The following historical notes were completed in 2005 by Cyril E Bond, a Trustee for 30 years:
THE TAUNTON HERITAGE TRUST
The Charity manages charitable bequests and Almshouse buildings surviving in Taunton from the early 17th Century before the English Civil War. This umbrella body was consolidated by the Charity Commission in a legal document dated 1981. The area of benefit was increased to include the whole of the area administered by the present Borough of Taunton Deane, and not just the old town of Taunton. Its Trustees always include the current Mayor of Taunton Deane, two Council representatives and a member of the Court Leat to demonstrate the involvement & past development of the Charity from the local civil administration.
Of the buildings owned by the Charity the oldest are GRAY’S ALMHOUSES (7 flats) in East Street. The main part was built in 1635 and with improvements over the years they are still providing sheltered homes for people over 60 years of age who are eligible.
The buildings have been regularly improved within the architectural constraints of a Grade One listed building. The exterior is substantially the same as that built by Thomas Gray in 1635. It includes a walled garden, which is quite likely part of the orchard originally bequested with the Almshouses. Gray was a local boy, born nearby in Taunton, who went to London & made his fortune as a Merchant. He was a member of the Merchant Taylor’s Livery Company. The buildings were to house 10 women, a Chapel and a schoolroom above with a teacher provided to teach 10 poor children. Gray died before his building was completed and funds were left for the eastern section to house six men, to be completed by the Merchant Taylors. Partly due to legal problems and the English Civil War, the final section was not completed until 1696. This date and the initials R.G. appear in the roof bell tower. Although the brickwork is identical throughout there is a straight joint between the Chapel and the eastern part. The buildings were built in brick with clay roofing tiles. The building is one of the oldest brick buildings in Somerset to survive. It may be the oldest. The construction helped the Almshouses to survive the English Civil War when the adjoining wooden ‘Pope’s Almshouses built in 1590, which formed part of the Eastgate fortifications, were burnt down by Lord Goring’s troops in the fighting. (Pope’s were rebuilt by Lady Portman and survived until 1932 when they were demolished and the proceeds used to fund Leycroft Close in Hamilton Road.)
A special feature of Grays is the charming oak panelled Chapel. This has been carefully restored with grants from English Heritage. It has a naively painted ceiling depicting a starry heaven with angels peering out of clouds. It also contains a period oak chest from which pensions were once paid – and bibles stored. Gray’s portrait and Coat of Arms are displayed. There is also a life sized painted statue of the benefactor Robert Gray on the North Wall of St Mary Magdalene’s church in Taunton. A Tablet in the Chapel commemorates the generosity of Mr John Noble, a merchant of Bristol & Mr John Coles a fuller, both natives of Taunton. They gave £100 & £50 respectively to replace court costs incurred by the Trustees in defending an action brought against them by a charitable commission in a suit in chancery in 1735.
There is also a life sized painted statue of this benefactor on the north wall of St Mary Magdalene’s Church in Taunton.
HUISH’S ALMSHOUSES (4 Flats & charity offices) were originally founded in Great Magdalene Lane to the north of Hammet Street. They comprised a Chapel and thirteen rooms. The area on the north side of Hammet Street gave access to the buildings after the new road was built and Great Magdalene Lane blocked. Richard Huish was another local man who had prospered in London. He financed the Almshouses and provided for their upkeep by rents from properties in London’s Blackfriars. The houses were rebuilt on their present site in Magdalene Street in 1866 when the Blackfriars properties were sold at great profit for the main railway terminal for the London Chatham & Dover Railway.
The Trustees Committee room here was formerly part of the Warden’s accommodation and was used for regular prayers as a Victorian painting in the committee room testifies. A replica of the Huish coat of arms is still in this room. The motto “ Spe Certa Quid Melius” translates as “What is better than a sure hope?”
These homes have been regularly improved and were reformed in 2004, when a new Community Room was built for residents in part of Huish’s rear walled garden. A fine painted memorial tablet can be found in St Mary Magdalene’s Church on the North wall. Residents of the homes used to be required to attend Church regularly at one time.
Next door to Huish are BERNARD TAYLOR HOMES (19 flats), which were opened in April 1984 on the old Fire Station site fronting onto the junction of Magdalene Street and Canon Street. These were financed by the Charity with assistance from the then Housing Corporation (now Homes & Communities Agency, HCA). They are the most modern of our buildings.
The other homes in central Taunton are ST JAMES CLOSE ALMSHOUSES (8 Flats). These were built in 1845 close to St James’s ground. They were extensively re-constructed in 1969. It is thought these replaced fifteenth century almshouses originally built on the corner of St James Street and Canon Street, which were finally demolished in 1897. The frame of one of these was taken to the grounds of the Taunton Castle museum and rebuilt there.
The largest of our sites is LEYCROFT CLOSE (28 Flats) near the bottom of East Reach, facing Hamilton Road. These flats were built in 1932. These homes were a successor to ‘Popes Almshouses’ formerly next to Grays, which was demolished in 1932. The proceeds along with the sale of Osborne’s Almshouses in Magdalene Lane and Henley’s Almshouses went to finance Leycroft. It had a major enlargement and reconstruction between 1997-2001, which was formally opened by H.R.H.The Earl of Wessex, in September 2003.
Grays are the oldest buildings we own but we can only conjecture which of our homes has the oldest foundation. It might well be St James’s. Whatever the case there can be no doubt that people in need of housing in Taunton have benefited for over four hundred years at least from the charitable instincts and financial gifts of a number of local benefactors. These donors and an unbroken line of Trustees and staff have been caring for residents across the centuries and will continue into the future.
