Almshouses have a long history in Britain dating back to medieval times. In many market towns across the country, local wealthy benefactors built houses for specific groups of needy people often those retiring from local industries. Those benefactors also provided “alms” which were money or services given to the inhabitants of the almshouses. Today there are approximately 2,500 almshouses in the UK providing accommodation for local people.
Our oldest almshouses date back to the 1500’s when Tiverton was home to a thriving woollen trade and wealthy merchants.
(c 1460-1529) was the first great Tiverton merchant. He exported West Country cloth to Europe and won valuable contracts for King Henry VII. He armed his ships to protect sailors and merchant men from pirates. John Greenway was a well known and well respected merchant and was admitted to the Drapers Company and the Merchant Venturers Company, both in London.
John Greenway employed staff and trained apprentices. He also provided almshouses for his retired employees and built the original almshouse building and chapel in Gold Street in the 1520’s. Intended for five poor men who could no longer work, each man received 8 pence a week and in return had to pray daily in the chapel for the souls of John Greenway and his wife, Joan. An inscription instructing this practice can still be seen on the chapel. Although the fire of 1731 destroyed many of the almshouses, the chapel survived.
At around the time the chapel was built, John Greenway’s property was assessed at £150 making him the richest man in Tiverton. He owned a great deal of property in the town and the land where the almshouses are sited in Gold Street was then probably open country and known as “Germany”, thought to have derived its name from foreign weavers who came to work in Tiverton.
John Greenway also built a chapel to the side of St Peter’s Church in Tiverton in 1517. The elaborate decorations engraved on the white Beer stone show, amongst others, ships belonging to John Greenway and his life as a merchant. Both John and Joan Greenway died in 1529 and were buried in a vault beneath the chapel.
Throughout history many additional units have been built at John Greenway Close most notably in Victorian times and again in 2004 when thirty-two homes were built to a design by the Trust’s architect at the time, David Yarham. In 2004 these new almshouses were opened by Prince Charles who awarded them the Patron’s Award for Excellence.
(c 1520-1579) is the founder of the original almshouses and chapel in Wellbrook Street (now known as Greenway Gardens) for 8 poor men. The building was started in 1579 but John Waldron died before the work was completed. His wife, Ricord, ensured the project was completed.
John Waldron was born in Tiverton and was a prosperous local merchant. It was on one of his travels abroad that he is believed to have bought the bell which hangs in the bellcote above the chapel. It is dated 1539 which makes it the oldest bell in Devon to bear a date in its inscription. It is 50 years older than the almshouses and so it has been suggested that John Waldron probably bought it second-hand. The bell is about 18” in diameter and has decorative friezes above and below the inscription: “In the year 1539 Aelbert Hackman cast me in Cleve. Jesus, Mary, Ann”. Cleve is the birthplace of Henry VIII’s wife, Ann of Cleves, and is now in West Germany near the Dutch border. Aelbert Hackman was a famous bell founder.
Similarly to John Greenway’s almshouses, the buildings had open galleries (now enclosed) and ornate stonework on the chapel. On the front of the Waldron chapel the carvings show ships that John Waldron used for trading and many images of his travels. There is also an inscription at the front that reads “J W merchant and Richoard his wife builded this house in tyme of their lyfe. At such tyme as the walls were fourtyne foote hye He departed this worlde, even the eightynthe of Julye AD1579”.
It is believed that the alms originally given to the inhabitants of Waldron's almshouses came from the Manor of Daccomb near Paignton and not from land or property that John Waldron held in Tiverton.
George Slee was a farmer’s son from Coldridge believed to have come to Tiverton in the late 1500’s. He became a prominent merchant-clothier and in 1603 built The Great House for his own occupation and then the almshouses adjoining The Great House on Angel Terrace at the top of Angel Hill. Slee imported exotic goods from the Americas and West Africa and in 1590 he was recorded as importing 74lbs (about 30 kilos) of “elephants teeth” (ivory).
George Slee’s first house on the site was destroyed by fire in 1598 and his daughter died in the blaze. George Slee built the almshouses in her memory. They were originally intended for 6 poor aged widows or maidens. The building now houses three one-bedroom flats. Similarly to Waldron's almshouses, George Slee died before they were completed and his widow, Joan, has dated the building with her initials and an inscription “1614”.