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Birmingham Heritage Week - a potted history of almshouses

Almshouses have been around since medieval times. What is considered to be the oldest remaining foundation can be found just over 30 miles away from SJMT in nearby Worcester. It’s called the Hospital of St Oswald, and it was founded around 990 to ‘minister to the sick, bury the dead, relieve the poor and give shelter to travellers who arrived after the city gates had closed at night.’ By the mid-1500s there were around 800 almshouses in the UK, usually called hospitals or bede houses.

Fast forward to the Victorian era, when Sir Josiah Mason was alive, many people moved to towns and cities in search of work. This resulted in a shortage of housing, so almshouses became more urbanised. Around 30% of the current almshouses were founded during this period. The increase in number was also due in part to poor conditions in workhouses, which inspired wealthy philanthropists to provide more suitable housing.

Workhouses were institutions which provided work and shelter for poverty-stricken individuals and families. Poor, sick, disabled and elderly people, along with orphaned children and unmarried mothers, would have typically lived in workhouses. They were designed to support people who couldn’t provide for themselves and had no home or job, but they were more like prisons with vulnerable people detained within them. Conditions were terrible, with strict rules and hard, dangerous labour. Those living in workhouses suffered malnutrition, neglect, mistreatment, forced child labour and beatings.

The author Charles Dickens highlighted the brutality of the Victorian workhouse in his novel Oliver Twist which exposed the cruel treatment of orphans at that time.

Sir Josiah Mason – philanthropist

Born on 23 February 1795, Josiah Mason had a modest upbringing. He made his fortune by mass-producing key rings, pens, pen nibs and electroplating.  He initially built almshouses on Station Road, Erdington, in 1858 to provide homes for 30 ‘aged women’ and 20 orphan girls, who were educated there and gained domestic skills. We continue to be an almshouse charity today.

He founded the Trust on 29 July 1868, shortly before opening a ‘great orphanage’ in Bell Lane, Erdington. Now known as Orphanage Street, a bust of Sir Josiah now sits on a roundabout near the former site.

Sir Josiah Mason died on 16 June 1881 aged 86, having become one of the UK’s most esteemed industrialists and philanthropists.

The Sir Josiah Mason Trust continues to provide homes for vulnerable people. We are now part of a family of seven charities. Our group’s historically interesting sites include:

  • Church Gardens in Wolverhampton: six Grade II listed houses built in 1850 by the benevolent industrialist, Henry Rogers

  • Holte and Bracebridge Almshouses in Erdington: a terrace of 10 bed-sit bungalows built in 1929 to replace the original Almshouses in Aston (built in 1650)

  • Mason Cottages in Erdington: a development of 36 individual bungalows built on a small section of the site of Sir Josiah’s original orphanage. The orphanage building became too expensive to maintain, so it had to be demolished in 1964. All that remains is a section of wall at the junction of Sutton Road and Station Road

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