The Town of Barnstaple
Barnstaple claims to be the oldest Borough in England, with origins before 930 and in 955 having its own mint. Like Exeter, Barnstaple is recorded as a “Burgh”, one of Devon’s four defensive towns.
Situated on the upper tidal reach of the River Taw, the wealth and standing of Barnstaple came from being a sheltered inland port that provided easy access for import and export. It was an important centre for cloth making and selling. Throughout the 14th & 15th centuries the town grew and prospered. Founded on the activities of business men, merchant venturers and entrepreneurs, Barnstaple continued to prosper during the reign of Elizabeth 1.
Today, although the port has ceased working, the town remains the main commercial and administrative centre for the area and with its local beaches and nearby moors attracts many tourists.
Origins of Barnstaple Almshouses
Traditionally almshouses were founded by benefactors of the town in times when parishes had the responsibility for caring for all of its inhabitants. Although there are more Almshouses in the area, the Trustees of Barnstaple Almshouses are the custodians of Penrose Almshouses in Litchdon Street and Horwood Paiges Almshouses, in Church Lane. Together these almshouses provide 28 dwellings dedicated to the poor and needy of Barnstaple.
Born in 1575 in the hamlet of Fremington, John Penrose became a successful cloth merchant and in 1620 was the Mayor of Barnstaple. On his death in 1624, his Will provided: “(purchase) some convenient room or place within the borough and parish of Barnstaple, fit to erect an almshouse upon, and in the same being so purchased, should, with part of the same money, erect thereupon such and so many several rooms for an almshouse, as they in their discretion should think fit”
In these times it was not unusual for a wealthy person to make a bequest in memory of their name and this handsome bequeath provided for the poor of the borough of Barnstaple and five mile radius.
The provision was used to purchase reclaimed land fronting the main route from Exeter north of the river Taw and a short distance to the east of the old town walls. On completion this building stood alone, with a long symmetrical frontage intended to be viewed from the river and beyond, and bringing to the attention of travellers who passed by, the benevolence of John Penrose.
From this bequest, eighteen stone houses were erected in 1627, in a quadrangle predominantly of the style for larger groups of Almshouses from the Elizabethan period onward with a further two being accessed from the front. These houses provide a single room on the ground floor with a room above. Those responsible for building the almshouses exceeded the original bequest to create a frontage to Litchdon Street formed by a grand colonnade with granite pillars, with an inner walkway leading to the Chapel at one end and a meeting room at the other. Accessed by a central passage from the walkway is the inner quadrangle of residences, with a further passage to the rear leading to a large walled garden divided into 20 allotment plots intended for each resident to use for their own self sufficiency.
In his book published in 1952 on North Devon, Nikolaus Pevsner noted; “Ambitious symmetrical front with projecting centre and corners. The receding parts have one-storeyed colonnades of rudely hewn circular granite pillars which are in line with the projecting parts and gabled”. The covered passage behind the colonnades leads to the doors of a Chapel at one end and a meeting room at the other. The houses around the inner quadrangle provide a single ground floor room and a room above; a further but modern day addition is a kitchen and ablution block to the rear. A passage leads on to a large divided and enclosed allotment area at the rear, once intended for residents to use for their self sufficiency.
It was stipulated that the name of John Penrose be carved in granite over the entrance, and his initials, J P carved in the stone and wood to adorn door entrance; but it is probably to his wife, Anne Penrose, that much of the credit is deserved and her initials are carved in small sandstone blocks above each upper window within the inner quadrangle. A tablet recording this benevolence is carved in granite over the entrance, with initials ‘JP’ carved in the wood of the main door entrance.
Later bequests of land and money gave additional support to the almshouses, or directly to the residences in the form of gifts of coal, bread and money administered by the Trustees. Although these gifts are not given today, it is the policy of the Charities to subsidise maintenance costs from investments.
The architectural importance of Penrose Almshouses is recognised by it’s Grade I & II listing but they remain true to their primary role of providing residential accommodation. The almshouses form part of the heritage trail of Barnstaple, and are visited by locals, tourists, school parties and students interested in seeing a group of buildings that, on face value, appear little changed by the march of time.
Those interested in John Penrose may like to visit his grave in Fremington Parish Church as it is a fine tomb with detailed inscription recording some of his life.
