Pontefract: The Kingdom of Alms

by Eric Jackson

Pontefract has a proud tradition of providing almshouses, accommodation for the poor and needy, so much so that in the Middle Ages it was known as the Kingdom of Alms, as by the end of the 18th century no fewer than ten almshouses had been founded in the town.

The oldest of Pontefract’s almshouses was St Nicholas’ Hospital, sited on Mill Dam Lane where the Hope and Anchor pub now stands, and probably existed before the Conquest. The monks building the priory of St. John lived there whilst the priory was being built. 

It survived the dissolution of the monasteries but by 1660 it lay in ruins after the depredations of the Civil War. It was re-built in 1673 as a simple almshouse rather than a religious institution and was still in operation in 1826 but, along with the adjoining chapel of St Helen, was finally demolished in 1888. In 1889, a row of three terraced houses, St. Nicholas’ Houses, were built on the site. 

The only Pontefract almshouse which has a blue plaque is Trinity, or Knolles’ Hospital founded in 1385 by Sir Robert Knolles, & Constance de Beverley, his wife, in honour of the Holy Trinity and the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

This hospital was a wealthy institution having seven chaplains, two clerks, a church, a large common room and separate lodging-rooms for between thirteen and sixteen men, women and two servants to attend to them.

It was surrendered to the King at the Dissolution of the Monasteries & Religious Institutions (1536-40) but continued in operation and by 1660 its chapel, Trinity Chapel, was being used for general town worship when All Saints was in ruins after the Civil War and St. Giles was still in the process of enlargement.

Knolles’ was rebuilt between 1880 & 1900 but by 1948 it was in a ruinous condition and was finally demolished in the 1960s to make way for the bus station and is now submerged beneath the bus station forecourt. Trinity Street, or the Trinities, was named after Trinity Chapel, which formed part of the Knolles Hospital complex.

Wards, or Tanshelf Hospital, was on Front Street and dates from 1520. It was still an almshouse in 1891 but by 1907 it had been abandoned and is now occupied by Haribo but was re-built on Love Lane in 1932. 

Between 1620 & 1770 another seven were founded, Thwaites’, The Bedehouse, Matthew Franks’, Cowper’s, Robert Franks’, Watkinson’s and Perfect’s Hospitals and by 1770, they provided for seventy-two poor inmates between them.

Thwaites’ Hospital was on Newgate opposite the Malt Shovel Yard. Built in 1620, it was still occupied in 1939 but was demolished in the 1960s and re-built by the Pontefract and Ackworth Almshouse Charity on Hartley Park in 1949.

The Bedehouse was in Micklegate, opposite Spink Lane and certainly existed before 1650, and may have been much older. Although originally a Bedehouse, by 1650 it operated as a poorhouse for sixteen poor women. It was partly demolished in 1811 to provide a workhouse and in 1889 the last part of the original Bedehouse was demolished and a terrace of houses, Bedehouse Villas, was built on the site. The workhouse was converted into four houses which remained well into the ‘60s and were reputedly haunted. These houses were eventually demolished and a new Almshouse complex for the accommodation of three couples was built on the site in 1988.

 Two of Pontefract’s hospitals still exist as buildings, Perfect’s Hospital founded in Micklegate in 1767 and Cowper’s Hospital founded in 1668 by Mr Robert Cowper, originally in Cornmarket but now at the junction of North Baileygate and The Butts.

Perfect’s became redundant as a hospital in 1958 and was converted into offices, whilst Cowper’s was closed in 1888 and converted into a semi-detached house by the addition of a new floor.

The Frank’s Hospitals adjoined Perfect’s and became redundant a the same time although they didn’t survive and were demolished in 1963/5. Senior’s garage now occupies the site of Frank’s Hospital.

Almshouse provision continued in Pontefract; Watkinson’s Hospital was built in 1778 for eight poor people and one servant with an endowment of 1765 by Edward Watkinson, M.D. of Ackworth, on the site of what is now Mamma Mia’s car park in Northgate. Demolished in the 1970s, all that remains is a small length of stone boundary wall.

The Robson family of maltsters built two almshouses, the first, Baghill Almshouse founded in 1902 but disposed of in 1990 and subsequently demolished, and Robson’s Almshouses, built on Southgate in 1913 and still in operation, housing four couples or single people.

Robson Almshouses, Southgate. Image © Michael Hirst.

William Ryder in 1954, his brother-in-law George William Jordon in 1960 and his wife Nellie Louise Ryder in 1961, all left their estates in trust for the Almshouse Charity to provide and endow a hostel to be known as the Nellie Ryder Hostel. Built on land off Halfpenny Lane in1968 it comprises twelve modern bungalows.

The latest additions to Pontefract’s Almshouse are the John Mercer Almshouses, built on Halfpenny Lane in 2017 with the proceeds of a bequest made in 1574 by Mr Mercer, a butcher supposedly born in Pontefract, which was left to the then Knolle’s or Trinity Almshouses and which ultimately devolved into the Pontefract and Ackworth Almshouse Charity. The new Almshouses were named the John Mercer Almshouses in recognition of his bequest.

This then is the story of ‘The Kingdom of Alms’ and how a small town such as Pontefract became amongst the foremost providers of accommodation for the poor and destitute and where the Pontefract and Ackworth Almshouse Charity continues to operate 29 almshouses, thus continuing the centuries-old tradition of ‘The Kingdom of Alms’; something Pontefract can be justly proud of. 

NB: The term ‘alms’ derives from Old English via Latin & Greek and means pity or compassion. What we now call an almshouse was, in medieval times, called a hospital. A hospital was not a place to heal the sick, that was an Infirmary, but rather a place of lodging, a house for the reception and entertainment of pilgrims, travellers or strangers.

The word ‘hospital’ itself comes from the Latin hospes and hospitium and from which our modern words host, hospitality, hospice, hostel and hotel are all descended.

Eric Jackson is a retired JP, the secretary of Pontefract & District Family History Society and a Trustee of the Pontefract & Ackworth Almshouse Charity. He is available to book as a presentation speaker and has a range of fourteen informative and entertaining talks for clubs and societies on various subjects. For more information, call 01977 791087 or email amiducour@live.co.uk. 

This article was featured in Issue 1 – February 2019.

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