An Oasis in the Centre of Croydon

On the evening of Thursday, June 18th, a group of OWs and their wives had the privilege of visiting the Whitgift Almshouses on the corner of North End and George Street where it has stood for more than 400 years. It happened to be a sunny, balmy evening and one of our Founder’s first charitable legacies looked at its very best.

The Tudor building is steeped in history and passed by thousands of people every day. The majority of its features remain as they were when it was erected by former Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift, in 1596 as a residence for the elderly, the poor and, particularly, his former servants.

Today, the beautiful old building sits nestled in the centre of Croydon, as if oblivious to the nearby construction of high rise office buildings, multiplex cinemas, trendy restaurants and shopping centres – including, ironically, the Whitgift Shopping complex and business precinct built on the site of the old Whitgift Middle School.  Indeed, in 1923, after many years of threats of demolition on account of Croydon Corporation’s road widening schemes, the Almshouses were saved by the intervention of the House of Lords. Subsequently described by our present Queen as, “an oasis of peace and tranquillity”, they are still in use as a home for older residents in Croydon where rental flats cluster around a picturesque courtyard.

Our knowledgeable and experienced guide, Yvonne Walker, began by assembling us in the main dining room, where she explained that for several hundred years The Archbishops of Canterbury had a residence at Old Palace in Croydon where they would spend the summer months resting from their travels between Canterbury and Lambeth.  It was seeing the suffering and poverty caused by war and bad harvests that spurred Archbishop John Whitgift to seek and receive permission from Queen Elizabeth 1 to build a hospital and school in Croydon. In March 22nd 1596, he laid the foundation stone for the Hospital Of The Holy Trinity, now known as the Almshouses – and on the 22nd of March each year, the laying of the foundation stone is celebrated as Founder’s Day.

Yvonne then escorted us into the beautifully maintained courtyard with its manicured lawns and rosebeds, modelled by John Whitgift on the squares and courtyards of the Oxford colleges with which as Master of Trinity he was so familiar. This was followed by some tranquil time in the little Chapel; it’s original hard oak pews safely preserved but consigned to the sidelines to make way for comfortably upholstered chairs – no doubt to the great relief of the twenty or so elderly residents!

Finally, we had the pleasure of visiting the Archbishop’s audience chamber, now used as a meeting room for the Foundation’s Court of Governors and other formal occasions. Here she described each item of a unique collection of memorabilia, which included the original embellished covenants and permissions to build the Hospital carrying Queen Elizabeth’s signature, as well as the cast iron sign from the Swan Inn, the original site on which the Almhouses now reside.

All those attending agreed that the visit had provided a fascinating glimpse into history together with great admiration for the man who Queen Elisabeth the First fondly described as her ‘little husband” and whose name is inextricably linked in so many ways with the Borough of Croydon.

If you would like to experience the Almshouses for yourself, just call the WA Office on 020 8633 9926 and we will let you know when the next group tour of OWs is planned.

Pip Burley