Posts Tagged ‘Robert Geffrye’

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

Read Full Post »

Early Life of Robert Geffrye

Robert Geffrye was born at Tredinnick Farm near Landrake in Cornwall in 1613. His father was a yeoman farmer. That meant, unlike a tenant farmer, he owned his own land. He was baptised at St Michael’s Church in Landrake on the 24th May 1613. The local vicar, Roger Jope, chose children from the area to teach the basics of reading and writing. He discovered in Robert a quick and intelligent child. At that time, learning to read and write opened opportunities to any able boy.

A number of national and international incidents happened in the early years of Robert Geffrye’s life. In 1623 and again in 1630, storms affected the crops and many families were left hungry. In 1618, the 30 Years War began in Europe. A period of continuous war over three decades between Catholic and Protestant states in Europe and particularly amongst the Germanic states ensued. Even though Britain was not officially a participant in these wars, James Ist still provided an army of 30,000 English troops to support his Protestant allies. In 1625, three hundred young Cornishmen were conscripted to fight. In 1627 a failed raid on La Rochelle saw the returning English army of 5000 men billeted on Cornish households. Landrake was no exception. Because of the unruly nature of some bands of troops stationed in Cornwall, martial law was imposed on the area. Poor prospects and many dangers beset the young teenage Robert Geffrye.

A young man wanting to get on in life obtained an apprenticeship, especially with one of the great livery companies in the City of London. This was a route to prosperity and advancement. Many Cornish men had made their fortunes by joining such livery companies and many prominent Cornishmen had links to the livery companies. For instance, Richard Randall the Deputy Vice Admiral in Devon had a longstanding connection with The Ironmongers Company. Richard Peate, another Cornishman, made a lucrative career with The Ironmongers and became their senior warden. Robert Geffrye went to London at the age of 17 and applied successfully to join the Ironmongers as an apprentice with Richard Peate.

Robert Geffrye’s father paid Robert Peate the £200 apprenticeship fee. Apprentices became part of their masters family and boarded with them for the seven years the apprenticeship lasted. Robert Geffrye lived with the Peates at Whitecross Street, Finsbury, and initially would have been set to work sweeping the warehouse floor, and packing and weighing goods. Towards the latter years of his apprenticeship he would have worked in the counting house dealing with bills, and learning the elements of book keeping and correspondence, and so became acquainted with Peate’s customers. Daniel Defoe had been an apprentice with the Butchers company. He wrote that on the completion of an apprenticeship, a young man could, 

“turn his hand to anything, or deal in anything or everything.”

Robert Geffrye completed his apprenticeship with credit in August 1637. He was given the freedom of the city, which gave him privileges within the city. He later became a liveryman of the company, putting him in a position of authority, checking standards, and attending church services, dinners, and ceremonies in the name of the company. His dealings were with men who had trained and achieved the same status he had. This put him on a trajectory within the political and trading establishment of the city. 

In 1667 and again in 1687, Geoffrey became the Master of the Ironmongers Company. In 1674 he became the Sherriff of London, an important role in the 17th century. Officeholders had important judicial responsibilities and attended the justices at the Central Criminal Court, The Old Bailey. In 1676, Robert Geffrey became an Alderman and eventually the Lord Mayor of London in 1685. 

Painting of ca, 1745, Westminster from Lambeth, with the Ceremonial Barge of the Ironmongers Company

Samuel Scott, ca, 1745, Westminster from Lambeth, with the Ceremonial Barge of the Ironmongers Company – Google Art Project.

Robert Geffrey’s life and his rise in importance and influence came during a tumultuous time, starting in his youth with The Thirty Years War, the reign of Charles 1st during the English Civil war, when war was waged between the Parliamentarians known as The Roundheads, who were who were mostly Puritan, and the Cavaliers who were monarchists and Church of England followers. The monarchy was defeated, leading to the execution of Charles 1in 1649. Scotland proclaimed his son, also Charles, as King Charles II, whose army was defeated at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, when he escaped to The Netherlands.

The following nine years were known as The  English Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. After Cromwell died, Charles II was invited back to England in 1660 and was welcomed in London in May of that year. Charles II died in 1685 and his brother James became King James II. 

