A history of The Friendly Almshouses
(Formerly The Friendly Female Society)
ON JANUARY 20TH, 1802, the Friendly Female Society was instituted. We do not know with whom the idea originated nor the name of the founder of the Society. All we do know is given in the following account published in the Annual Report in 1811:-
To the Public,
Among the various objects of Christian sympathy and beneficence which present themselves, there is one class that seems peculiarly entitled to the humane notice of the female heart, namely, poor aged women of good character. Some of them are widows, destitute of a husband's industry, a husband's counsel, a husband's sympathy. There are others who have been reduced from ease and competence by what are called the accidents of life to a state of dependence and want. Many, also, who have spent their days and their strength in servitude have outlived their capacity to work without having been able to lay up a suitable provision for the winter of life. Of such indigent and virtuous persons, there are many who through modesty on their part and continued neglect on the part of the world have been driven to garrets and extreme poverty. A consideration of their various distresses has induced a few individuals of that sex to establish an institution for their relief under the denomination of the Friendly Female Society."
The first committee meeting was held in the Haberdashers' Hall, Staining Lane, London, E.C., on February 3rd, 1802. A woman was in the chair and fifteen were present.
The first item on the agenda was to announce that the Duchess of York had become the Patron. The Duchess of York was the forerunner of a number of Royal Patrons - indeed few Societies of this size can have been under the patronage of so many members of the Royal Family. During 1802 to 1925, the Duchess of York, the Princess of Wales (Queen Caroline), the Duke and Duchess of Kent, Princess Charlotte of Wales, King Leopold I of the Belgians, Queen Adelaide, the Duke of Sussex, the Queen of Hanover, the Duchess of Cumberland, the Duchess of Brunswick, Queen Victoria, Queen Alexandra and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother all became Patrons.
At the first meeting, six ladies were selected to draw up the rules of the Society. Although, of course, as the years went on, additions and alterations were made to them, the main rules were so well framed as to need no amendment, and for 137 years the object of the Society remained unaltered - the relief of poor infirm widows and single women of good character above the age of sixty years who had seen better days and who resided within ten miles of St Paul's. The finances of the Committee were not only to be in the hands of a woman treasurer, the rules laid down that five ladies of the Committee be appointed to audit the accounts previous to the general meeting. That was as far as the feminine assurance of those days would go.
The first general meeting was held on April 7th, 1802, and the Rev. Dr J. H. Hunter, of London Wall, delivered an address. His address found so much favour in the eyes of the ladies that for over fifty years it was printed in each annual report. It is impossible to give this address in full, but a quotation must be given:-
"You must lay your account with opposition and discouragement," he declared. "Objections will be started merely for the sake of objecting ... Arm yourself therefore with patience, with fortitude ... Expect not too much, but exert yourselves, as if your object were to be attained in its utmost latitude."
From the outset the Society has continuously attracted to its service women who have given themselves wholeheartedly but inconspicuously to its work. Indeed few Societies have been able to count on such a devoted band of voluntary workers and visitors, and year after year it was possible to report "Those who are best acquainted with the operations of the Friendly Female Society are satisfied that from the simplicity of its organization and the amount of the gratuitous agency it employs, all needless expenditure is avoided and a judicious appropriation of the funds thoroughly secured."
The administration of the charity was not restricted to any religious sect or creed. The Society was to be ruled solely by love, kindness, and absence of humbug.
The Society depended in its early days for support on charity sermons and addresses by eminent men. In some quarters the Society became a popular cause even to an embarrassing extent, one clergyman in 1805 offering to give a lecture every Sabbath evening for the benefit of the Society.
From the first the cases were considered with sympathy and kindliness by the ladies of the Committee. It is true that the applicants were referred to in the phraseology of the period as "old objects", but their piety and their distressed conditions and infirmity were always emphasized. They were certainly old - out of fifty "objects", one was 105 years of age, five between 90 and 100, and twenty-seven between 80 and 90 years. One pensioner, Elizabeth Love, who died in 1838, attained the age of 110, so well was she cared for by the Society.
In 1819 the Committee decided to extend their original plan and to erect an almshouse. A suitable site was found in Chumleigh Street, Camberwell, funds were raised, and by 1847 forty old women were accommodated in the new almshouse.
In 1863 another almshouse was erected, this time in Stockwell Park Road, Brixton, where twenty-eight women were housed in comfortable surroundings.
The Camberwell almshouses were mostly destroyed by enemy action in the Second World War, but some of the buildings still exist as part of Chumleigh Gardens. The present almshouses in Brixton, though damaged in the war, survived and were repaired and extended in 1945. The buildings were further enlarged by the addition of Martindale House in 1961.
In 1970 the surroundings of the Almshouses began to change dramatically. Lambeth Borough Council started work on a massive re-development plan, demolishing streets of Victorian terraced houses and replacing them, after much dust, noise and chaos, with blocks of flats and pedestrian walkways. In the same year the Society began a gradual but radical modernisation of the accommodation.
In 1976, to mark the completion of the first two stages of modernisation, the 1945 extension was named Colville House after the Society's President, the late Lady Margaret Colville. The surviving Victorian cottages were named Victoria Cottages. By 1985 all the old bedsitting rooms had been converted into studio flats with their own bathrooms and kitchens; a laundry and guest room had been provided; central heating had been installed throughout, and a warden-linked alarm system was in operation. In 1996 a separate office was added to cope with the increasing administrative load. These considerable improvements were made possible by the continuation of the private generosity (in particular, Smith's Charity) on which the Society has historically relied, and by local authority co-operation and government grants.
The name of the Society had been changed in 1938 when it was decided to adopt a more modern title - The Friendly Almshouses - equally expressive of the work and aims of the Society. In 1979 the Charity Commissioners reviewed the Society's Constitution and Rules which it was considered had, in course of time, become out of date in some respects. A short Scheme was drawn up, adopted and sealed. In 1993 the Rules were changed to lower the age of entry from 60 to 50 years. In view of the increasing public interest in local history it was decided in 1979 that the Society's minute books, records and other important papers dating back to 1802 should be placed in the care of the Lambeth Borough Archivist on permanent loan, but easily accessible to the Society and to serious students.
Through these years of rapid change the Society continued to rejoice in the unfailing interest and support of its Patron, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. The year 1973 was made memorable by a visit from Her Majesty during which she met residents in their homes and took tea in the Community Room with committee members, the Society's trustees and the architect. In 1990 and in 2000 the Society was represented by groups of committee members, staff and residents in the celebrations on Horse Guards Parade to mark the ninetieth and hundredth birthdays of the Queen Mother.
Today we are very fortunate to have Mrs Harriet Bowes Lyon who succeeded her mother as our President following the death of Lady Colville in 2004. She is actively involved and is very supportive in the continuing work of the Society in the twenty first century.