Additional building information Penrose SS5632 Litchdon Street 684-1/5/199 (North East side) 19/01/51 Penrose Almshouses
Almshouses, originally 20 dwellings, each for 2 inmates of the same sex. Completed 1627, 3 years after the death of the founder, John Penrose. Later repair and refurbishment includes C20 replanning with partial conversion into flats and some features copying the original. Local ashlar masonry for external walls, internal partitions of brick; granite colonnade; natural slate roofs; brick stacks with old handmade brick shafts with considerable repair in modern brick with corbelled cornices (one original stack retains clustered shafts with a corbelled cornice of moulded bricks; lead gutter on colonnade is brattished and decorated with Tudor roses and oak leaves. PLAN: 4 ranges of almshouses arranged facing onto a large courtyard, with a passageway through from the street and another at the rear, leading to allotments. EXTERIOR: the street frontage has a 2-storey porch in the centre, with open returns, flanked by lean-to roofs supported on 9-bay colonnades on low walls and, to left and right, projecting gabled wings containing a single storey boardroom to the left and a chapel to the right. The parallel range at the rear also has short projecting rear wings; former laundry outside courtyard in rear right corner. Almshouses single-storey and attic with gabled half dormers and ovolo-moulded oak mullioned windows and 4-centred doorways with oak door frames, the latter with scroll stops. Windows glazed with diamond-leaded panes; plank and cover strip doors. Continuous slate pentice at first-floor level. Each range has a regular 4-window elevation facing the courtyard, the dormers with coped gables and purple stone relieving arches. 4 doors to each elevation, the 2 ranges parallel to the road with additional wider passageways in the centre with oak frames, the stops on the front-passage front frame carved with the initials of John Penrose. The Litchdon Street elevation has the 2-storey porch in the centre with a coped gable and an ovolo-moulded arched granite doorway inscribed ‘John Penrose’ and a C17-style timber gate. Above the doorway a plaque records ‘this howse was founded by Mr John Penrose, marchant, sometime maior of this towne. Ano Do 1627’. 4-light mullioned window above with relieving arch and sundial in the gable. Tapering granite columns to left and right. Passageway from Litchdon Street is lit by a probably C18 sexagonal lamp, suspended from the pentice by an iron knee bracket. The gable ends of the left and right wings have 4-light Gothic stone windows with a king mullion and Y-tracery. Chapel gable to the right has a bellcote. Gabled attic half dormers have ovolo-moulded timber mullioned windows. Under the colonnade there are 2 doorways and 4 (2 to each side of the porch) C20 4-light mullioned windows matching the originals. Floor paved with probably C19 tiles and C19 or early C20 timber seat in C17 style attached to wall. Oak door frames and doors lead into the chapel and boardroom, with a wicket door into the chapel. Flat-roofed C20 service extensions to rear of the almshouse ranges on all but the street side, although the rear elevation backing onto the allotment has original mullioned windows and one half dormer partly rebuilt in brick. INTERIOR: one almshouse inspected; thoroughly modernised, although features of interest may survive behind modern plaster. The chapel has a fine interior with a 3-light east window and shallow, coved plaster ceiling with the remains of a C17 scheme of decorated plasterwork with vine motif and a central pendant for a chandelier. Fittings include C17 bookrests and benches with some C19 panelling and a C19 lectern. The boardroom has a C19 panelled dado with fitted drawers and a somewhat altered fireplace. HISTORICAL NOTE: according to a board fixed under the colonnade John Penrose, 1575-1624, buried in Fremington, was a dealer in slight woollen goods and mayor of Barnstaple. The boardroom contains a portrait of John Penrose, aged 26, signed Cornelius Jannsen and dated 1601, a portrait of Gilbert Paige (Paige’s Almshouses, Church Lane, Barnstaple (qv)) c1650 and some interesting photographs of c1910 showing the Penrose Almshouses with residents in uniform including an interior showing the double range which was used at that date in the shared units. Also 1944 drawings by Allen T Hussell, 32 High Street, Ilfracombe, showing the almshouses before addition of the rear blocks, with privy blocks shown behind the ranges. This is a remarkably attractive and ambitious early C17 complex, incorporating some interesting Gothic Survival windows to chapel and boardroom and is the finest of a notable group of almshouses in Barnstaple. (Buildings of England: Pevsner N & Cherry B: Devon: London: 1989-: 159; Hussell A: Architect’s Drawings: 1944-).
These almshouses built between 1629 and 1665 and replaced previous almshouses, fallen into disrepair. Located near the ancient parish Church of St Peter’s and Saint Mary Magdalene’s, where the original deed refers to the location as Whitpit Lane, but now known as Church Lane, the money for these building were provided by Thomas Horwood, a Mayor of Barnstaple; Elizabeth, the wife of Gilbert Paige also a Mayor of Barnstaple and a business man Thomas Harris who financed a further building here in 1646 (the time of a severe plague in Barnstaple). They established four almshouses and later, Alice, wife of Thomas Horwood, had eight more built on the site.
Past alterations have reduced this group to the eight almshouses we know today, four houses and four flats, two on the ground floor and two on the upper. The houses surround a cobbled courtyard and front onto a cobbled lane which provides an example of a typical narrow town street of earlier days.
Like Penrose Almshouses, this smaller group provides an important insight to Barnstaple’s past history whilst they continue to function as intended those many years ago. Their importance is recognised by Grade II* status. Visitors are welcome throughout the day and for those seeking to discover Barnstaple’s past as you enter through the main passageway you will discover a hidden gem.
Other Almshouses in Barnstaple
Other Almshouses in the area date back to 1189 (a quilclaim relating to a grant to the lepers of the Blessed Margaret at Pilton). With the exception of a group built at Bishop’s Tawton, the following continue to provide for the poor and needy:
Pilton United Charities, with almshouses in the upper and lower parts of Pilton (and who have built further almshouses in the area); Tawstock Jubilee Almshouse Charity with a small group at Tawstock, dating to the early 1700’s; Salem & Fremington built in Trinity Street,
If you have any further questions please do not hesitate to contact our Charity Manager.