Robert Geffrye lived through The Plague year of 1665, followed by The Great Fire of London in 1666. More conflict followed, including a successful attack by Charles II, a Roman Catholic, on The Medway ports with a Dutch fleet. The victory caused problems among many of the Protestant aristocracy and  government ministers. They wanted to get rid of Charles II and, backed by the Protestant Duke of Monmouth, to usurp him. Monmouth’s army was defeated at The Battle of Sedgemoor in Somerset. He was captured and executed and many of his followers were pursued by Judge Jeffryes  and condemned to death at the famous Bloody Assizes.

James II was able to consolidate his power and reigned until 1688, when he was deposed by William of Orange. During this tumultuous time, Robert Geffrye must have been a very astute politician and able administrator to navigate those times. You have to admire him for his tenacity.

Later life and the Almshouses

During his life Robert married a mercer’s daughter, Priscilla Cropely. They lived in Lime Street, very close to Leadenhall Market in the City and by the Ironmongers Hall. They had no children.

In 1653 he joined The Levant trading company. It is recorded that he traded cloth to Leghorn in Italy. Robert Geffrye  became an administrator in The Levant Company trading with Northern Europe, the Mediterranean  and Turkey. In 1670 he profited from the slave trade by his investments and involvement in the Royal African Company, and in 1680 Robert Geffrye became a joint owner of the trading ship, The China Merchant. He and his fellow owners wanted to hire their ship at first to The East India Company. 

He  became an administrator in The Royal African Company whose whole purpose was the ”Triangular Trade” with the Guinea Coast of West Africa, The West Indies, and Britain. All these great trading companies had strong links to The Ironmongers Company, trading in cloth, tin, lead, pewter, calico, spices, pepper and slaves. It is rather chilling seeing a list of their trading interests with slavery as just one more item on the list.

During the last fifteen years of his life, Robert Geffrye devoted his time to charitable work. He became the president of Bethlem and Bridewell Hospitals. Sir Robert Geffrye and his wife Priscilla were childless. She predeceased him by many years. When he died in 1704 at the age of 91 years, he left a small fortune of £13000. In his will, some of the money went to financing a school in his home village of Landrake in Cornwall, but a substantial amount of the  £13000 was left to build almshouses for poor deserving people who had worked mainly for the ironmongers and fell on hard times when they retired. 

Photo of the Geffrye Almshouse

The Geffrye Almshouses, image by Tony Grant

An almshouse is a charitable home for poor people of good character. The Ironmongers Company set up a group of officers called the Geffrye Charity Committee. They took nearly nine years to find a suitable site to build the almshouses–a site near the city so it had convenient access to the committee based at Ironmongers Hall.

They wanted the site to be conspicuous to passers-by so that Robert Geffrye’s legacy could be seen and admired. They first looked at a site in Old Street that the Ironmongers owned and a site in Bow was also considered. By 1711, the committee was still looking for a site and in November of that year they published an advertisement. A Mr Hunt, who owned a large plot of land fronting the Kingsland Road, responded, and sold the site to the Ironmongers for £200. 

There were other charitable foundations in The Kingsland Road too. Just to the north of this new site, The Drapers had built an almshouse. To the south, The Framework Knitters also had their almshouses. The area, although close to The City, consisted mostly of market gardens and arable farming. Clay pits in the area provided clay for brickmaking. In 1712, the Geffrye Charity Committee drew up their architectural plans for the almshouses. Someone who was not an architect must have been a competent draughtsman, for the plans were very good. The almshouses were well designed in a typical 18th century style copying Christopher Wren and aspects of Inigo Jones.

Tenders were submitted in 1712 for building the houses. Robert Burford, a carpenter, was employed to build the central great room and six almshouses located on the north side. Mr Halsaul, also called a carpenter in the documents, was contracted to build six more almshouses on the south side. In the documents they are merely called carpenters, but they were more likely to have been members of the Carpenters Guild, who had their own building apprentices. The central Great Room was used as a meeting place and to socialise for the first two years of its existence. It was soon turned into a chapel  for Sunday services, which the pensioners were required to attend.

