the wood grain deeply fissured in places. On the table are a pewter plate, a horn mug, and iron and bone handled knife and fork. An iron candlestick holds a candle. I usually light the candles in this room for the visitors to get the full effect of how lighting would have been. Nowadays, we use modern candles with the flame standing bright and true and straight. 

A cylindrical tin hanging on the wall gives us more of an idea of the lighting in this room in the 18th century. It contains tallow candles. These were made from animal fat. They were cheap. When lit they generally smoked and gave off an unpleasant smell. The reason they were kept in this tin container is so that the rats could not eat them. A pair of what look like iron scissors lie near the tallow candles. By trimming the candle wick the smoking, and, hence the smell, could be reduced.  A small iron cone with a long thin handle was used to snuff the candles.  

I always point out the floorboards. This was a luxury for poor people. Generally, workers’ homes had earth floors, which got damp in wet weather and rotted their wooden furniture. Two of the chairs in the room look rather low, with their seats close to the floor. You can see how the legs have been strengthened with cross pieces. The legs have been gradually cut down as they rotted from the floor upwards. 

The bed is a strong wooden frame with ropes stretched across the frame to make a netting for the straw filled mattress to lie on. A coarse woollen blanket covers the bed. Underneath the bed you see a large chamber pot. This was the container the occupants would urinate and defecate in. Each day they emptied their chamber pots into a cesspit at the back of the buildings. The cesspit was emptied regularly by night soil men.

As the diet was mostly vegetables, I surmise that the contents of the cesspit was put onto the local market garden fields as compost. 

Water was obtained from two pumps within the grounds outside of the almshouses. The Geffrye Pensioner was provided with clean fresh water from the “New River,” a canalisation of the River Lea from James Ist’s time. The River Lea starts from a country town called Ware thirty miles north of London. Many springs, including those at Sadlers Wells, feed the river during its course. 

Many Londoners did not have the benefit of clean fresh water. Some aquifers around the city supplied a few pumps, but many people got their water from The Thames, which became more and more filthy as the decades went by. One of the almshouse rules actually stated that the pensioners must not sell water to the local people. The pumps were padlocked and the pensioners were supplied with keys to access the pumps.

The fireplace is an interesting point in this room. It has an iron grate, and iron hooks allow pots to be hung over the flames. A bucket with coal was used to fuel the fire. A tinder box with a piece of flint , a piece of iron to strike a spark, and oiled wool to catch the sparks were used to ignite the fire.

A large iron pot that stands next to the fire was for cooking a vegetable stew called pottage, which was their main diet. Meat was expensive and, unless they managed to trap and catch a rabbit in the local fields or once in a while got hold of an old chicken, they very seldom had meat. 

Pewter plates are interesting. In the 18th century, pewter was an amalgam of tin, antimony, and lead. They didn’t know that lead was poisonous, probably because the effects took a long time to build up in the body. By the cuts and scrapes on the surface of the pewter plates in this room small grains of lead must have gotten into their bodies with every meal.

There is no evidence of written material in this room:  the pensioners in the 18th century were probably illiterate, although they had skills in the iron trade and had been very talented ironworkers.

The small room attached to this main living area stored items such as jugs, plates, brushes, and other utensils.

I then take the visitors into the basement to view the store rooms for coal and the washing facilities for their clothes. A large cauldron, heated by coal from underneath, was used to boil a mixture of water, an alkali made from wood ash, and a certain amount of urine as a bleaching agent. The smell must have been awful. I really can’t imagine they often washed their clothes. Maybe once a year. They had to dry their clothing either in front of the fires in their rooms or in an area at the back of the almshouses. Washing could not be hung at the front for passersby to see. 

And so a visit to some of the poor of the 18th century ends. 

The Museum of the Home encourages us to ask questions about what ”home” means. Because of the history of the buildings themselves, however, we have to ask questions about  Sir Robert Geffrye.  What is his legacy today?



  • Kathy Haslam : A History of the Geffrye Almshouses,  Published by The Geffrye Museum 
  • Penelope Hunting :  Riot and Revolution ( Sir Robert Geffrye 1613-1704)  Published by The Geffrye Museum 2013

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