The Enfield Society

Wright's Almshouses

Carmen Lange

Photo of the almshouses

This is a preliminary report on work in progress to investigate the history of Wright's Almshouses. The author welcomes additional information which may be passed to her through our Records and Research Group.

Situated on the present Hertford Road, in the island created with Old Road, just past Carterhatch Lane, on the way to Waltham Cross, this mid Victorian terrace of six cottages was built by one Charles Wright, a philanthropist who, at that time, lived opposite St. James' Church, on a site later to house St. James Vicarage. This vicarage was later knocked down and a series of flats built on the land.

Charles Wright is something of an enigma. Local legend has it the almshouses were built for the widows of workers at the Ponders End flour mills, but this is not so. George Reynolds Wright, from whom the flour mills now takes its name, was five years old in 1847, having been born at Castle Farm, Preston, near Hitchin; which district he did not leave until his teens, when he decided to become a miller. Wright's flour mill is, in fact, the nickname of a mill formerly known by a variety of names, including Flanders Mill, Ponders End Mills, and Young & Wright. It currently trades as G.R. Wright and sons Ltd.

Plaque on almshouses naming Charles Wright

Charles Wright, the benefactor of the almshouses, first appears, fully mature, as a member of the Select Vestry in 1821, when he would have been 52 years old. In the 1851 census, taken shortly before Wright died aged 82, he is recorded as having been born in Shoreditch, but on which side of the ditch remains uncertain as yet. Unfortunately, the name Charles Wright is quite common so at the time of writing I have been unable to trace his origins and any help from readers will be welcomed. Researching Wright's nephew, Charles King, who was recorded as being with him at the time of the 1851 census, has proved equally fruitless.

Another visitor at that time was Sarah Dallinger, aged 28 to Charles King's 38, and my initial hypothesis was that these two were a 'couple' and that I might be able to track back Charles Wright's antecedents through Sarah Dallinger's marriage to Charles King since hers is a more unusual name. Further research, however, proved Charles King not only to have married one Marianna, aged 31 to King's 48, but to have moved to Bournemouth, where they lived in a property known as Branksome. This must have been quite a large property as the Kings had a resident coachman and cook – presumably a married couple – a housemaid and a groom.

The groom, aged 17 in the 1861 census, had the same surname as the cook/coachman, and all three were called King. Whether Charles King hired members of his family, or whether the surname was coincidence remains unclear at this time. What is certain is that Charles King, listed as a solicitor in the 1851 census, where Charles Wright, his uncle, was listed a 'Gentleman' has now also become a 'gentleman: i.e., someone living off invested (or his wife's?) income.

Equally certain is that Charles Wright was sufficiently wealthy in the early 1840's, to cause to have built the terrace of cottages known as Wright's Almshouses 'For six poor women of Enfield', and to endow the residents with a pension of ten pounds a year, paid in quarterly installments. This works out to three shillings, eight and a half pence every week (roughly 15p in today's currency). In addition, the almswomen were to receive a ton of 'good coal' at Christmas. This beneficence came from the rents on properties in St. Luke's Parish, Old street.

The women who were able to apply for housing in the Wright's Almshouses had to be widows of good reputation and not possessing an income exceeding £10 per year, over sixty years of age and, for the previous twelve months to have been resident in a specific area of Enfield. This area extended from Enfield Wash in the north to Ponders End in the south. Green Street and South Street were the other stipulated areas, with Enfield Highway, where the almshouses were built, being the epicentre. Widows resident in Enfield Highway itself could also apply for housing.

The ten pounds and ton of good coal the widows received annually, from Old Street rents, suggests a considerable income on rentable properties. At the very least the pensions amount to sixty pounds per annum. With the addition of 'good coal', and that property maintenance and insurance was also to be subtracted from the Old street rents – with any surplus to be 'disposed of for [the widows] benefit – leads to the hypothesis of between one hundred and fifty to two hundred pounds being donated every year for the benefit of six widows over 60.

In 1983, the cottages were extensively improved and modernized at a cost of one hundred and twenty thousand pounds and with the aid of a 'considerable grant' from the Housing Corporation; thirty thousand pounds of which was to be repaid under a 30 year mortgage, meaning it will not be paid off until 2013: this give a rough idea of the original value of Charles Wright's beneficence.

A quick look at the London A-Z suggests the rental properties from which the rents derived to be Old street, Shoreditch, which still contains St. Luke's church. As Charles Wright was born in Shoreditch, this is the most likely option, and directs my research into the gentleman's history to that region.

To date, I have no confirmation of the names of the first tenants of Wright's Almshouses. The Old Enfield Charitable Trust, which currently manages the cottages, have moved several times, as well as being consolidated as the Enfield Parochial Charities in 1888 then, since several aspects had become archaic, altered to the Enfield Parochial Charity in 1979. It was renamed as the Old Enfield Charitable Trust in ---- [note 1] and many of the historical documents regarding Wright's Almshouses and other premises now owned by the OECT appear at best to have been mislaid, at worst destroyed.