The chosen site sloped to the west. To make it flat, the Committee encouraged people to dump their waste on the land to fill in the dip. Six hundred carts of soil were transported to cover the ground. The actual buildings were constructed at the back on solid ground that had not needed levelling. This provided ground for a solid foundation and left the front area to be grassed over as a  lawn for recreation, and room for Lime trees to be planted. Twelve houses were completed by 1712 with the great room in the middle. Two more houses were added, one to each wing in the following two years, making fourteen altogether.

The Geffrye Charity Committee insisted on high quality materials for the buildings. Today you can see how well constructed they are. The interiors are well designed. The floors are made of strong sturdy oak boards and the interior walls and ceilings are plastered. An American lady I showed round once finished the tour by saying, “ I’m ready to move in now.”

Statue of Robert Geffryes, Founder of the Hospital

Statue of Robert Geffryes, Founder of the Hospital

In December 1714, the first pensioners moved in. The criteria for becoming a pensioner was that you had to be 56 years old at least, poor, and of good character. The rules in the Geffrye Charity Committees documents state, 

“any member or their widow that shall have been Liveryman or Freeman of The Company of Ironmongers shall be preferred.” 

This did not mean that people who were not from the Ironmongers Company could not get in, but Ironmongers were given preference. Until 1740, on average between forty to fifty pensioners lived in the almshouses.

Robert Geffryes’ endowment provided a  Geffrye pensioner with a single room that had a small walk-in cupboard in one corner. They were given a pension of £6 a year. Each pensioner was provided with six sacks of coal a year. A new gown was given to each every Lady Day ( March 23rd). They were required to make ,”petticoats,” from their old gowns. Some of these official pensioners – male – often had wives, and it is thought some even had children living with them. £6 per year was not enough to live on for some. They could petition for extra funds from the almshouse poor box or the Ironmongers Companies estate. Many received extra money in this way. Some were also employed in work in the almshouses. The matron, groundskeeper and chapel clerk were employed from among the pensioners. A chaplain was also employed but he was not a pensioner. The Chaplain held a position of authority over the pensioners.

The committee made up rules for the pensioners to live by and were based on the rules enforced by other almshouses, so they were not unique. 

  • Pensioners could be fined for blasphemy. In this case they would be expelled from the almshouses to return to their parishes. This was not a good thing to happen. Living off their parish made them extremely poor. 
  •  If they were found guilty of adultery or lewdness they could be expelled. 
  • Staying out overnight could bring a fine. The gates were closed from 7pm in the winter and from 9pm in the summer.
  • Rule number 8 stated that a pensioner had to be. “of good life and conversation.” They were expected to get on well with the other pensioners and support each other when ill. Rule number 10 related to drunkenness. A fine would be given. Cases were heard at the Geffrye Charity Committee meetings held in the great room, to begin with. Generally, they were  lenient and expulsion was very rare. 

The almshouses today are called “The Museum of The Home.” Over the last three years a government grant from the lottery fund of £18 million pounds has been given to the museum to extend and develop its work. The basement has been lowered and refurbished to contain exhibitions and displays on the theme of The Home, which covers many aspects. Documentary films have been made about the home lives of local Shoreditch residents and their background. Various themes, such as migrant camps, sleeping rough on the streets ,”games in the home,” and other aspects of home life are covered. The key element about these new exhibitions and displays is to instigate discussion and to ask questions.

The ground floor has remained as the middle class English period rooms from Tudor times to the 21st century. A new addition called “The West Indian Front Room” has been installed as the 1970s room. Eventually, over time, the museum will move away from being predominantly a museum of middle class rooms to rooms that cover all of society. The roof has been opened up to contain a research library.

An important element of the museum’s work is its ground-breaking educational work with schools, colleges, and universities.  A new education block has been built at the back, a major element of the museum. The museum is now famous for its important outreach into the local community. Molly Harrison, the curator of the museum from 1949 into the 50s and 60s, developed child-centred exploratory education techniques, which many museums in Britain and the world over still use today. 

The second part of this series, which is a guided tour of the 18th century room in the Almshouses, will be posted on Thursday of this week. “Welcome to a Guided Tour of the 18th Century Room in the Museum of the Home at the Geffrye Almshouses, Part II.”



  • 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

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: