See also Sherborne Abbey
The historic Almshouse of SS John in the town of Sherborne, Dorset is a fascinating glimpse into a little known aspect of history. It is still in use today serving its original purpose of providing housing to 18 elderly residents of the town. The purpose built building was licensed by Henry VI in 1437 and was designed to house ‘twelve pore feeble---old men and five pore feeble---old women’. Copies of the royal license and foundation deed are on view in the antechapel.
The construction of the almshouse began in 1440; the chapel was completed two years later and the remainder of the building in 1445. The original exterior was built in the same form as a monastic infirmary with an eastern chapel and nave of two floors and a two story service range. The ground floor of the service range housed the kitchen, brewing equipment, and housekeeper’s room. The original men’s dormitory has now been converted into separate bedrooms. The first floor was probably used to house the women. A hall was used for both dining and as a common room.
There was a woodhouse, storehouse, and offices facing a paved courtyard. In 1864 there were changes to the building with a cloister, hall passage, and two new north wings added. Although the first main entrance is now blocked, the Victorian iron railings are still in place. In the garden area a well is still full of water. Currently this garden is a peaceful private spot for residents to enjoy.
When the new residents first arrived they had to bring their few possessions with them and these became the property of the house on their death. They also had to swear oaths to obey the rules of the house and could be evicted for a serious enough offence. Minor offences brought such punishment as bread and water only for several days. Two meals a day were served. A uniform was issued to everyone as required clothing. In Victorian times the woman’s consisted of a red cape and black bonnet. The men were dressed all in black. Compulsory religious services—mass and evensong—were held daily.
Visitors may view the chapel and antechapel. The two are divided by an open oak screen. Carved from single planks the doors still have their original lock and hinges. In the chapel is a three-panelled altar piece, considered an artistic treasure of national importance. It dates from c 1480 and is oil on wood and shows five of Christ’s miracles. The south chapel window contains fine medieval glass. Also located in the antechapel is a Welsh dresser dated 1912 with 18th century pewter plates displayed. Dating from early Stuart times are the altar table, central table, and coffin stools.
Sherborne Almshouse of SS John
Across from the abbey
Tel. 01935 813245
Open: May-Sep, except Wed and Sun, 2-4pm
Sherborne has a large carpark (fee charged) within a few minutes walk of the TIC, almshouse, and abbey.
Sherborne Tourist Information Centre
3 Tilton Court
Digby Road (opposite the abbey)
Sherborne, Dorset DT9 3NL
Tel. 01935 815341
Open year round
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Sherborne Almshouse of SS John
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