I was present last Friday when Buckingham’s MP John Bercow, officially opened the refurbished Christ’s Hospital almshouse.
Before John cut the ribbon, Dr. Roger Harrington, the Chair of the trustees who administer Christ’s Hospital, sketched its history and reminded his audience that the plaques on Christ’s Hospital mention England’s three greatest Queens: the two Elizabeths and Victoria.
Let’s play lèse majesté and lay the reigns of those queens end to end.
Well, the three of them have ruled over us for 171 years, or over 37% of the last 457 years.
Queen Elizabeth I re-founded Christ’s Hospital in 1597; the town of Buckingham rebuilt them as a tribute to Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee three hundred years later, and now, as Queen Elizabeth II is poised to displace Victoria as Britain’s longest-serving Monarch, Buckingham General Charities have remodelled the building under the sensitive guidance of the local architect: Alan Watson of Tingewick.
All so typical of the way Buckingham lives up to its epithet as “the loyal and ancient borough”.
These days Buckingham’s almshouses are reserved for “housing poor persons of good character”.
I wonder whether anyone will benefit more than Susannah Moore did? She arrived at Christ’s Hospital in poor health before 1787 and stayed for over 50 years!
In her early years, there was no heating in any of its rooms, any cooking was done in an outhouse to the rear of the building, and the toilet was in another “necessary” building roughly where Buckingham Library is today.
Susannah not only survived – she thrived. Believe it or not, this illiterate poor woman was taught to read when aged over 40 by a blind woman, probably a fellow resident of the almshouses.
Year on year, Susannah complained of feeling poorly but on she struggled, kept warm by her brown, coarse linsey-woolsey gown provided by the trustees.
Eventually conditions improved after hearths were provided in each “bedsit”.
Now Susanna would rest awhile on her hard-backed chair where her daily reading was from her Bible.
History did not pass her by, she experienced the impact of the Napoleonic Wars – at one point Buckingham’s bakers doubled the price of bread.
How she must have rejoiced exactly two hundred years ago in 1815 after Wellington engineered his victory at Waterloo.
When Susannah, who never needed spectacles to read, last put down her Bible in March, 1837, she had reached the grand old age of 98, Buckingham was building a workhouse for the poor, and Queen Victoria’s long reign was about to begin.
What a difference almshouses can make!