The 1851 census, the first taken after the almshouses were built and occupied shows the residents at that date as:

House Number Name Age on census DOB Occupation Where born
190 PLEDGNER, Sarah 64 1787 Inhabitant St. Lukes, Middlesex
191 SMITH, Sarah 64 1787 Inhabitant Eltham, Kent
192 GRANT, Sarah 79 1772 Residing in Hatfield, Hertfordshire
193 GREEN, Ann 77 1774 " Buntingford, Hertfordshire
194 COLEMAN, Mary 70 1781 " Hunston, Hertfordshire
195 FRESHWATER, Jane 63 1788 " Moreton, Essex

On census night, 1851, three of these widows had relatives staying with them.

There are several points of interest even in this preliminary study of the 1851 census. George Freshwater at 10, would have been born when Jane was 53 years old; conceived in her 52nd year, so that, like Ann Green, who conceived Susan when she was 39, both mothers would be nowadays 'elderly', yet both also disprove the common fallacy that 'in olden days' women gave birth at very early ages and, similarly, went through menopause earlier than at the present time.

The second factor of note is that, contrary to the present day, Old Enfield Charitable Trust regulations which stipulate only the resident may live on the premises, it appears Charles Wright was not adverse to widows with dependant children living in the cottages, though with only one bedroom, and that an open plan first floor structure, conditions must have been cramped.

George, who was born in the year of the fire at the Tower of London [Pam, 1998] and perhaps Maria (depending on whether she was a live-in servant or daily), may well have slept in a curtained off area so they could have some privacy, though the 21st century notion of privacy differs quite radically from that of the Victorian era, where, particularly among the poor, it was common for all members of the family, including married offspring (usually sons and their wives) to sleep in the same room, sometimes even the same bed.

It was not uncommon for boys as young as 10 to be working in the Ordnance factory at Enfield Lock [Pam, 1998] where they either went home for lunch or their mothers took their lunch to the factory at the middle of the day. This would mean widow Freshwater would have been a regular, possibly well known figure at the Royal Small Arms Factory.

Additional text by Carmen Lang, added on 1st July 2010

Further research into the Almshouse residents has brought to light interesting anomalies.

Firstly, George Wright, registered as being ten years of age in 1851, existed on the 1841 census; when Jane Freshwater lived in Edmonton with five other members of her family; presumably her children as they ranged from William, 20, to Elizabeth, 6. George is then registered as being 8 years old, born two years before Elizabeth and two years after Henry.

Did Jane Freshwater deliberately mislead the census takers – and the Almshouse administrators, as to George’s age in order that he might live with her? Was this a way of improving the household income since George is registered as being a gunsmith? Was it simply expedient for George to live closer to his place of work than in Edmonton? And what happened to Elizabeth, who does not appear on the Almshouse census of 1851?

As for the Almshouses themselves, although the original plaque is dated 1847, Charities Commission records show the land was deeded by Charles Wright to his nephew Charles Allen King in 1848. While this presumably answers the question of who owned the land on which the cottages were built, it raises other matters.

Firstly, the dating is inconsistent. Did Charles Wright continue to own the land after he built the Almshouses? Only ceding it to his nephew later, possibly due to ill health – that is, if the 1851 census is correct and he was 82; making him 79 when he deeded the land to King. As King is next found in the 1861 census as living in Poole, Dorset, what happened to the running of the Almshouses? Who did he turn responsibility over to and did he even care whether the cottages, and residents, were properly maintained.

David Pam, in volume 2 of his history of Enfield, records appalling sewerage conditions on the Enfield Highway as late as 1860, with those who were ‘neighbours’ to the Almshouse residents – i.e. shopkeepers – refusing to chip in the additional one hundred and twenty pounds the local Board of Health required to put in sewerage; on the grounds they already paid the Board of Health rate plus a highway rate, so the responsibility rested with the Board of Health: which was already some twelve thousand pounds in debt; having put sewers into Enfield Town and Ponders End.

Was Charles Allen King, now living in a named property on the south coast, one of those who refused to pay? As a former solicitor, now ‘Gentleman’, was it he who led the campaign against paying to incorporate sewerage on what was still the major road from London to Hertford? And how did this affect the landlords of the Red and White Lion pubs, already cut off from the mainstream by the straightening of what was by them renamed the Hertford Road?

As far as the Almshouse widows were concerned, matters were dire. Their water supply was a spring which rose between their cottages and Old Road. While this may have been relatively clean when the Almshouses were built – though one doubts it – by 1857 the cesspits were running into the drinking water, making it, in the words of the residents ‘sometimes not sweet’ and, in the words of the clerk of works ‘exceedingly poor’.

PAM, David.
The Royal Small Arms Factory Enfield and its workers. – Enfield : David Pam, 1998. – 213p. ; 24cm. – ISBN 0-9532271-0-3.
A history of Enfield. Vol. 2: A Victorian suburb. [1837-1914]. – Enfield : The Enfield Society, 1992. – 304p. ; 24cm. – ISBN 0 907318 10 X

Note 1: According to the Charity Commission web site, the Enfield Parochial Charities were removed from their register on 14th July 1992 because of "amalgamation" – presumably with the Old Enfield Charitable Trust. – Leonard Will

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