The Charity also owns TWO COMMERCIAL PROPERTIES within the town, the income from which, together with various bequests given over the years, is designated to support its grant making role to local people in need.
“Of the Almshouses in Taunton, only two of them are at present endowed. Of these, the largest is that founded by Robert Gray Esq., and is situated at East Gate. It is in length 130 feet, having, besides the chapel and schoolroom, seventeen apartments, with a small garden belonging to each. On the front of the house are two coats of arms; one of the founder, viz Barry of six pieces, argent and azure; one bend, gules, three amulets. The other of the Merchant Taylors Company in London, of which he was a member.
The following inscription, on a stone in the front of the building, records the commencement of this charitable institution, and the general design of the founder:
“Laus Deo. This charitable work is founded by Robert Gray, of the cittie of London, esquire borne in this towne, in the house adjoining hereunto, who in his lifetime doth erect it for tenne poore, aged single women; and for their competent livelihood, and daylie prayers in the same, provided sufficient maintenance for the same. 1635”
The nature of the maintenance, and the extent to which the charity was afterwards carried, are represented on the tablet set up in the church 1751. It relates that Robert Gray, of London, merchant gave to the parish of St Mary Magdalen, an almshouses for six poor men and a reader, and ten poor women, with an house, orchard and garden adjoining to the said almshouse; and also 2000f to be laid out in land fee-simple, the profits thereof to be paid to the poor persons by 8s to each person the first Monday monthly, and a gown every three years; and also enjoined the said reader (who in the decree of chancery, is styled chaplain or schoolmaster) to teach ten poor children to read and write.
Mr Gray, in his own lifetime, besides having purchased the ground for his almshouses, and erected the chapel and the apartments for the women and the reader, had also named his Trustees, but as he died before his will was perfected and executors appointed, the heir at law took to his estate; this led Mr Richard Moggridge, at that time mayor of Taunton, to make an application to chancery, to have that part of Mr Gray’s will which related to the finishing and endowment of the his alms-house in this toen, carried into full effect. Accordingly (as the Merchant Taylors company to whom Mr Gray left the government of his institution, on account of the distance and because no emolument was to be allowed for the trouble of the direction, declined the trust) the alms –house as settled, by the authority of Edward, Lord Lyttleton, and by the decree of chancery, on persons residing in Taunton, in trust, to the sues of the will. To them was paid £2000 for the purpose of purchasing lands, the neat rent of which and, in the mean time, the interest of the monies, were wholly to be applied to the support of the foundation. The number of Trustees is twenty who, from the produce of the money, partly laid out in lands, and partly invested in government and other securities, fulfil the will of the donor as far as it relates to the support of the house, the payment of the pensions, and teaching the children to read. When by death the number of trustees is reduced to eight, those surviving trustees are empowered and enjoined to elect twelve others.
The above particulars were communicated by Mr John Way, from a copy of the decree of chancery. Mr Gray, it appears from a copy of his will, in Mr Way’s possession, left £200 to the town of Beverley, in Yorkshire, upon condition to pay the same county £6 yearly for ever, to the relief of the poor of the same town payable yearly at the fair holden in that town; and that the town of Beverley should give security to the town of Holden for the performance of the yearly payments of the £6 for ever.
He also bequeathed to the right worshipful company of Merchant Taylors, in London, £1000 that should ever pay to 12 poor alms-women, living in the almshouse newly erected in or near East Smithfield, in London, 8s a-piece monthly, the first Monday of every month, and should also give every third year, to every of these alms-women, a good cloth gown at the price of 9s per yard at least; the same cloth to be of a good sad new colour, with a cognisance of silver of his arms, as they then had. Among other legacies, Mr Gray left to the merchant tailors Company, for a dinner on the day of his funeral, £40 to his parishioners, £200 for a dinner for them and their wives on the day of his funeral, to his workfolks, viz, the calendars and cottoners, £60 for a dinner on the day of his funeral, for them and their wives; and to his other workmen, £13.6d.8d
In 1735, a charitable commission, which was obtained for making enquiries into the management of this and other charities, in the county of Somerset, brought on against Mr Gray’s trustees a suit in chancery which expended £200 of their fund. The loss that the original stock thus incurred was, to a great degree, made good by the generosity of Mr John Noble, merchant of Bristol, and Mr John Coles, fuller, both native of Taunton, and last a resident in it; the former of whom endowed this charitable institution with £100 and the other with £50. (See tablet in Grays chapel)”
In the 1960’s the Trustees of Gray’s Almshouses handed over the control and administration to the Trustees of Taunton Heritage Trust who are responsible for all the Almshouses in Taunton. In 1989 a complete refurbishment programme was carried out with the assistance of grants from the Tenant Services Authority and English Heritage. Grays Almshouses now provide sheltered accommodation for pensioners in 9 self-contained flats of varying size together with a laundry and community room for their use.
The chapel was retained in as near as possible to its original form.
The building has Grade 1 Listed status. In 2004, the Trustees, with the support of English Heritage and the Conservation Officer of Taunton Deane Borough Council commissioned a competition for the interior design students at Somerset College of Arts and Technology (SCAT) to come up with proposals for improving the décor and lighting of the flats, which are quite dark because of the amount of Oakwood in each flat. A programme of improvements was instigated as a result of the winning entry.
For further information please contact:
The Clerk to the Trustees
Taunton Heritage Trust
Tel: 01823 335348 – 9am until 12noon, Monday – Friday